Class Ceilings: Beyond the gender divide

Published: 14 October 2013

Research by Linstock client Equal Approach reveals that big business is till an old boys' network. But, far from being about gender inequality, the report stresses a need to focus on a class ceiling.

By championing the values of diversity and highlighting the industry’s meritocratic recruitment and promotion procedures, members of the banking profession may find it easier to rebuild trust with a public that’s otherwise quick to criticise.

A new report by a Linstock client, the diversity consultancy Equal Approach, shows that big business is still an old boys’ network. The research looked at the educational backgrounds of FTSE 100 CEOs and Chairs, finding that 45.2% went to a private school, and 28.1% went to either Oxford or Cambridge. Only 7% of the general population are educated privately, and a much smaller percentage study at Oxbridge, meaning UK plc still has a long way to go before its weightings are proportionate.

The numbers are particularly interesting given the general lack of attention paid to proxies for class in the boardroom. There is frequent criticism of the lack of female representation at board-level and companies’ poor performance against Lord Davies’ targets. But few consider that diversity consists of a lot more than sex. We shouldn’t allow a focus on the ‘glass ceiling’, important though it is, to obscure the difficulties experienced by state-schooled pupils in trying to break through the ‘class ceiling’. If the top-level of business is socially exclusive in any direction you increase the tendency for groupthink. This ultimately impacts on the bottom line as a group of people who share a narrow view of the world will develop products and services that are a poor match for a broader market.

The report split its findings by sector and found that banks were best in class. This probably won’t banish stereotypes of bankers as a blue blood elite, but it is worth noting that none of the leaders of the biggest banks were privately educated in the UK. By contrast, 57.1% of Chairs and CEOs in the media industry went to private school and 42.9% went to just one university, Cambridge. Talk about the pot calling the kettle black.

Clearly banking should do a much better job of letting its true colours show; the industry’s state-schooled senior executives need to be louder and prouder about their beginnings. Too often headlines are dominated by bonuses and pay packets, but would people feel as outraged if they knew most CEOs and Chairs at UK banks weren’t from privileged backgrounds? By championing the values of diversity and highlighting the industry’s meritocratic recruitment and promotion procedures, members of the banking profession may find it easier to rebuild trust with a public that’s otherwise quick to criticise.

But to do this they need to make sure they actually walk the walk, and this report makes interesting reading for anyone interested in learning more about the ‘class ceiling’ and how to help their employees break it. A full copy of the report can be downloaded from the Equal Approach website.

Madeleine Crowther
Junior Consultant

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