The social diversity blind spot

Earlier this year, in a white paper about the UK’s social mobility problem, Talent Works called on employers to address their social diversity ‘blind spot’ and incorporate class in their diversity agendas. Things have taken an interesting turn since then. Last month, the BBC announced that it was considering setting targets regarding the socio-economic class of its workforce. It also announced that it is removing details of university degrees and school education from the CVs of all its potential recruits, in a further effort to improve the class diversity of its workforce. This last measure is already in place at the corporation for entry-level roles such as trainees and apprenticeships.

Then a few days ago Ofcom announced that from now on the BBC will publish information about its workforce every year – information on their gender, sexuality, disability, ethnic background and – social class.

This is undoubtedly an important first step on the road to giving talent from disadvantaged backgrounds equal access to employment in the BBC. It shows that the BBC has recognised there is a problem – a fundamental gap – in their diversity agenda, and sees an opportunity to advance their agenda.

So why is the BBC thinking of setting targets regarding class and why does class diversity matter?

The ‘posh’ BBC

The BBC announced that it may set targets regarding the socio-economic class of its workforce after an internal survey found that the proportion of its workforce with parents who are in or have been in higher managerial positions or professional occupations (considered an accurate indicator of a privileged background) is double the national average. The survey also found that:

  • 17% of BBC staff and 25% of its management team went to private school – significantly above the UK average of 7%
  • 52% of staff had parents with university degrees – also above the average
  • 61% of staff had parents who are in or have been in higher managerial positions or professional occupations

Following the publication of the results, Sharon White, chief executive of Ofcom the media regulator, described the BBC as too focused on middle aged and middle-class people. The [class] issue was “incredibly important” for diversity.

Blind spot

Very much echoing our white paper, James Purnell, BBC director of radio and education, admitted that the BBC already has targets for gender, race, sexuality and disability but not class. “We don’t have targets for socioeconomic [backgrounds] but we are thinking about it… We would love to have a target, we would be very happy to do that, it’s just what [the target] would be.”

For our white paper, “Why workplace diversity agendas must address employers’ social diversity ‘blind spot’”, Talent Works took the top 20 UK companies by revenue* and analysed their diversity agendas. For each business, the kind of person it strives to attract, develop and retain was identified and also any groups that its diversity agenda explicitly references. We found that most, if not all, seek to provide a more diverse and inclusive workplace in relation to age, gender, sexuality, ethnicity and disability. A number of companies have broadened their approach to diversity by targeting parents, carers and working families. But it was not possible to identify a single company that said it targets employees from disadvantaged or working-class backgrounds.

We concluded that while many employers have committed to and are making great strides at creating greater opportunities for women, ethnic minorities, the disabled and the LGBT community, they have a real blind spot when it comes to class that leaves their diversity agendas wanting.

Why class diversity matters

In another echo of our white paper, Kevin Bakhurst, content and media policy director at Ofcom said that the BBC’s expanded approach to diversity, combined with new rules on original content and spending across the UK, would boost production. “It will make a real change in production and UK-made programmes”, he said. “It will support production across the country and improve the representation of people who don’t feel they are represented properly.

A blind spot when it comes to social class is bad for business, stated our white paper. Failure to embrace talent from economically disadvantaged backgrounds means missing out on a sizeable pool of talent, missing out on high quality candidates, and missing out on candidates with skills and attributes that are increasingly valuable in the workplace.

  • According to the last census, 14.5 percent of all pupils at state primaries are in receipt of free school meals. The corresponding figure for pupils at secondary schools is 13.2 percent. Add to these two figures the number of pupils receiving lunches through the universal infant free school meal programme, and that’s a sizeable future talent pool.
  • Individuals from working class backgrounds learn rules of survival, solidarity and community. Values of solidarity and community make for good team players, and being able to work in a team is, as we know, critical to business success. Teamwork is also more conducive to creativity and innovation.

Not just an agenda for employers

It’s great news that the BBC has started to look at diversity from a socio-economic perspective, and we really hope that other employers will follow in the BBC’s footsteps and take that first vital step towards giving good quality talent from poorer backgrounds full and equal opportunity to fulfil their ability, to contribute and make difference.

But class inequality isn’t just an agenda for employers. We, in the recruitment and talent communications industry, need to think about what we can also do to help employers foster and develop talent from poorer backgrounds. Perhaps we can help employers tailor their onboarding programmes to new hires from working class backgrounds. Perhaps we can help them build relationships with middle and low-ranked universities where there are good numbers of high ability students from poorer homes.

Let’s work together to expand the diversity agenda.

* The top 20 UK companies by revenue and which feature in the Fortune 500, an annual ranking of the top 500 corporations worldwide as measured by revenue

Katharine Newton is Head of Insight at Talent Works International (TWI). TWI is a global talent communications firm that helps organisations around the world build effective and efficient talent strategies through our research, sourcing and creative teams.