Why we should be doing our best to break the class ceiling

break the class ceiling

Seven percent of privately educated people still dominate 70 percent of the leading jobs in this country.  And those whose parents work in routine/semi-routine jobs* (approximately 33 percent of the total population) make up only 17 percent of those in professional occupations despite recommendations for urgent reform by the 2017 Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission report.

Much is documented about the importance of diversity in the workplace, with businesses that have a genuinely diverse colleague-base benefiting from greater productivity, staff retention and overall morale. But how successful have diversity initiatives been and is there something else we could be doing? Are businesses and the economy missing out as a result of a ‘class ceiling’?  And could a focus on diversity as part of selection be the answer? 

How do we achieve greater diversity when recruiting?

A-levels have traditionally been used as key criteria when selecting applicants into ‘high volume’ roles, such as graduate recruitment schemes and medicine. However, applicants with better A-level grades aren’t necessarily more likely to perform better in their jobs than those achieving lower grades. Indeed, the use of A-levels as selection criteria is becoming increasingly incompatible with social mobility. For example, those from independent secondary schools may do better in their A-levels than those from state schools but are not more likely to do better at university. Other traditional selection methods like online ability tests (e.g. verbal and numerical reasoning) may offer some value in determining who is likely to perform well in the role, but those from higher socio-economic backgrounds tend to do better here also.

At Work Psychology Group, we’ve been involved with two projects in very different sectors, both focussed on widening access and helping to break the class ceiling.  We’ve looked at how the selection process in the Medical and Banking industries could be adapted to put those from a lower socio-economic background at less of a disadvantage than the current ‘traditional’ system. Rather than focusing on outreach and attraction as has been done traditionally, in both cases we developed Situational Judgement Tests (SJTs) to be incorporated into the selection process.

SJTs are a type of test that presents the candidate with realistic but hypothetical dilemma scenarios, asking them to identify the most appropriate response or rank the options in the order they feel is most appropriate. SJTs determine how a candidate is likely to behave in certain situations. They focus on attributes such as empathy, resilience and team involvement.

Less than seven percent of doctors, barristers, judges, vets and dentists are from routine/semi routine working class origins?

Widening access to those from more disadvantaged backgrounds into medical and dental education is a key driver within the UK. For example, a more diverse group of students and clinicians may make the future workforce more representative of the population, which in turn has been shown to improve patient satisfaction.

In collaboration with the UK Clinical Aptitude Test (UKCAT) consortium, WPG has developed an SJT for entry into medical and dental school.  The UKCAT is taken by applicants to the undergraduate medical and dental education programmes offered by most UK universities. It was introduced in 2006 and includes a battery of four cognitive ability tests, and since 2013 an SJT.

Results from our SJT show that using this as a selection method can go some way towards breaking the class ceiling. Importantly, we found that those from higher socio-economic backgrounds such as Managerial/Professional do not always score higher than those from lower backgrounds – in some cases those from the lowest occupational groups received the highest mean score.

Only 18% of all UK children attend a fee-paying school, yet amongst new entrants to the banking sector this figure is 34%

With our work in the banking sector, not only did our SJT identify which candidates were likely to go on to score well during a face to face interview, once again it also put candidates from lower socio-economic backgrounds at no disadvantage compared to those from higher socio-economic backgrounds, unlike reasoning tests and A-level grades.  This was a huge success for the bank because it diversified the graduate intake while still being fair and robust.

Professor Fiona Patterson, joint founder and Director of Work Psychology Group, said: “The benefits of a diverse workforce have been proven.  Yet for many organisations their selection and assessment procedures still rely on traditional methods which are increasingly incongruent with the Government’s social mobility agenda.  And we need to address this if we’re going to finally break through the class ceiling and make the UK’s workforce representative of its population.”

Diversity is undoubtedly an important issue and exploring this through selection methods could be one step towards achieving greater diversity in the workplace. Diversity initiatives that are both innovative and evidence based do actually make a difference, and can complement more traditional initiatives such as outreach. However, this is only one part of the jigsaw; diversity and inclusion is a complex issue and practitioners and researchers alike need to continue exploring evidence-based approaches if we are to meet the end goal of truly embracing diversity.

If you’d like to start a conversation about diversity and inclusion challenges, including breaking the class ceiling, then please do get in touch.