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Social Mobility | why it matters in our workplaces

Updated: Sep 12, 2023

Contributed by Stacey Shortall

There is nothing new about touting the need to increase diversity in workplaces for both business and social justice reasons. But diversity today means much more than gender, ethnicity, sexual orientation and/or (dis)ability - “social mobility” is increasingly in the mix. So what does all this mean for workplaces in Aotearoa New Zealand?

First of all, it means landing a definition that makes sense for us. In the period following the Second World War, movement in the United Kingdom between “upper”, “middle” and “working classes” started to be referred to as social mobility. But that all gets pretty uncomfortable given the egalitarian thinking that many of us in Aotearoa NZ choose to have.

For defining social mobility requires us to confront the somewhat uncomfortable truth that we have a social strata in our country built on perceived, and often actual, power, wealth and influence. Most challengingly, defining social mobility requires labelling some of us as disadvantaged, poor, vulnerable or deprived. I certainly have never met someone who really wants to be labelled that way, or would willingly do so him/herself.

It is for these reasons that the definitions of “social mobility” which are commonly used - that “people from poor backgrounds go on to be affluent” or that “those currently in poverty get to access a higher quality of life” – frankly make me very uneasy. In fact, having spent almost 25 years seeking to provide pro bono legal help and other volunteering assistance to a wide variety of people who live in vastly different circumstances to mine, I have experienced some of the richest spirit, warmth and fullness of life in their communities.

Even though some things may have looked pretty dire, I don’t think I have any right to label someone in a way that could be interpreted by them, or another person, as patronising or condescending.

That is not to say I have always got that right. But, because I want to do so here, I am opting to define social mobility as simply meaning that potential is fulfilled. In other words, that all of us, regardless of our socio-economic background including the circumstances of our parents, or the place where we were born and raised, get to realise our capability.

So, armed with this definition, let’s turn to why social mobility matters in Aotearoa New Zealand workplaces.

For starters, social mobility is fair and we should all want to live in a fair society. Yet we do not.

A 2017 report by the children’s fund of the United Nations reported Aotearoa New Zealand as having one of the greatest disparities of educational achievement when related to socioeconomic background among developed countries, with 90,000 young people not in education, employment or training.

In December 2020, BERL reported that 70 percent of household wealth was held by just 20 percent of our households. For the first quintile (having the lowest level of the wealth distribution), the average household has a negative net worth. Around 23% of children in Aotearoa NZ live below the poverty line (after household costs are deducted from income) and many of our adults live in material hardship. According to figures released by Statistics NZ in February 2020, approximately 168,000 children live in the lowest income group, which means their families survive on less than 40% of the national median income (after housing costs). Just a year earlier, in 2019, the Child Poverty Monitor reported that 145,000 children (13% of all children in our country) lived in households where families could not afford to pay their power bills or visit the doctor on time.

It does not however take academic researchers and economists for us to know that the advancement of social mobility in our country continues to need real work. We all know that there are geographic areas of Aotearoa New Zealand where poverty and despair appear to be deeply entrenched. But we should also all know that social mobility is not just morally just. Instead there are other real risks when barriers to social mobility are left un-tackled.

When people don’t get a fair chance because of their backgrounds, we risk robbing our country of all its growth prospects. We limit talent. We let future entrepreneurs, innovators, lawyers, doctors and many others be lost to us. We risk missing out on the best and the brightest.

We also risk facing into the types of actions that some people who feel they are being treated unfairly resort to. We all know that a sense of injustice, hopelessness and disenchantment can bubble over. In 2018, the OECD reported on how barriers to social mobility were undermining political stability as people became cynical about their prospects. As the OECD then said, this, in turn, strengthens political extremisms or populism. And we all know how that has been playing out beyond our shores.

At its simplest, social cohesion is compromised when social mobility is constrained. When people feel that they cannot advance, that they are left out, shut out, shut up, that they don’t really count, then they lose trust and hope in the very systems that apply to them.

Which brings me to the role of workplaces.

In many such environments, very little is actually known about the social backgrounds of workers. Since 2017, for example, the New Zealand Law Society has required practising lawyers to provide information on their ethnicity, with lawyers given the option of refusing to disclose. This has resulted in comprehensive information as to ethnic make-up, but I am unaware of any information gathering in relation to socio-economic backgrounds. Assumptions continue that many professionals like lawyers, accountants, doctors and engineers were raised in families with connections to those professions, even though there certainly are many exceptions.

While I may well be wrong, I suspect, however, that diversity disparities in our professions around gender and ethnicity would similarly echo in relation to socio- economic background. It does not seem a stretch to assume this might be equally true in other workplaces too.

Undeniably, all employers have a role in play in advancing social mobility in Aotearoa New Zealand through the way in which people are recruited and promoted, together with running effective diversity and inclusion programmes. But we also need to look and act way earlier.

While stable and safe housing, food security, good health and safe communities really matter, it is hard to contest that education is a powerful ‘equalizer’ of chances. Getting more young people from diverse socio-economic backgrounds to university is generally accepted as helping to stimulate upwards social mobility.

A Ministry of Education study released in June 2020 found - perhaps unsurprisingly - that degree and higher-level education gives people higher annual earnings as well as higher earnings growth. Nine years after leaving school, those with a degree or higher-level education can expect to earn 15 to 20% more than someone of the same age who finished their education with University Entrance and 40 to 50% more than someone who finished with NCEA Level 2. In 2018 the OECD reported that educational disadvantage typically means not only smaller salaries, but, more worryingly, shorter lives. A 25 year-old university-educated man can expect to live almost eight years longer than his lower-educated peer on average across OECD countries; the difference is 4.6 years for women.

But parental education is a particularly strong predictor of educational attainment of students. As I know myself, being the first person in your family to go into tertiary education is daunting, particularly when it involves moving away from your family and other support networks. On average across OECD countries, children whose parents did not complete secondary school have only a 15% chance of making it to university compared to a 60% chance for their peers with at least one parent who achieved tertiary-level education. And things are actually even more nuanced than that. Offshore research shows that the most statistically significant factor in predicting high achievers at the age of 11 is whether their mother had a degree or higher degree, followed by their mother being in full-time education to the age of 18.

There are other challenges, too, around education being a key lever to drive social mobility in Aotearoa New Zealand. In 2020, UNICEF’s (somewhat controversial) “Innocenti Report Card“ showed we have room for improvement on all education measures. The estimated percentage of children aged 15 years who have basic proficiency in both reading and mathematics was just 65%. This ranked Aotearoa NZ 17th of the 39 countries where data was available. Where we see inequality of education particularly showing up is in the percentage of 15-year-olds who have reached basic proficiency in reading and mathematics, according to whether or not there were books at home to help with schoolwork. Approximately 77% of 15-year-olds with books in the home to help with school work reached basic proficiency in reading and mathematics compared to just 60%who do not.

In fact we all know that parents with more economic and other resources will use them to improve the educational standards of their children. For example, by paying for private education or tutoring, or buying a house in a good school zone and purchasing a wider range of educational support and experiences that develop skills.

So what does all this mean for advancing social mobility?

Well, let’s see.

  • Books at home matter.

  • Offering educational support and experiences matters.

  • Targeting kids who have parents who did not get to pursue their education matters.

  • Getting those kids to university so that their children may have a tertiary-educated parent matters.

But education on its own is not enough to truly advance social mobility. Just look at the legal profession.

Since the 1990s, more women have studied law than men, and women now make up over 60% of lawyers. However, this has not translated into equal numbers on the bench, or in senior roles, where women only account for around 31% of large law firm partners. Moreover, despite rising tertiary education levels across ethnic groups in Aotearoa NZ, of the 14,000 lawyers practising in our country, just over 800 are Māori (6%, compared to 16% of the population) and under 400 are Pasifika (less than 3%, compared to 8% nationally).

So this is where I come to the power of networks in advancing social mobility in Aotearoa New Zealand, and creating more socio-economically diverse workplaces.

Any good employer – be it a law firm, business, government departments or other organisation – will tell us they are committed to creating a diverse workforce in an inclusive workplace based on talent rather than privilege. They will mean it too. But we all know that professional networks are an implicit driver of social mobility.

Many of us will know the parent who is a business leader using their position or industry connections to help family members’ access and pursue job opportunities. Others of us will remember the professional who reached out to colleagues to ask them to help a friend with work. These are opportunities that may not have been available without the network connection.

In my experience at least, doors are seldom kicked open by strangers. They are nudged open by familiar faces who invite others into the room and introduce them.

For all these reasons, I believe that supporting children with their learning is not enough to increase diversity in our workplaces.

Help is needed to connect them to networks that can advance their potential. Connections need to be built. Bridges between communities need to be developed.

Initiatives like Homework Clubs that partner workplaces with low decile primary schools and encourage reciprocal learning between volunteers and students need to be encouraged.

Plainly there should be nothing inevitable about socio-economic disadvantage (or advantage) being passed from one generation to another. Seeking to ensure that everyone in our country is able to thrive and succeed plainly makes good sense. Growing diverse workplaces is key. Each of us seeking to connect to grow our networks is important. The more of us who do so, the greater the shot that every child in our country has to be everything they are capable of being.

And that, like all other diversity and inclusion initiatives, is good for all of us.



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