There is no single accepted definition of social mobility. In sociological terms, social mobility is the ability of an individual to move up or down from one social class to another. In socio-economic terms it is defined by changes in income and wealth. Concerns around social mobility arise due to increasing inequalities in the UK and many other developed economies. Where there is great inequality, the advantages for those at the top are considerable, while the consequences for those stuck at the bottom of society are extremely serious. But who has responsibility for social mobility?
The quote, “do well by doing good” has been attributed to Benjamin Franklin. Education can help create a level playing field, but employers can contribute greatly. The Open University was established with a clear social justice mission to widen educational opportunities. In our 50th year, more than two million learners have achieved their potential. Our mission remains as relevant as ever.
Breaking down barriers requires leadership. A strong leading force can help to combat the unconscious bias that can exist on any level of an organisation. Increasing diversity is one way of tackling this, but monitoring key characteristics alone does not address lack of progress when approaching challenges of gender, ethnicity, disability, sexual orientation and socio-economic status.
In addition to recruitment processes that work against social mobility; many workplace policies, procedures and practices also fail disadvantaged and vulnerable groups. More widely, products and services reflect a bygone era of employee and customer demographics. Many organisations fail to recognise the challenges facing future generations and the consequences of them being left behind.
Open University MBA alumnus, Tillmann Henssler, of Pfizer, was recently awarded an ‘International Influential Leader’ award by the Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business (AACSB) for reducing unconscious bias by promoting change for disabled employees in the workplace. Having a champion is great. Real change requires a sustained, integrated approach to transformation.
Tackling social mobility takes money and effort but benefits us all in the long run. It leads to a more sustainable future for all. Organisations that do not reflect or resemble their customers or communities cannot be sure they serve them well. Failure to consider latent talent and potential over family background, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation or disability represents a massive waste of potential in society. Employers have much to gain from development of new commercial and sustainable products and services that support social mobility. While governments need to lead, we all have good reason to follow.
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