For industries with a traditionally large blue-collar workforce, it is more obvious how to promote the best and brightest through the ranks. But for sectors that have historically recruited the cream of the top schools and universities — or sourced via social networks — the path is less well trodden.
In media and entertainment, this is a particularly acute challenge. The only professions more socially exclusive than media are medicine and the law — both requiring much more vocational training. An over-supply of well-educated candidates keen to work for fun and famous brands, unpaid internships and opaque application processes have combined to keep jobs in the media out of reach for most. If you don’t know anyone in the industry, the barriers to entry are high.
It is an issue companies are grappling with as they seek to be more accessible, inclusive and representative.
While the appointment of more women and those from minority ethnic backgrounds has made many leadership teams more diverse, important progress could be curtailed if it is still only the privileged few drawn from similar social sets and academic institutions.
So how should companies ensure that their next generation of leaders come from a true mix of backgrounds and circumstances? How should this be measured? What should they be doing beyond that?
To help answer these questions, we asked leaders of the UK’s biggest broadcasters (television is a mirror on society, after all) to tell us how they are prioritising socio-economic diversity (SED), and how their organisations are seeking to open new pathways for progression.
How to measure socio-economic diversity
Broadcasting regular Ofcom recently published its annual stocktake on equality, diversity and inclusion in television and radio. The results were stark.
Based on workforce diversity data collected from eight of the UK’s largest broadcasters, the report concluded that more must be done to attract and retain diverse talent — including those from lower income groups. For example, the report found that 13% of employees attended private school, compared with the UK benchmark of 7%. It also found that 62% of employees had parents in a professional occupation when they were aged 14, compared to the UK benchmark of 33%.
These figures came as no surprise to Marcia Williams, recently appointed as Channel 4’s first director of inclusion. She believes that as an industry, the primary focus on diversity rather than inclusivity has made the equity agenda one about numbers. This can lead to too much focus on optics, rather than equity. The focus needs to shift to inclusive leadership that creates the right environment for excluded groups to bring their expertise to the fore and allow them to create sustainable careers and business long-term.
“The real goal is to persuade the people we want to attract that we are genuinely serious about it, and we have an environment in which they will thrive, and their expertise will be valued,” she said. “After years of short-term, programmatic initiatives, many no longer believe us as an industry.”
A numbers game?
One of the key metrics used to track SED is the professional occupation of people’s parents when they were aged 14, a widely used datapoint in academic research. However, this is just one of many, which perhaps reflects the breadth of this category. For example, SED can also be analysed by looking at the total family income or the type of school someone attended, as well their eligibility for free school meals.
But while all this data represents an important opportunity for leaders to understand what is working and what isn’t, metrics are not a silver bullet. For a start, they rely on voluntary disclosure — not something everyone is comfortable doing.
At Channel 4, where promoting diversity is a statutory obligation, non-disclosure of class or social origin is much higher than for protected characteristics such as race.
“There’s a lot of complexity associated with feelings about that,” Alex Mahon, chief executive, said. “Some might not want to reference where they came from. People don’t necessarily see it as part of their identity that goes with them their whole lives. Sometimes there is an aspiration to change that.”
She believes that changing the culture of an organisation to be more inclusive should loom as large as the effort to accelerate the proportion of a workforce defined as socially diverse — because retention is more than half the battle. Having overcome the hurdles to entry, social exclusivity not only persists the data suggests it gets worse with seniority.
“People from lower socio-economic backgrounds end up leaving in far higher numbers because they feel they don’t fit,” Dr Mahon said. “Television is a culture of sponsorship with people who are socially familiar and have a set of behavioural codes — like wearing the same trainers, going to Soho House, sending their kids to private school. That’s perfectly fine but you shouldn’t act like that’s the correct way as people who aren’t like that feel like they can never belong. They feel they will never overcome that gap between who they really are and who those other people are. To them, this feels impossible and so they quit.”
So, what are broadcasters doing?
The first step is measurement. You cannot change what you do not track.
ITV has published a Diversity Acceleration Plan which includes a new target to increase the number of colleagues from working class backgrounds to 33% by 2025 — the first time the broadcaster has set a socio-economic background target. ITV was also the first FTSE 100 company with a dedicated Group Director of Diversity, Ade Rawcliffe, on its executive board — something in which its chief executive, Carolyn McCall, takes great pride. “The conversation has definitely broadened and changed as a result of having her on the board,” she said.
The BBC is under more pressure, not only because of its public funding model but an existential question of relevance — something director general Tim Davie is all too aware of. He is striving to be ahead of the curve. They are first UK broadcaster to measure and publish data on the socio-economic diversity of its staff, and the only media organisation listed in the top 50 Social Mobility Employers Index.
The corporation has increasingly prioritised its MediaCity studios in Salford, Greater Manchester, now home to some 2,700 staff. The trend of recruiting outside the ‘London media bubble’ is broadening the backgrounds of employees, feeding upwards from the base.
“Socio-economic diversity is an incredibly powerful resource for talent and leadership,” Mr Davie said. “Today’s hires are tomorrow’s CEOs, and from entry level to the executive board, socio-economic diversity brings a vital perspective. Only when this is fully reflected throughout organisations can we give everyone the chance to reach their full potential.”
Channel 4, whose brand purpose is to represent ‘unheard voices’, opened a national headquarters in Leeds in 2019 followed by two regional hubs in Glasgow and Bristol, alongside its existing commercial office in Manchester. 26% of Channel 4’s 1200+ staff are based outside of London. The creation of a National HQ and two hubs was a commitment to embed greater regional diversity in the organisation, particularly key creative decision makers, creating highly attractive jobs in the north of England and improving representation on and off-screen.
It also monitors social mobility data among staff and job applicants. Not only has it banned work placements from family and friends, its 4Skills programme invests £5m every year to create more than 15,000 training, learning and development opportunities annually, focused on helping young people from disadvantaged backgrounds break into the industry. The proportion of staff defined as socially mobile has since increased from 34% in 2016 to 40% in 2022.
Intersectionality in action
Like every diversity metric, social mobility does not stand alone. There are many complexities at play including points of intersectionality, reflecting the way society is structured. Social mobility bisects with disability and race. Statistically, there are more disabled people in lower socio-economic categories because their educational life chances are often impacted by their disability. Similarly, many people from minority ethnic groups don’t have the inherited wealth or social capital that has historically benefitted career advancement.
This is why Ms McCall has placed such great emphasis on tackling the intersectionality challenge at ITV, where its five DE&I networks come together at its DEI council to share and learn. “We don't have a set one [network] for social mobility, because in each area of diversity there are elements of social mobility,” she said.
Internal initiatives include matching senior leaders from minority ethnic groups with sponsors on the executive and plc board. In turn, these senior leaders sponsor someone on the government’s Kickstarter scheme for young people on universal credit. Thus, a chain of role modelling and mentoring is created. Ms McCall herself mentors a senior leader on this programme.
“The big thing for us will be going back five years to monitor how many senior leaders and Kickstarters actually stayed,” she said. “A lot of people come into organisations in media and say, "It's not for us; not my people. I don't feel included." Inclusion is a big part of retention and we've worked really hard at that.”
There is, and will always be, more work to do. The road to a truly diverse, equitable and inclusive working culture is long. Data needs to be regularly collected, progress monitored, and employees surveyed. While leadership teams must look diverse, change must go deeper to make it stick.
“The most cutting-edge work in this sector is about moving from diversity and representation to inclusion,” Dr Mahon said. “The big focus now is what does true inclusion look like in the workplace and as a leadership skillset. How do you draw out all of the voices in the room, ensuring recognition of potential in your staff — rather than observation of potential? You don’t get the full contribution from each employee if they are not bringing their whole selves to work.”
From more meritocratic entry-level application processes to intentional recruitment of senior executives who do not fit the mould, change is happening. The leaders we spoke to know that management teams who better reflect their consumers will be more successful; boards made up of people from different backgrounds are more likely to avoid ‘group think’.
“People need to see the whole of society represented, not just one aspect. And I think that means working class as well as disability and ethnicity,” Ms McCall said. “It’s the whole range of difference. It is much better for business.”
With huge thanks to:
- Alex Mahon, chief executive, Channel 4
- Carolyn McCall, chief executive, ITV
- Tim Davie, director general, BBC
- Marcia Williams, director of inclusion, Channel 4
The Royal Television Society (RTS) has long recognised the importance of diversified backgrounds. The RTS now runs three schemes — the TV Production and Journalism Bursary, the Digital Innovation Bursary and the Steve Hewlett Scholarship — all of which are designed to support individuals pursuing a career in television, film or related media industries.
The bursaries, which are awarded to talented students from lower-income backgrounds, include free RTS membership; industry mentoring; access to the latest events and lectures; and frequent networking opportunities. To date, the RTS has supported over 240 Bursary Scholars, with approximately 80% of its graduating cohorts now working within the television broadcast industries.
Spencer Stuart is an international patron of the RTS.