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How do you define social mobility?

A lot of businesses want to hire more diverse candidates, but how can you better define and position socio-economic status to improve social mobility in organisations?

Wanting to improve the diversity of hires with a socio-economic lens requires clarity on the approach as well as desired outcomes. The first step is to build awareness on what we mean by socio-economic status and how we achieve social mobility.

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Socio-economic status refers to a combination of education, income and occupation. Simply put, social mobility is the shifting or movement of social status from one status to another, over time.

It can refer to moving up and down the hierarchy of social status, though predominantly when referred to, we are speaking about upward mobility and the progression of socio-economic status.

Socio-economic status and social class are not interchangeable and it’s important to recognise this when talking about social mobility.

Social class is a much broader concept, as it is made up of different types of ‘capital’ listed below. Together these elements confer social positioning, which creates different levels of access, advantage and lived experience:

Economic – is the money you earn, household income, your assets, what you acquire or inherit

Social – the family you come from, what social group you are part of, your networks and connections

Cultural – includes your world references, knowledge base, cultural interests and activities

Symbolic – external representation, job title, name, mannerisms, appearance i.e. how symbolism confer status and influences perceptions

Having made the distinction between socio-economic status and social class, let’s come back to the question on how we can improve social mobility in organisations.

The answer lies in levelling the playing field, consciously driving equity, addressing institutional or systemic bias, and removing barriers.

Here are some steps to get started on this journey, or advance the great work you’re already doing:

Comments such as not the right fit or lacking polish, when assessing capability or potential, are examples of classism and limit representation in hiring as well as promotions.

It is important to seek clarification on what is meant by those terms. This should be addressed in the moment, otherwise it risks becoming a creeping normality.

Furthermore, a common myth is that meritocracy is a linear concept. You work hard, you succeed.

This naively ignores social class privilege, however invisible, implied or nuanced. Educate others when meritocracy is discussed, and flag that it is not without its associated socio-privileges.

Be aware of the things that we do at work to create a sense of belonging. Possibly around social groups and networks. Ask yourself, are we inadvertently creating any rules or criteria around ‘membership’ of such groups that cannot be equitably applied.

Being able to support people to move fluidly between such groups and networks, broadens circles of trust and generates greater social capital with building better relationship and this is a massively underrated lever in improving social mobility.

For social mobility to succeed, you need to address institutional class bias and root out systemic barriers

For instance, take a closer look at how job descriptions are written, desired qualification or education, how interviews are conducted, how decisions are made on people’s futures and their potential assessed for more senior roles with wider exposure.

A final point is to pause and have the conversation, openly and without judgement in your organisation. Be clear on what socio-economic status means and get comfortable with the discomfort of talking about social class.

Ask yourselves: How many of our policies, processes, frameworks, guidelines have classist language, rules and conditions that mimic gatekeeping and can disproportionately hamper social status progression and social mobility?

Invite others into the conversation for a more diverse and varied point of view to objectively discuss desired outcomes.


Huma Qazi is a diversity and leadership consultant and founder of The Privilege Project


This column is a space for HR professionals to air challenging D&I questions anonymously tackling a different question each issue. Submit your D&I questions here.


This piece appears in the January/February 2022 print issue. Subscribe today to have all our latest articles delivered right to your desk.