woman under a glass, breaking glass ceiling

By Khyati Sundaram, Head of Product, Applied

The UK has a ‘class ceiling’, preventing talented employees from breaking through.

To tear it down, employers need to rethink the way they attract and hire employees – and ensure greater equality of opportunity for the wider UK economy.

While the Equalities Act 2010 makes it illegal to discriminate against anyone based on age, orientation, gender & religion, it offers no protection against class-based partiality. Even if this discrimination isn’t intentional, unconscious bias can rear its head without recruiters even realising.

This issue has lasting implications for an employer’s search for talent, social cohesion and the wider economy. A growing body of academic research is shedding light on this issue:

In 2016, the UK government’s State of the Nation Report acknowledged that: “from the early years through to universities and the workplace, there is an entrenched and unbroken correlation between social class and success.”

Successive studies have quantified this inequality. A 2016 study by the London School of Economics and Swarthmore College found that while 33 per cent of the UK population is from a working class background, it makes up just ten per cent of elite occupations.

Even when working-class individuals are successful in joining elite occupations, they earn on average 16 per cent less than people from more privileged backgrounds – detailed in LSE academics Samuel Friedman and Daniel Laurison’s 2019 book ‘The Class Ceiling’ whose work has been able to highlight less privileged candidates being shut out of elite jobs and prevented from realising their earning potential.

And there’s ultimately a wider economic cost to ingrained bias: Sutton Trust economists estimated in 2017 that greater social mobility could boost UK GDP by 2 per cent or £39 billion.

While UK companies are realising the need for staff training on unconscious bias and diversity, a more proactive and effective way to break the ‘class ceiling’ is through organisations rethinking their recruitment processes to make them fairer.

There are three practical and manageable changes that organisations can make to hiring to ensure this greater equality.

First, organisations need to commit to fair and unbiased recruiting policies, publishing a policy and communicating this to staff and potential employees in their external and internal communications.

Second, leaders need to implement tactics such as neutral wording of job descriptions in their recruitment channels. Academic research shows that taking out biased wording encourages more applications from people of less privileged backgrounds – and from women and more diverse audiences too.

Third, organisations need to use debiased hiring (including anonymisation) to ensure fairer and simpler recruitment.

New data-driven, blind hiring tools strip away all irrelevant information from a candidate’s CV and job applications and anonymise the way this data is presented to recruiting teams, leaving just the core qualities that make the candidate suitable for the job. These capabilities boost equality in recruitment and can engender social mobility within the wider workplace.

Using these tools, recruiters will no longer be swayed by a candidate that went to a prestigious school or bagged a life-changing internship through a relative’s connections – instead they are seeing the real candidate and what they can achieve. Rather than artificially narrowing the candidate pool to the same types of candidates they’ve previously hired for, they’re widening it to find anyone with the skills they need wherever they learnt them.

Fairer recruitment and removal of unconscious bias is helping organisations hire talented people that might once have slipped under the radar − or bounced off that class ceiling − as these examples show:

Engineering and construction business, Carey Group, became disenchanted with traditional CVs because they prevented candidates from conveying their real work capabilities. As a result, the company transformed its recruitment process to eliminate the risk of bias with a new, fairer blind hiring platform. Candidates now respond to the group’s vacancies by answering behavioural questions tailored to each specific job role with all responses anonymised before being reviewed. Not only does the new platform remove a candidate’s personal details and work history, it also randomises how the responses are viewed by the selection team. An interviewee’s answers are scored on a question-by-question basis – rather than applicant-by-applicant  – ensuring that all candidates are judged on equal merit.

Global charity Comic Relief implemented a blind hiring platform in 2019 to handle wide-ranging staffing needs and short-term resourcing for campaigns like Red Nose Day and Sport Relief – while fulfilling corporate demands for improved diversity and inclusion in its hiring. Its senior team reports that it can now plan how and where it is searching for talent across many different communities, job forums, regions or universities. This means that its recruitment is diverse while ensuring that the organisation gets the best people for the roles available.

Blind hiring is delivering equal opportunities through fairer hiring of talented people, regardless of background. Even among less-enlightened employers, we can start to break the class ceiling – and promote social mobility.

Khyati Sundaram AppliedAbout the author

Khyati Sundaram is the Head of Product at Applied. She looks after the strategic direction of the product and is responsible for overseeing the management of the product roadmap. Prior to joining Applied, she co-founded an AI-based pricing platform. Khyati has over ten years’ experience in product, fundraising and finance across small companies and large organizations such as JP Morgan and RBS. She holds an MSc in Economics, specializing in game theory, from the London School of Economics and an MBA from London School of Business with an exchange at the Wharton School.