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Guest blog: Creating a more level playing field to give everyone the chance to succeed, regardless of their background.

On Social Mobility Day, Sophie Hulm, CEO of Progress Together, shares her thoughts on what is needed to achieve social-economic diversity within the financial services industry.

Sophie Hulm, CEO of Progress TogetherWhen I was five years old, my favourite game to play with my friend Victoria was…. wait for it… recruitment agents. It’s funny how life turns out.

By the time I was 25, I was an Employment Advisor at a Welfare to Work Agency. By the time I was 40, I was Head of Skills Policy at the City of London Corporation. Now, I am the CEO of Progress Together, an organisation that supports employers to create a level playing field when it comes to recruiting and promoting talent.

When I worked at the City of London Corporation, my remit was to ensure the financial services sector had the skills it needed to be globally competitive. I learnt a lot in that job. Not least from my friend and mentor Claire Tunley, now CEO of the Financial Services Skills Commission. I learnt that the UK financial services sector has a problem. It desperately needs to attract and retain talent. Part of the challenge is that it has the highest class pay gap of all the sectors, four times higher than the tech sector. So, when Kier Starmer says he wants to ‘Smash the Class Ceiling” I eagerly await in anticipation. Progress Together was created due to the findings of a taskforce set up by the current government so we’ll support any government that promotes socio-economic diversity as a route to economic growth, productivity and fairness.

At Progress Together, we believe there are three things to be done:

Collaborate

Progress Together now has a third of the UK financial services workforce represented within its membership. Each of our members is working towards greater socio-economic diversity within its leadership. Rather than being competitive, I’m delighted to see that our members are taking a truly collaborative approach.

As an example, Nationwide, Coventry Building Society, Yorkshire Building Society and Paragon Bank are all working together on a 12-month ground-breaking initiative called the Accelerated Progress Programme. Working together, they are rotating high-performing employees from low socio-economic backgrounds who have the potential to become successful senior leaders but have become ‘stuck’ in middle management. 

As the first of its kind, this pilot programme is being strategically designed by the participating firms, who are the innovators and pioneers behind trialling this programme’s success. 

Evidence and champion the business case

Progress Together members recognise the clear business case for action (as shown below from our recent Impact Report), but we need to collaborate to spread the message. 

Man Group: Many of our clients ask about our DE&I work during their due diligence and social mobility is a particular area of interest. We believe that our Drive programme is a commercial differentiator for Man Group and encouraging diversity in all forms is vital if we are to attract and retain the best minds to work for us and our clients.

Santander: Having an inclusive culture helps people to feel that they belong, leading to a high-performing environment where all people are accepted and respected for who they are. We are improving our understanding of our people in our organisation through better data disclosure, as we aim to best represent the customers and communities we serve. Our data shows that we have a high proportion of people who come from a working-class background in comparison to most of the sector, and that social mobility is acting as a golden thread, helping us become more inclusive across diversity strands and intersections.

Use some stick to motivate the laggards

We agree with the Building Societies Association that the regulators should treat socio-economic background on a par with other diversity characteristics. If employers are mandated to report on gender and ethnicity, I strongly urge regulators to require financial firms to collect and report data on the socio-economic background of their employees. Not least because socio-economic background is evidenced to have the greatest impact on career progression. 

I was also pleased to hear the Shadow City Minister Tulip Siddiq say as much at our Progress Pioneers impact celebration recently. A lack of data is no longer an excuse. Partnering with the Bridge Group, Progress Together has data on over 150,000 employees across the sector. HR platforms like Workday are stepping up to the plate, with open fields so employers can collect this data alongside other characteristics. Understanding the socio-economic background of employees is essential for creating truly inclusive workplaces. Without this data, it's tough to address the barriers that prevent people from low socio-economic backgrounds from advancing. I urge whichever party is elected on 4th July to take action to protect the future of financial services from becoming an echo chamber.

I know the financial services sector has a long way to go when it comes to socio-economic diversity, but with pioneering members and committed supporters like the Building Societies Association, we will make progress. We will create a more level playing field where everyone has the chance to succeed, regardless of their background. It's about time the industry takes these steps seriously, not just for the sake of compliance, but to genuinely benefit from the diverse talents and perspectives that a truly inclusive workforce can offer.

Find out more: Visit www.progresstogether.co.uk
 

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