Toni Kent Speaker

This PepTalk article is written by Toni Kent, speaker, poverty and social mobility writer and campaigner who wants to inspire  people to overcome adversity and achieve their full potential. We hope you enjoy Toni's words of wisdom on social mobility.

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“It isn’t where you came from. It’s where you’re going that counts.”

This quote, attributed to Ella Fitzgerald, sums up beautifully how we hope life will be. Why should it matter where you are born, or what family you’re born into?

The truth of the matter is that your postcode and parentage has a significant impact on your future prospects. And it’s for this reason more organisations are focusing on social mobility and socio-economic inclusion as a key part of their Diversity Equity and Inclusion efforts.

What is social mobility anyway?

According to the OECD, social mobility refers to: “change in a person's socio-economic situation, either in relation to their parents (inter-generational mobility) or throughout their lifetime (intra-generational mobility).”

From a lay-person’s perspective, this may mean (as it did for me) going from growing up in a home that experienced acute financial and social disadvantage to living in financial stability in an affluent neighbourhood that is rich with resources. Whatever happens to my children in their later years; the financial and emotional support they’ve had so far gives them an incredible head start in comparison to my own beginnings.

The great meritocracy myth

If you believe that we live in a meritocracy, this trajectory would be something that comes simply as a result of ‘hard work’. Instead, I live with the uncomfortable truth that my experience of going from council estate via corporate to a career full of creative opportunities makes me an outlier within my childhood community and family. According to my background, I was not ‘supposed’ to have a successful corporate career, own a house, experience good health and have pensions and investments.

As with investments, social mobility can go down as well as up, but let’s be clear — it is far harder to thrive you’ve grown up with a dearth of access to opportunities. And the statistics bear this out.

Read more from PepTalk:  Five ways to overcome fear of failure with Toni Kent

Social mobility and the workplace

The issue of a lack of socio-economic diversity in organisations is real. Various studies have proven that the largest and most influential institutions and professions are the preserve of people born into advantage. Here’s five stats to get you started:

  • The proportion of working-class actors, musicians and writers has shrunk to just 7.9% [Guardian]
  • In politics, 63% of the current cabinet went to a fee-paying school and 53% attended Oxbridge [Sutton Trust Cabinet Analysis]
  • Women from working-class backgrounds progress 21% more slowly into senior roles in the financial services industry than women from more advantaged families
  • People from working class backgrounds who get a professional job are paid an average of £6,800 (17%) less than colleagues from affluent backgrounds []
  • 73% of doctors are from professional and managerial backgrounds vs 6% of working class origins []

Standing at the intersection

What we also know to be true is that socio-economic background cuts across all other characteristics – it is intersectional. Based on ethnic background and gender, the current cabinet appears to be diverse. However, when you overlay this with the fact that it is overwhelmingly populated by privately educated individuals, a different pattern emerges.

Five things you can do

With diversity of background proven to be a business benefit, but socio-economic background something that isn’t always easy to spot (or something that people want to disclose for fear of judgement) what can you do? Here’s five tips based on my work with organisations that are leading the way in redressing the balance:

  1. Understand the opportunity. McKinsey’s valuable article on the business value of socio-economic diversity is a great place to start. Alongside this, the Social Mobility Commission’s State of the Nation report illustrates how social mobility intersects with other characteristics. An emphasis on social mobility will help you to move the dial in other areas too.
  1. Listen to your employees. Increasing socio-economic diversity at the outreach and recruitment stages is in some respects easier (and there are lots of organisations that can help you with this).  When it comes to engaging existing employees, it’s important to clearly articulate in advance your aims and ambitions, and listen to any potential concerns.
  1. Learn from best practices. The Social Mobility Commission’s Cross-Industry Toolkit provides a wealth of resources for organisations wishing to understand and improve the socio-economic diversity of their workforce. From capturing data to gaining buy-in and actions to prioritise, it offers a valuable place to start.
  1. Share leadership stories. Given that social mobility has become harder, and by virtue of the fact that leaders from working-class backgrounds are in the minority in many professions, having a member of the executive team share that they were not born into privilege can help to create cultural change. Junior members of an organisation often assume that the leadership team all come from advantaged backgrounds – sharing early-years stories really does work.
  1. Start a network. A huge part of creating connection is the ability for people to share their experiences without fear of judgement or exclusion. Questions such as “Where did you go to school?” or “Where did you holiday when you were growing up?” can feel loaded when you realise your answer could be met with ridicule or surprise. Creating a social mobility network offers a way in which to open up the dialogue and provide a collective voice for a conversation that can feels tricky to get started. 

I’d love to help more organisations feel a little bit more Ella Fitzgerald in their approach to social mobility. Want your people to know that where they came from doesn’t have to dictate where they’re going to? Book me for a PepTalk!

Toni Kent is a speaker, poverty and social mobility champion, podcaster (Challenging University podcast) and writer. If you’d like to book a PepTalk for your team from Toni, email us at

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