Policy Lunchbox with the Social Mobility Foundation: Five recommendations for organisations to widen participation

Social-Mobility-Foundation-LogoIf you were to ask someone in the street about their image of a typical scientist what would they describe? A nutty professor-type? Male, white and from an affluent background? Probably.

The science profession is arguably one of the furthest behind in terms of widening participation.

However the community is becoming more aware of diversity issues. Scientific organisations are increasingly aware of the barriers than can affect minority and disadvantaged groups.

Learned and professional societies have a role to play in highlighting these issues in order to raise awareness and ensure that opportunities to be part of the science community are open and available to all.

To this end, the latest in our Policy Lunchbox series of events featured David Johnston, Chief Executive of the Social Mobility Foundation, a charity which aims to enable people from low income backgrounds into professional roles. He discussed the Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission’s five recommendations for businesses to widen participation which the Foundation supports.

1. Engagement with schools

The Commission recommends that organisations increase outreach with schools across the breadth of the UK. Much of current employer engagement is London-centric and more needs to be done in order to be nationwide and reach more rural and coastal areas. Long term interaction with schools is also vital; a one off talk or workshop will not maintain engagement and inspiration for those who need it. The impact of these projects also needs to be evaluated effectively.

2. Work experience and internships

Work experience, while short-term, is good for CV-building and job applications. However, organisations ought to be careful to avoid overly favouring friends and relatives of employees; the work experience opportunities open to pupils should not be a reflection of their connections.

Unpaid internships need to be reassessed as those from a low income background or with a lack of support cannot afford them. Unlike work experience, internships are longer term and the individual often makes a significant contribution to a company. There should be more calls to make these paid; however, politics and media – which would normally help drive this message – are some of the biggest offenders! If the youth unemployment data were recalculated to take unpaid internships into account (working for no pay) this may lead to interesting results. Much needs to be done to reverse the perception that unpaid internships are ‘the norm’.

3. Non-graduate entry programmes

Many banking companies and the civil service now have significant non-graduate entry schemes. However, individuals in these roles often encounter a glass ceiling – i.e. entry this way only allows limited promotion. These schemes shouldn’t be a ‘token gesture’ and participants should be allowed to progress and develop according to their ability not their entry level. Furthermore, increasing the prevalence of non-graduate programmes would put onus on universities to justify why individuals should go.

4. Data collection

The Commission recommends that data collection surrounding social mobility is brought in that with that collected for gender and race. Little is typically asked about social class and background. Three core questions are suggested:

  • What type of school did you attend? (‘State school’ category too vague – sometimes just like private school)
  • Did your parents go to university?
  • Were you eligible for free school meals?

Armed with improved data, organisations can begin to understand trends and work to improve widening participation practices accordingly.

5. Selection

Selection of individuals by employers is the main focus of the Commission’s manifesto. Selection is a means of funnelling applicants; current systems tend to favour grades, certain universities and unconscious bias (male vs. female; ethnic origin etc.). Currently, 60% of employers target only 10 universities or less. There is thus a need to widen the number of universities targeted, especially since 40% of the top A-level students are educated outside of the Russell Group. The introduction of blind application forms without the university name would help this. Clifford Chance – a global law firm based in London – trialled such an application form and found that 30% more universities were selected from.

The Commission also recommends that school grades are viewed in the context of the school they were awarded at. Universities partly do this already, but it is very variable – for example an exceptional student at an under-performing school is probably of more interest than an exceptional student from a school where pupils were given high levels of support. However this is clearly a very nuanced area and statistics would need to be looked at on a per school/per school type basis. It is possible that some kind of traffic light or rating system may work. Students from ‘good’ schools/high house-hold income that did not receive the right opportunities would also need to be considered.

These changes could be interesting, especially as companies which have privately assessed performance against what was presented at interview, have found no correlations with grades. More needs to be understood what makes a high performing employee.

Twelve companies have committed to look at these 5 recommendations over the next 12 months, including Accenture, Telefonica and KPMG. Unfortunately no scientific organisations have signed up so far despite a number of the issues highlighted presenting significant problems in the science community.

Perhaps, with the implementation of these recommendations, the image of the ‘typical’ scientist will change over time. Indeed perhaps we may come to realise that there is no ‘typical’ scientist; it could be anyone!

How can the science community get involved with the work of the Social Mobility Foundation?

The Social Mobility Foundation operates a mentoring scheme and is currently actively recruiting new mentors across all career sectors – particularly the biology and chemistry sectors. The 2015 mentoring FAQs document is available through this link. This provides some general information on the practicalities of the mentoring scheme, the profile of the students they work with and the level of commitment required. Interested persons can register their interest in mentoring by completing and submitting the professional sign-up form, available here.

Any questions or queries about the mentoring scheme can be submitted by email (mentors@socialmobility.org.uk).

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