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Joanne Lockwood

SEE Change Happen Ltd

Inclusion and Belonging Specialist

Read more about Joanne Lockwood

Social mobility: A unifying force in your organisation

Social mobility has come far in the corporate world, but barriers remain. Inclusion specialist Joanne Lockwood critiques traditional meritocracy and showcases how inclusivity and contextual understanding of merit can drive organisational change.
piled stones, depicting social mobility

The narrative of social mobility within the corporate landscape has seen a remarkable evolution. From boardrooms to break rooms, there is a growing acknowledgement that the opportunity to rise is not just a metric of personal ambition but a reflection of organisational and societal ethos. 

I would like us to explore the realities that have shaped journeys towards a more equitable workplace using three fictional characters: James, Dr. Smith and Maria to illustrate the points. 

A glimpse into the past

In recent memory, the mantra ‘hard work and talent equal success’ echoed unchallenged, creating a veneer of a meritocracy. This sentiment, however, often disregarded the systemic barriers that hinder segments of the workforce from realising their potential.

The myriad faces of invisible barriers

Let us consider our first example, James, our hypothetical first-generation university graduate, entering a company steeped in tradition – let’s imagine a mid-sized accountancy firm for this example. 

Despite his qualifications, there are subtle cues of exclusion – from golf course networking to boardroom banter that are so often steeped in cultural references alien to him, and doubly so if James was a Jane, a her (or a them)! – these are the often unspoken boundaries that exist. 

James’s story is not unique. It mirrors the experiences of many who, due to their socio-economic backgrounds, are faced with a landscape where unwritten rules and inaccessible networks are simply insurmountable barriers to success.

Redefining meritocracy

It is about time that we start to unpack the meaning of meritocracy in our society and workplaces which are punctuated by inequality? 

We have to accept the realisation that merit cannot be divorced from context, this must be the catalyst for a new understanding. From here we can highlight that by using inclusive practices we recognise that true talent and potential are most often shrouded by life circumstances, we are a product of our environments and the privileges we hold.

Anecdotes of change and champions of progress

Our second protagonist is Dr. Smith, she is a senior executive at a leading medical research firm and became a champion of this new ethos and understanding around context and privilege. 

She recognised that her own ascent was not hindered by the same barriers faced by some of their colleagues. Using this insight, she spearheaded mentorship programmes designed not only to guide but to advocate for promising talent, often unseen, from underrepresented groups. 

Her initiatives tempered the cynicism that often accompanies discussions of corporate diversity efforts, demonstrating what genuine commitment to dismantling the ‘sticky floor’ looks like.

The power of data and contextual recruitment

As Dr. Smith’s initiatives gained momentum, the organisation began to harness the power of data to inform their recruitment. Contextual recruitment enabled the company to evaluate candidates’ achievements relative to their environment and lived experience.

This nuanced approach unearthed gems of talent who would otherwise remain undetected by traditional hiring metrics.

Social mobility as a holistic strategy

The road to embedding social mobility into the corporate psyche is fraught with complexity. It demands an understanding of intersectionality – how socio-economic background interplays with other dimensions of identity such as gender, race and disability.

It means tackling entrenched biases, addressing class privilege, and creating pathways for the exchange of social capital.

Stories of empowerment and systemic shifts

Our third example is Maria, a mid-level HR manager in an engineering firm, who leveraged her company’s new flexible working policies to balance her education and career aspirations while caring for her family. 

These policies were the outcome of a strategic shift towards recognising and accommodating the diverse needs of the workforce – a clear signal that the organisation was moving from passive diversity statements to active empowerment.

Her organisation took a person-centric approach to flexible and remote working, rather than adopting a one-size-fits-all approach to demanding everyone returns to the office 5 days a week.

The multiplicative effect of inclusion

The benefits of such a shift are not merely altruistic. They have a multiplicative effect on the organisation’s ethos and culture. A diverse pool of team players and leaders brings to the table a wealth of perspectives that catalyse innovation and resonate with the market in which they serve – we know this, the stats prove it, why do we need constant reminders? 

They signify to future talent that this is a place where growth is not predetermined by their postcode or the school they attended, but by their ability to contribute and evolve.

We must start recognising our future talent for potential and values, not just on where they have come from or what they have achieved in the past.

Moving forward with purpose and action

We can see the top of the hill, it’s been a journey, and many are still a long way from the summit – the path however should be accessible to all. The way forward must be paved with purposeful actions:

Social mobility is not just fair, but essential

These stories may be hypothetical, but we see them played out for real in everyday organisations. We must stay reminded that our journey towards social mobility is ongoing. Each step we take must be in pursuit of dismantling a piece of the old barriers, the myths of meritocracy, and in their place, build a more inclusive, dynamic, and just corporate world.

Through relentless self-examination, stepping out of our comfort zones of tradition and the adoption of forward-thinking strategies, we can all contribute to a future where the success of every individual is limited only by their talents and dreams, not their beginnings. After all, fostering positive experiences for all is not just fair but essential, isn’t it?

Interested in this topic? Read Five ways to drive ‘social’ impact in ESG plans.

Author Profile Picture
Joanne Lockwood

Inclusion and Belonging Specialist

Read more from Joanne Lockwood

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