Diversity is about embracing different ways of doing things

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Organisations must do more to ensure people from all backgrounds can rise up the ranks

Not so long ago social mobility was a fuzzy, largely unfamiliar concept, the preserve of policy wonks of a leftish persuasion. Now it’s difficult to find a political speech of any hue that doesn’t put the topic centre stage.

David Cameron committed his government to doubling the proportion of young people from disadvantaged backgrounds going to university from 13.6% in 2009 to 28% in 2020. And Theresa May used her first speech as prime minister to remind us that "if you’re a white, working-class boy you’re less likely than anybody else in Britain to go to university. If you’re at a state school you’re less likely to reach the top professions than if you’re educated privately."

While it’s encouraging to see so much effort put into easing the journey from school to university for those whose life chances are hampered by background and lack of opportunity, I think it’s too easy to tick a box when a young person reaches university and think ‘job done'. For me education is a lifecycle, not a quick win.

At Generating Genius, the charity I founded 11 years ago to open up the STEM pipeline to young people of all backgrounds, we have been finding out how young people fare as early-career professionals. While some head for STEM careers many opt for financial services, the law, and any number of high-status professions.

We recently hosted a discussion in which a group of our young people (the majority from BME backgrounds) shared their experiences with employers and recruiters. The learning points for employers were all too clear:

  • Corporates need to do much more to create truly inclusive cultures that welcome and celebrate those of all backgrounds and experiences. Recruitment is only the start. Career progression is crucial if your talented, hard-won recruits are not going to be left languishing in junior positions. Why not set up an in-house mentoring scheme for new recruits from BME backgrounds to support them up the career ladder?
  • Diversity is still too often seen as a branding issue. It’s all very well including ‘diverse’ images on your company websites and marketing materials, but all that really tells prospective employees is that there may be a limited number of people from different ethnic backgrounds in your business. A truly diverse workforce is about valuing people for their difference and providing an environment in which they thrive rather than being distracted by a sense of isolation
  • For companies whose lifeblood is STEM graduates, reaching out early is mission-critical. With a continuing shortage of highly skilled employees – and still far too few women engineers – they must make the grade on diversity.
  • Corporates, like universities, must engage with young people long before they graduate to persuade them that your company is one that truly understands diversity. Encourage networking by inviting young people from non-traditional backgrounds to meet your current employees.
  • Don’t restrict your milk round to Russell Group universities; look for talent in less obvious places.

Some corporates are really working hard to get it right on diversity. But ambitious young people don’t want to work for a company that doesn’t ‘get’ that diversity is about embracing different ways of doing things, not tick boxes. There’s a whole world of digital start-ups out there where they can create a working environment that reflects their values.

At Generating Genius we're taking young people from the classroom to the boardroom. We’ve now got the template for that core journey from age 11 to early-career professionals. Corporates are coming to us and saying ‘we want to support you and your students, get us on board'.

Tony Sewell is founder and CEO of Generating Genius

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