Progress Together: Social mobility at senior level in Financial Services

Bruin recently partnered with Progress Together for a panel discussion focused on social mobility at senior levels within Financial Services. With research showing that socio-economic background is more likely to impact a person’s chances of progression than their gender or ethnicity, this becomes an important topic for organisations looking to promote true diversity across their business.

The event started with an introduction from Kirstin Duffy, Chief Operating Officer of the FISER Group, who spoke about Bruin’s prior work within the social mobility space. This included launching the City Talent Initiative in conjunction with the Social Mobility Foundation, as well as our partnerships with UpReach and Progress Together, to encourage businesses to formulate a systematic plan to change their recruitment and progression procedures to ensure that financial services remains elite not elitist. Tim Holbrough, leader of Bruin Financial’s Quantitative Finance recruitment division, then said a few words about his own experience of social mobility and the opportunities he has had to promote this at Bruin, before handing over to the Progress Together panel for the main remarks.

Progress Together were represented by Michael Turner, NED and former CEO at Man Solutions, Mona Vadher, Head of Strategy at Progress Together and Rebecca Wright, Chief People Officer at LHV Bank. Each started by giving an insight into their backgrounds and why the topic was of importance to them personally, before moving on to discuss the key findings from Progress Together’s “Shaping Our Economy” report published in September 2023, which is, to date, the largest study into socio-economic diversity and progression in financial services in the world.

The conversation started by noting that the background of 50% of role holders across all seniorities in the financial services sector are from higher socio-economic backgrounds, compared to 37% in the wider UK labour market. This data is calculated from the parental occupations of the individuals when they were 14 years old, and shows that finance does have a systemic issue with a lack of socio-economic diversity. In FS this percentage gets higher as the seniority increases, with some organisations reporting that up to 75% of their senior staff are from higher socio-economic backgrounds.

Speed of progression was also discussed as a notable metric, with the report showing that individuals from intermediate and lower socio-economic backgrounds progress up the seniority scale on average 15% slower than those from higher. This percentage was noticeably increased to 21% on average for female, and 32% for BAME employees from lower/intermediate socio-economic backgrounds. It was also mentioned that, whilst access into the industry at entry level has been improved, progression within it is not, and firms should be looking at the impact this has on attrition rates with concern.

Discussion then turned to the root causes of lack of senior level diversity, which were identified as lack of diverse talent at mid-level, unequal progression rates, and the perpetuation of lack of diversity in externally hiring senior professionals.

Why is there a lack of socio-economically diverse talent to promote from within? Causes for this were identified as lack of internal network to utilise for upward mobility, over-mentoring and under-sponsoring, and issues in promotion process (mainly lack of transparency on criteria and not proactively identifying potential promotion candidates), all of which lead to the aforementioned attrition of mid-level talent out of the Financial Services sector.

It was noted that 75% of individuals in senior roles within Financial Services organisations are hired in externally, which can quash efforts made from a diversity perspective at entry level. To this end, its extremely important to partner with search firms who are conscious of diversity and who are collecting measurable data to ensure diverse candidate pipelines for roles.

In terms of solutions to this issue that are actionable for firms, the panel universally advocated for data collection to be one of the starting points. Anecdotal evidence was shared around how starting this data collection process and talking to staff around their backgrounds and lived experiences can be a real morale booster internally, as it shows that firms are looking to promote people from less socio-economically advantaged backgrounds, and can also give firms a unique insight into the culture of their organization (one specific example mentioned was around people changing their accents and behaviors subconsciously to “fit in”).

Furthermore, FS regulators should seek to make this a mandatory requirement for good practice. Firms can use this collected data to put in place analysis around pay gaps, gender and ethnic background diversity, and a whole host of other metrics to promote equality of opportunity in the workplace.

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