Too polite to make progress? Social mobility in the boardroom calls for a rude awakening

Think Tank

4 min read

“What gets measured, gets done”. This has become a core refrain in Board Intelligence Think Tank roundtables. When we ask business leaders what businesses could do to create a fairer future, and how to do so in line with commercial success, measurement and impact is a key tool. We need to shine a light on the current state of play, and then — with statistics in hand — build a plan to improve before the time comes to measure again.

The idea that sunlight is the best disinfectant is not a new idea. And yet we are not always good at putting it into practice, least of all when it comes to boardrooms. When it comes to diversity and inclusion, our need to measure (and our discomfort in asking) means we give more attention to visible forms of diversity than those that require extra digging.

Perhaps it is our British sensibilities that hold us back from addressing the unknowns of (for example) socio-economic background, neurodiversity, invisible disability, and LBGTQ* identity with our peers and colleagues. While gender and racial diversity (or lack thereof) are often easy to see, fear of invasive questioning and uncomfortable answers have held polite society back from taking action on other forms of diversity.

That isn’t to say that every board or every team has to be diverse in every one of these ways. But if we won’t collect data on things we can’t see, we are limiting ourselves to only certain kinds of diversity, when so much of what shapes our perspectives and experiences remains hidden.

Last week, the Institute of Directors held a webinar to address social mobility, and why it’s a concern for business. For the first time in generations, those currently entering the workforce have fewer opportunities to become upwardly socially mobile, explained Lee Elliot-Major, the UK’s first Professor of Social Mobility and former Chief Executive of the Sutton Trust. This worrying trend has only been exacerbated by the impact Covid-19 has had upon the education system. As Sir Ken Olisa remarked in one of our roundtables, ‘rather like a spell of extreme weather which exposes the cracks in the paint work and leaks in the roof, the pandemic has exposed a lot of social imperfections’. The enduring reality of the UK class divide is certainly one. Yet only 12 companies within the FTSE100 include class as part of their mainstream diversity and inclusion strategies.

“For the first time in generations, those currently entering the workforce have fewer opportunities to become upwardly socially mobile”

Last week also saw an update from the Parker Review on racial diversity on UK boards. In 2017, when the review was launched, 51 of the FTSE100 boards were all white. Last week, the update revealed that 89 boards have at least one BAME Director with a further 5 recruiting in 2022, bringing the number up to 94. The Parker Review, like the Davies, Hampton-Alexander, and FTSE Women Leader Reviews into gender diversity on boards, has monitored — and motivated — progress. Only 12% of FTSE 350 board roles were held by women in 2011; it is now nearly 40%.

Metrics can’t do the hard work on their own. They can’t build a genuinely inclusive culture where differences in experience and background are valued. To herald them as the single catalyst of action would also be an unforgivable disservice to the hard work done by activists, networks and pioneers in the Women on Boards and race and ethnic diversity movements. Further, the authors of these reviews are the first to point out that companies must go beyond the box-ticking exercise the reviews present them with to avoid tokenism.

“Metrics can’t do the hard work on their own.”

But they are a key resource for any leader wanting to make a change. They introduce transparency that helps stakeholders, investors and employees make decisions about their relationship with your company. They proffer hard data that simply cannot be refuted or brushed under a rug by an artful PR spin, and a “name and shame” list that leaves nowhere to hide for those who fail to make steps towards more diverse and representative boards.

So is now the time for a review of social background on UK boards? Peter Gershon, former Chair of National Grid and Tate & Lyle, used the IoD webinar to call on government to take a “more catalytic role in the social mobility agenda”, especially in the context of “levelling up”. Gershon, Elliot-Major and fellow panellist Emma Turnball, Community Investment Manager at Allen & Overy, were reassuring about concerns around measurement: the work has been done to define the right metrics for class, which include parental occupation, school type and free school meal status. These are often already in place in internal recruitment and employee diversity surveys.

The Social Mobility Commission's Toolkit provides a useful resource for companies that are already wanting to engage in the issue. The problem is that as of now, we have no visibility over the extent of the problem. Those companies that report in this area are still few and far between. This is why metrics and measurement are key: as Gershon put it, “if you start measuring something and don’t like the answers that come out, you tend to do something about it.”

It’s time to make the invisible visible, and to get comfortable asking questions we don’t know the answer to. At the Board Intelligence Think Tank, we are committed to uncovering the role that measuring the more intangible, non-financial aspects of business plays in creating a holistic picture of the value and success of a business. To find out more about our work on valuing success, please get in touch at

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