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Career inclusion and women’s social mobility – removing barriers to success


The theme for this year’s International Women’s Day is ‘Inspire Inclusion’ and here at The Career Innovation Company, inclusion forms one of our key beliefs about careers – that career potential is for everybody, everywhere.

Talking about women’s inclusion is inevitably complex – with its multiple points of intersectionality, such as race, sexuality, religion and class to name just a few.

But I’m going to focus in on social class origins that present women from lower and working-class backgrounds with a particular set of challenges, which is one I identify with directly. Recent research carried out by The Social Mobility Commission for the UK government’s ‘State of the Nation 2023: People and places’ prompted me to reflect on my own experiences. The report highlights that ‘Women are less likely than men to experience upward occupational mobility. For example, only 8% of women moved from a lower working-class background to a higher professional job, compared with 14% of men’.

The business case for socioeconomic diversity is a strong one, a workforce which better reflects society helps to improve organisational decision making, fuels innovation, and helps to drive success through greater employee belonging and retention. So why is social mobility more difficult for women than men and what makes it such? What can employers do to help women in the workplace reach their career potential, no matter what their starting point?

There are a myriad of reasons why navigating social background is tricky for both men and women, barriers include a lack of social capital, an uphill battle against stereotypes, or the commonly held imposter phenomenon which comes with such journeys. Research by Sam Friedman at the London School of Economics looks at the challenges that those who make the journey may experience despite relative success. Friedman compared the experience of men and women’s careers when experiencing social mobility,  using data from the 2019 UK Civil Service People Survey. His work uncovered a strong gender divide in terms of discussions and displays of working-class identity in the workplace.

Strikingly, Friedman found that for men ‘origin talk’ in some cases helped their career brand, as senior leaders with a unique perspective. For working class women the inverse was true – they overwhelmingly chose to conceal this for fear of negative judgment. He found that the resulting suppression:

‘can have implications for their careers; feeling unable to inhabit one’s” authentic self” at work often elicits a sense of withdrawal and self-elimination from the stakes of career progression’ 

Being the first in my family to attend University, my experience has echoed that of those interviewed in the study – dropping an accent and hiding other markers of origin are relatively effective ways to blend in, but the emotional labour and resulting inability to be one’s true self at work longer term can be detrimental to self-belief and the ambition that drove you in the first place.

At The Career Innovation Company an emphasis on authentic career branding is one of our seven career skills and aligns with the importance of being true to oneself in career development. We acknowledge that authenticity is a crucial skill contributing to a satisfying and successful career and often draw on the work of Sullivan and Mainiero, whose metaphor of a Kaleidoscope shows how the three principal career needs of challenge, balance and authenticity, wax and wane during the span of a career.

So, what can be done to allow women to feel more comfortable expressing where they come from?

  • Employee networks: are a great way to start, a safe place with a purpose where individuals can come together to combat the feeling of isolation that may come with difference that is not expressed. A great example of this is the the 93% club which puts a focus on helping students and those in early career to build the networks and confidence that might so often be missing.
  • Inclusive culture: it’s crucial to foster an inclusive culture that values and encourages sharing differences as strengths. Regular communication emphasising the strength in diversity can drive positive change and gives permission to share.
  • Role models and mentors who share career stories: having visible working-class female role models and mentors can be transformative. Women willing to share their journeys, challenges and lessons learnt can inspire others.

Successful mentoring creates a safe space to discuss difficult feelings and build social capital. My own volunteering as a mentor for the social mobility foundation and for students at Birkbeck College has provided me with the ability to share my story authentically in a way that’s both enriching and empowering.

For more on our beliefs, and how career strategy and support can unlock career potential, and offer opportunity for everyone please get in touch.

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