Deborah Moon, HR Consultant, summarises the key findings of new reports on social mobility and equality, including in relation to local government, and considers the main recommendations and their potential implications for public sector HR professionals.

Issues of fairness and equality in our society, including within employment/the workplace, continue to be an underlying theme of political and wider debate, with a number of commentators expressing concerns about the perceived growing divisions and differences in opportunities/experiences in Britain today. These include concerns about wage inequality and an increasing gap between the earnings of those at the very top of organisations and other parts of the workforce, the continuing gender pay gap, and the rise in “in-work poverty” as the impact of economic and pay restraint continues to be felt by many families and individuals. Despite the drop in unemployment levels, concerns continue to be expressed about the type and nature of new work opportunities, and how “secure” these may be. The use (and abuse) of zero-hours contracts is a subject of ongoing debate, prompting a variety of views about their respective disadvantages/benefits for both organisations and individuals, as well as some expected legislative change.

Speaking at the recent Trades Union Congress, Frances O’Grady, General Secretary, warned that Britain was in danger of becoming a “Downton Abbey-style society in which the living standards of the vast majority are sacrificed to protect the high living of the well to do”. Suggesting that inequality has soared and social mobility has “hit reverse”, she called for a new and fair economy, where the proceeds of growth are shared more equitably.

Three recent reports have considered such issues in relation to those who hold positions of power and occupy roles at the most senior levels in our society, particularly within political and other walks of public life. Elitist Britain?, a report from the Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission, Sex & Power 2014: Who runs Britain? from the Centre for Women & Democracy, and The Green Park Public Service Leadership 5,000, a review of diversity in the UK’s public and charity sectors 2014, provide a fascinating and illuminating analysis of social mobility, equality and diversity in Britain today. They highlight the “elitism” that persists among the “top jobs” in politics and other public institutions, and the continuing under-representation of females and those from ethnic minorities in such roles.

Elitist Britain?

The role of the Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission is to monitor the progress of Government and others in improving social mobility and reducing child poverty in the UK. It is chaired by the Rt. Hon. Alan Milburn and includes members from across business, academia and the voluntary sector. Its report, Elitist Britain?, published at the end of August 2014, examines the educational backgrounds of 4000 leaders in politics, business, the media and other aspects of public life in the UK.

The report reflects that fairness and meritocracy are considered to be core values within our society, with a belief in equality of opportunity, and rich and poor having the same life chances and income dependent on and as reward for hard work and talent. Despite these generally held views, research conducted by the Commission found that 65% of people believe “who you know” is more important than “what you know”. In Britain, the relationship between parental background and children’s future income is stronger than in many other countries. Those from high income backgrounds are far more likely to have high income as adults. The report sets out statistical evidence supporting this and demonstrating that Britain is a “middle performer” on relative child poverty when compared to other EU countries. Concerns relating to this issue are shared across the political spectrum, and the report includes quotes from the three main party leaders on the lack of social mobility and perceptions of a closed society.

Why this matters

The report highlights a number of reasons why elitism in our society, and public life specifically, is considered to be such an issue of concern and why achieving greater social mobility and meritocracy is important.

Excluding a diversity of talents and experiences means that our leading institutions are less informed, less representative and less credible. Relying on too narrow a range of experiences risks leaders and decision makers behaving in ways and focusing on issues that matter to and relate to a minority, rather than a majority, in society. This, in turn, narrows the conduct of public life to a relative few who have had the same, or similar, experiences but are less familiar with the challenges and experiences of “ordinary” people. A lack of diversity results in a “group think” approach, with limited understanding of those with different backgrounds. In a truly meritocratic society, people are recruited on the basis of their aptitude, competence and potential, but the current reliance on a narrow elite places serious limitations on adult social mobility and the prospect of making it to the very top. Although there is a need to utilise a broader range of experiences and talents, this type of “closed shop” situation can lead others to believe they cannot make a valuable contribution to the leading institutions within our society. The report also suggests that “opening doors” to a broader range of talent should help in overcoming declining levels of public trust in, and engagement with, the country’s institutions, an issue that appears to be of increasing concern in Britain today.

The Commission’s research

The report explains the methodology adopted, with the research focused on the individual backgrounds of people in “top jobs” in Britain today, specifically the school and university they attended, as a means of understanding social diversity. “Top jobs” in areas such as law, media and politics were defined, with research undertaken into the top people in each area using a range of data sources, generating a list of 4000 names. The report recognises that the “picture is far from complete”, that a small minority of those who are privately educated are from disadvantaged backgrounds and that many educated in state schools are from highly advantaged backgrounds. It provides some broader contextual information in order to understand the UK as a whole, providing a breakdown of the proportion of the adult population by school type (independent, grammar and comprehensive) and by university attendance (including those who have not attended a university).

The report also acknowledges that its findings reflect past inequalities and recruitment decisions made “decades” ago. It indicates an intention to look at more recent intakes and the “pipeline” for social mobility in its future work in order to build a more complete picture. Its examination of who gets the top jobs in Britain today found “elitism so stark that it could be called ‘Social Engineering’....” It then goes on to provide a range of statistics in support of this statement, demonstrating how “Britain’s elite” was “formed on the playing fields of independent schools and finished in Oxbridge’s dreaming spires”. For example, independent schools were attended by:

  • 71% of senior judges

  • 57% of Commons Select Committee chairs

  • 55% of permanent secretaries

  • 45% of public body chairs

  • 36% of the Cabinet

  • 33% of MPs

  • 22% of chief constables/police and crime commissioners

  • 22% of the Shadow Cabinet.

Interestingly, local government appears at the bottom of this list – 15% of local government leaders and 8% of CEOs attended independent schools (the latter proportion being similar to the UK population).

In terms of attendance at Oxbridge, the report includes:

  • 75% of senior judges (taking the “top spot” in both lists)

  • 59% of the Cabinet

  • 57% of permanent secretaries

  • 44% of public body chairs

  • 37% of Commons Select Committee chairs

  • 33% of the Shadow Cabinet

  • 24% of MPs

  • 9% of local government CEOs

  • 8% of local government leaders

  • 6% of chief constables/police and crime commissioners.

Statistics are also included relating to business, the media, culture and sport as well as other public bodies. The report then goes on to provide a more detailed analysis for specific areas/sectors, including politics, eg MPs, the three main parties, the Cabinet and Shadow Cabinet and House of Lords, and the public sector, including local government (see below). Although, in terms of national politics, the report indicates there has been a slow, long-term move towards state-educated MPs, with the proportion of Oxbridge graduates in the Commons also slowly reducing, and finds that independent school-educated white males still dominate Parliament. Fewer than 1 in 20 MPs are from black and minority ethnic (BME) backgrounds and less than a quarter of the House of Commons are women.

Each of the “spotlight” areas also includes some personal “social mobility stories”, with individuals describing their family background, how they came to work in the particular sector, how open, or otherwise, they have found this and whether they believe entering that sector is harder or easier today. These convey mixed sentiments; with some saying they believe it is easier, but others (women) harder.

In terms of the public sector, as can be seen from the statistics above, the report indicates that the “social profile” varies considerably depending on profession. Local government leaders and CEOs have relatively low proportions from independent schools, whereas over half of Whitehall permanent secretaries were educated in this way. Similarly, more than half of Whitehall permanent secretaries are Oxbridge educated, compared to a relatively small proportion (8%) of local government leaders.

Senior judges in England are the professionals with the most advantaged educational backgrounds, whereas police and crime commissioners and chief constables are more representative (relatively speaking) of the country.

The public sector section includes the social mobility story of William Benson, Chief Executive of Tunbridge Wells Borough Council. In describing his experience of getting into, and progressing within local government, he refers to the recognition of potential, a willingness to develop and trust individuals, the provision of responsibilities and support in taking these on as important features. These are clearly key aspects in encouraging employees to progress and develop their career potential, and are the types of factors often cited in helping to secure high levels of engagement and performance.

The report also provides a range of statistics in the other spotlighted areas. For example:

  • the media (both tabloid and broadsheet newspapers and the BBC) is drawn from a similarly narrow range of backgrounds to those of the politicians who are subject to scrutiny by it

  • pop music seems to be somewhat more socially diverse, but sport is more of a “mixed picture”

  • the majority (83%) of the England national football team were educated in comprehensive schools, compared to 45% of the national cricket team.

It also demonstrates how social mobility mirrors geographical inequalities, where politics, the judiciary, and business are dominated by those who were educated in London and the South East.

What of the future?

The report goes on to consider the social profile of future leaders and asks whether things will change for the better. In order to address this question, it has looked at new entrants to careers, recognising there is only limited data to draw on. Based on this evidence, it concludes there is a “mixed picture”, suggesting that progress will be slow and somewhat limited.

In terms of the report’s conclusions and recommendations, it reflects that Britain’s elite is the product of a complex mix of social factors and that a “national effort” is needed to break this open. It makes a number of recommendations, including that:

  • Government should lead by example in recruitment decisions, opening up top jobs in the public sector and collecting data on social background, and should also tackle unpaid internships

  • schools should close the gap in quality careers advice, work experience and extra-curricular activities

  • employers should publish data on the social background of their staff and widen the talent pool, for example, with “university-blind” applications, non-graduate entry routes and contextual evaluation of academic achievements.

Employers are seen as having a particular role (the report exhorts them to “step up to the plate”) by:

  • building long-term relationships with schools on mentoring, careers advice and insights into work

  • advertising work experience and paying internships

  • broadening the range of universities they recruit from and using school and university-blind applications

  • building non-graduate routes, such as Higher Apprenticeship and school-leaver programmes

  • collecting and publishing data on social background of new recruits and existing staff.

These recommendations are not dissimilar to a number of actions/initiatives promoted to improve the employment opportunities of young people and address high levels of youth unemployment, for example, improving relationships with schools, while ensuring an equitable approach in terms of the spread of professions and locations. It is also important that such “outreach” activities are part of an ongoing and longer-term relationship between employers and schools, providing a range and variety of work opportunities, placements and experiences.

Employers should also ensure there is equality of opportunity, and access to work experience and similar initiatives, and that these are not simply for employee relatives and others who have a personal connection with current workers. Securing employment can also be made more difficult when there is a requirement to demonstrate relevant work experience as part of the selection criteria for permanent roles.

Opening up non-graduate entry routes is also one of the recommendations made by the Commission — employers should consider whether specifying the requirement for a degree is really necessary for particular roles or whether alternative pathways are equally acceptable.

The Commission also recommends the collection, recording and monitoring of data on the social background of an organisation’s workforce in order to build a better understanding of its composition and help improve representation of those from the lower socio-economic groups. In a related development, Gloria De Piero, Shadow Minister for Women and Equalities, referred to this issue at the recent Labour Party Conference, announcing that a future Labour government would work to ensure this type of monitoring was undertaken in the public sector. While employers currently collect and monitor equalities data, this would clearly be an added dimension to such activities and would also require careful consideration as to how any such questions were defined and communicated.

In addition, there are recommendations designed to help widen the selection process — employers should ensure they use a variety of approaches and train staff involved in this to be aware of, and avoid, unconscious bias, focusing on the identification of future potential rather than demonstrable proven experience. By monitoring the recruitment and selection process, employers can identify any barriers that may be occurring at the different stages and look at ways of removing these.

Sex & Power 2014: Who runs Britain?

This report, researched and written by the Centre for Women & Democracy (CFWD) on behalf of the Counting Women In Coalition (CFWD, the Electoral Reform Society, the Fawcett Society, the Hansard Society and Unlock Democracy), looks at women’s access to political, social and economic decision-making, and reviews what, if any, progress has occurred since its 2013 report. It reflects that the 2013 report painted a “pretty dismal picture” and that, one year on, not much has changed. For example, there is now one more female MP than in 2013, the number of women in the Cabinet has increased from three to five (notwithstanding that Cabinet reshuffles have provided opportunities to improve the gender composition within this group), and all the bishops in the House of Lords are still men (even though the Church of England has now voted to allow women bishops).

The report considers women’s representation across a range of public bodies, similar to those considered in the Elitist Britain report, providing a graphic illustration of the low proportion of females in such organisations. It draws the somewhat dispiriting conclusion that, at the current rate of progress, a child born today will be drawing her pension before she has any chance of being equally represented in the UK Parliament.

Whereas the 2013 report looked at a broad range of fields in which public decisions are made, public money spent and public power exercised, this year’s report concentrates specifically on political life in the UK as a whole, providing a detailed statistical analysis of women’s representation within the relevant bodies, and including separate sections on Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland (particularly topical at the present time!).

Three key areas that have been identified as offering opportunities for significantly progressing women’s “political power” are:

  • the political parties

  • political culture

  • elections.

With regard to the political parties, the report considers how well (or badly) the three main parties are doing in terms of the selection of candidates for the 2015 General Election (overall, not particularly well) and the changes that are needed if real and lasting progress is to be made. It recommends that all political parties (including those with representation in the devolved bodies) should take immediate action (or continue to take action) to increase the number of women candidates at all levels of election, including positive action measures, and to draw those candidates from as wide a variety of backgrounds and communities as possible (this latter aspect would appear to resonate with the concerns relating to social mobility, covered previously).

It highlights the need for a better understanding of who is standing for elected office and who is succeeding, through the use of equalities monitoring, in order to help identify where problems are occurring and how these can be addressed. Its second recommendation sets out a process to achieve this, with a requirement to implement this at the 2015 Parliamentary and English local elections and all elections thereafter, with the results published annually.

The report goes on to consider the internal culture of political parties, particularly the way complaints are dealt with and the lack of effective processes for dealing with bullying and harassment (on which there have been some high profile issues). It recommends that all parties should establish, publish and implement internal complaints procedures for dealing with such issues that reflect the nature and context of those organisations, ie as both employers and where volunteers/members and others interact.

As far as Parliament is concerned, the report calls for a “fundamental change of attitude”, reflecting on the views expressed by a range of commentators, including the public, and that there is somewhat of an “unhealthy” political culture in the UK, referring to this as “aggressive, knock-about and sexist” (witness, Prime Minister’s Questions and other parliamentary debates). Some examples/quotes from a number of women MPs about their experiences in the House of Commons are included to illustrate this point. Not only is there a need to improve access to Parliament, there is also a need to improve members’ experience of it — the report refers to the 2010 Speaker’s Conference Report, which suggested ways these issues could be addressed (most of which, the report suggests, have been “ignored”), recommending that action should be taken to implement these, including diversity awareness training, and the consideration of quotas and “equality guarantees” if significant progress is not made.

The report then looks at media coverage of politics, finding that it is “depressingly sexist” and including a number of all too familiar examples in support of this view, eg “Blair’s Babes”, “Cameron’s Cuties”, and focus on what female politicians wear (the “Downing Street catwalk”). It recognises that male politicians are not immune from this type of personal interest/coverage, but finds that it can be particularly demeaning and undermining for women. It suggests that this type of media coverage is, perhaps, not surprising, given the poor female representation at senior/political editorial levels in our national newspapers and main TV channels. Both the political establishment and those who report on it are overwhelmingly male and often from the same social/educational background. Again, these sentiments echo the findings of the Elitist Britain report concerning wider social representation within the national media. The report calls on the media to ensure that their coverage of political issues includes women and their views, and that all contributors are treated with dignity and respect.

The sixth, and final, recommendation in the report is concerned with a lack of female visibility and audibility arising from the under-representation (or absence) of women from public platforms/debates and similar events/forums and the need to take steps to address this, for example, by ensuring contributions are commissioned from both women and men, and by challenging/objecting to all male platforms/panels.

As indicated above, the report provides a more detailed statistical analysis of levels of female representation within various UK political institutions, for example, within the House of Commons, House of Lords, MEPs, the Cabinet, Civil Service and to public appointments, as well as providing an overview of the percentage increase/decrease in the presence of women over the 2004–2014 period. It looks at the UK’s relative position both internationally (65th in the world rankings, behind a total of 74 other countries in terms of the percentage of women MPs) and also in relation to a number of other Western European countries.

With regard to the position in local government, the report finds that the representation of women among elected councillors has been “stagnant” for over a decade and that women continue to be under-represented at the most senior leadership levels. There was a slight increase in the percentage of women local councillors between 2013 and 2014. However, while a detailed gender analysis of the 2014 local elections remains to be published, the report anticipates that any increase in the overall percentage of women in elected office is not likely to be very great.

Following the 2014 local elections, 51 (13.1%) council leaders in England, Scotland and Wales are women. Of the 16 elected mayors (including London), only 3 are women. Again, these levels are more or less stagnant and show little sign of improvement in the short term. Meanwhile, 6 of the 41 elected police and crime commissioners are women (14.6%).

While women continue to predominate within local government employment, only 23.9% of council chief executives in England are women. The report recognises that female representation at this level has been rising steadily since 2003, but reflects there is still a long way to go before the “local government glass ceiling is broken”.

As indicated previously, more detailed analyses of the position within the devolved administrations is also provided — it is, perhaps, topical to reflect that the Scottish Parliament has, since its inception, performed better in terms of diversity than Westminster and that, should Nicola Sturgeon become leader of the SNP, all three main political parties in Scotland will be led by women.

The Green Park Public Service Leadership 5,000, a review of diversity in the UK’s public and charity sectors 2014

This report, from Green Park, the interim and executive search company, provides an in-depth analysis of gender and ethno-cultural diversity among selected board and executive leaders in public organisations (central and local government, public agencies and corporations) and charities. The report reflects on the critical importance for organisations in ensuring they have the right mix of talent within their top teams, and on the benefits that diversity can bring through a range of opinions, experiences, education, skills and outlooks (the “diversity dividend”). The particular nature of the organisations examined in this study (serving the public and supported by the taxpayer), means that, not only is there a requirement to recruit the most capable personnel they can, but there is also a responsibility to engage the widest possible range of individuals, particularly in their leadership and governance arrangements.

The report describes the scope of the survey and methodology and terminology (for classification purposes) used. It also provides a summary of the UK’s ethno-cultural composition, against which the results need to be seen. It provides a summary of the position in government departments, local authorities and the charity sector, before looking at each of these in more detail. It finds that, while there is much that is encouraging, there is still “some way to go to achieve the best public leadership mix our diverse society can offer”.

In terms of local government, the analysis examines the two most senior layers of executive management in England and Wales, ie the chief cxecutive and his or her direct reports (chief officers) and the reports to any of these individuals. Data has been gathered on the leadership in the eight core cities (Birmingham, Bristol, Leeds, Liverpool, Manchester, Newcastle, Nottingham and Sheffield), county councils in England and all London councils. The results are presented in total and also separately for each of these categories, including identifying those authorities who are doing particularly well, or badly, in terms of the different analyses.

Key findings include that:

  • local government is more gender diverse at senior levels than the FTSE 100, but remains well short of parity with the gender composition of the population as a whole

  • there is little difference in gender diversity between London and non-London urban authorities, but women who aspire to top jobs have far better prospects in county councils

  • ethno-cultural diversity in local authority leadership is “so low that it almost defies analysis”

  • there is less ethno-cultural diversity in local authority leadership across the UK than in the FTSE 100 — even in London, the most diverse area of Britain, there is a lower proportion of minority executives than the FTSE 100

  • women leaders are least likely to be chief officers within Corporate Resources and Finance (“the most powerful chief officer function”). However, in so far as they are present at all, visible minorities are more likely to be found in these departments.

The report concludes that, while the survey points to some encouraging trends, overall it reveals an “alarmingly disappointing response” to government actions and initiatives, legislative changes and broader public sentiment. The report highlights the gap between the private and public sector in terms of the representation of ethno-cultural minorities within the latter (described as “paltry” and “alarming”), particularly as it finds no sign of change in the pipeline. Where are the minority chief executives of the future going to come from?

It calls for a renewed scrutiny of recruitment, retention and promotion processes, encouraging some “self-examination” among public service leaders, with the need to think harder about succession planning if they are not to be replaced by someone who looks and sounds exactly the same as they do.

Looking back and looking forward

In overall terms, all three reports paint a somewhat depressing picture of the limited progress that appears to have been made in improving social mobility and increasing diversity within political and senior public service roles. As the Sex and Power report reminds us, it is now more than 40 years since the Equal Pay and the Sex Discrimination Acts came into effect, not forgetting the other anti-discrimination legislation and requirements of the Public Sector Equality Duty, yet progress would appear to remain painfully slow, particularly in relation to those from ethnic minority communities.

There is a need for a commitment to sustained and targeted action if real and lasting progress is to be made and where aptitude and ability, rather than background or birth, are the determinants of success. HR has a key role to play, not only in areas such as recruitment, selection, development and progression arrangements, but also in seeking to influence those in leadership roles that attitudes and behaviours need to change. Broadening the talent pipeline and maximising the potential that greater diversity can bring can only be seen as a positive contribution to furthering economic recovery and addressing the challenges our public services continue to face.

Further information

Elitist Britain?, the Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission, is available on the website.

Sex & Power 2014: Who runs Britain? is available here.

The Green Park Public Service Leadership 5,000, a review of diversity in the UK’s public and charity sectors 2014, is available here.


Deborah Moon is a Consultant in Human Resources and is a regular contributor to Croner-i HR for Local Government. Croner-i HR for Local Government is an online employment law and practice reference source designed specifically for HR Managers and their teams in local government.

Last reviewed 8 October 2014