Opinion: Social mobility is a glass ceiling that’s yet to be smashed

Opinion: Social mobility is a glass ceiling that’s yet to be smashedThe term ‘glass ceiling’ was coined to refer to situations where qualified and capable individuals are blocked from advancing through the hierarchy of an organisation.

Whether referring to a job in a ­corporate, a law firm or the bar, the term usually denotes an invisible barrier ­founded in discrimination, commonly based on gender or ethnicity. It is rarely, if ever, used when discussing class or social background, but should be.

To eradicate it, a resolute change is ­needed by this generation. With economic crisis forcing the business ­community to reassess its values, now is the perfect opportunity to address this issue.

While numerous regulations protect female, disabled, ethnic minority or aged employees in the workplace, nothing expressly governs diversity or aims to assist ­socio-economically disadvantaged individuals. We now have female partners in law firms and a handful of female law firm managing ­partners.

Even the once traditionally white, patriarchal and ­exclusive bar is becoming increasingly progressive. ­Nevertheless, being a noteworthy statistic at a sufficiently senior level is impossible without first getting in at ground level.

As a degree is a prerequisite, we could easily blame institutes of higher education for not attracting or motivating a more socially diverse range of individuals. After all, how can we recruit them into our training programmes if they don’t exist?

The legal profession has often presented itself as impenetrable, even intimidating. The reality is that without suitable role models, many A-level students would never apply to the profession. Then again, 20 years ago those individuals may not have dreamed of going to university at all. ­Universities and other professions have come a long way but unfortunately the legal profession has done little to be a ­driving force for change.

In the meantime, the Government-backed Social Mobility Foundation has been getting an increasingly positive press. Geoffrey Vos QC and others have done a huge amount of good work for this organisation and the cause it embodies.

The foundation was set up in 2005 and is aimed at academically high-achieving A-level students from financially ­disadvantaged backgrounds. It is involved in breaking down boundaries to access in the legal profession and sponsors students to undertake an internship in any of the top professions. It also supports and assists its students with Ucas forms, ­personal statements and training for Oxbridge interviews. These are challenging tasks at the best of times, but more so for underprivileged students who may not be able to call on family or friends who can share their experience of university or ­professional environments. To increase diversity in the legal ­profession, this is surely one of the best places to start.

Glass Consultancy works with the ­foundation and is seeking to encourage law firms to work together to support it in a number of ways, including:
• mentoring students through the ­foundation’s Ladders2Law scheme;
• providing work experience, placements or internships;
• hosting skills workshops or simply donating the use of a suitable facilities;
• financial assistance, university ­bursaries or direct donations.

Very different law firms, such as Baker & McKenzie, Clifford Chance, Field Fisher Waterhouse and Macfarlanes, have been proactive providers to the foundation, ­having contributed funding, support or both. Many firms pay lip service to ­diversity, but it is clear there are numerous tangible ways to make a difference.

The current economic climate need not be an obstacle, as much can be achieved with little financial burden.

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