Speaking at the Diversity and Inclusion Finance Forum (DIFF) leadership event on 13 January, Rowntree (pictured) said although the mortgage industry was “easier to enter” than other financial services sectors, there was still evidence that many had to work twice as hard to get ahead.
Speaking about his time at Halifax, Rowntree said he loved the company for the first 14 years he worked there but in his final year, he started to feel he was not being given the opportunity to progress.
Rowntree said he went for a subsequently unsuccessful job interview, he was given feedback to work on his “personal brand”, which to him meant “we don’t like how you present”.
He said: “Whether it be your regional accent, some of the views you might hold, how you conduct yourself, you almost have to hide that away. How many of us have to spend a huge amount of energy each day just trying to not be ourselves?”
He also said many people did not bring their true selves to work, as there was still a stigma attached to certain upbringings.
“If we can just remove that so that people can focus that energy on actually doing the job at hand, imagine the potential of talent we can unlock. And that will speed up progression,” Rowntree added.
Simon Reichwald, strategic lead for talent at Connectr, also presented and said the industry needed to work on its processes not people. He added: “There’s too much focus on fit and fit really means ‘you’re like me’.”
Improving progression not access
Reichwald and Rowntree are both part of a government-backed social mobility taskforce which has set out to address socioeconomic diversity within the financial and professional services sector.
Reichwald said the primary aim of the taskforce was to improve progression rather than access as the work to hire people from diverse backgrounds was already being done. However, he said there was still stagnation when it came to under-represented groups holding senior roles.
“Most firms are getting better at doing that but there is little progression,” Reichwald said.
He added: “With the work firms are doing to bring in diversity, there’s a lot more risk that if that great diverse talent comes into your organisation, progression is slower and it’s not to do with performance…you’re wasting your time, your money and your effort.”
During the questions session, Esther Dijkstra, managing director of intermediaries at Lloyds Banking Group, asked how to balance allowing colleagues to give their children work experience while being aware of the privilege it afforded.
Reichwald said while he took part in such schemes, he was always reminded of others who may not have similar connections and resources.
He said some work experience programs could be “frighteningly nepotistic”. However, he acknowledged that allowing employees to give their children work experience was considered a company perk, making it difficult to take away.
Reichwald said to balance this, some firms ran the programs alongside others which focused on individuals from a lower socioeconomic background.
He said other options could include making sure the employee’s child does not work in their department, so they get proper feedback or in return or getting another child from another school to work in that employee’s department simultaneously thus giving another person a similar opportunity.
Understanding each other
One way to make sure people from lower socioeconomic backgrounds are getting the help they need is to collect data on their upbringing, so their struggles can be better understood,
Rowntree said Paragon had undergone this exercise, with 70 per cent of its workforce responding positively and sharing information.
Being a second generation immigrant raised on a council estate in a working class family without a university education, Rowntree said he had a “vested interest” in improving progress in the sector for others in a similar position.
He said as social class was not visible in the same way as race or gender and did not have its Black Lives Matter or Me Too moments, it was often hard to gauge the barriers people had.
Rowntree said: “With this particular subject, the power of connecting with people that go through similar experiences and an opportunity to say ‘you know what, I’ve experienced that and that’s been really helpful to hear from you’.”
Reichwald said role modelling, which is having someone from an under-represented group in a senior role to look up to, storytelling and mentoring at all levels of an organisation was essential in supporting diverse talent. He said this applied to all minority groups.
During the question session, Dina Bhudia, managing director and CEO of P2M Asset Management, asked how people could relate to taskforces made up of people who did not represent the groups they were advocating for. Rowntree said while it was unfortunate, it was white, middle-aged men who were able to make a difference.
“It’s wrong but having the influence, people’s ear and the rest of it, you’ve got that advantage,” he added.
Reichwald also insisted that when the taskforce was set up, it had an equal gender and diversity split across advisory board and working group membership, which was an intentional decision. However, he admitted that was not the case for the taskforce today.
Amanda Butterworth, director of customer propositions at Legal and General Home Finance, asked about the expectation to put in longer hours to progress, which worked against people such as single parents who may not have the infrastructure to support that working pattern.
Rowntree said people “shouldn’t have to be doing that” but insisted things had changed since the pandemic.
He said the general expectation to work more hours was still there but also said presenteeism was less of an issue, especially with the pandemic providing an opportunity for firms to rethink working habits.
The DIFF leadership session took place at the South Place Hotel in London on 13 January.
Five main takeaways
- People from lower socioeconomic backgrounds progress 25 per cent slower than their peers, this worsens to 32 per cent for non-white people.
- As well as being morally sound, there are good commercial reasons for socioeconomic diversity, as it attracts future talent.
- Role modelling, storytelling and mentoring at all levels can help to solve socioeconomic diversity and progression.
- Consider intersectionality and how people with different identities and experiences may be affected by prejudices in numerous ways at the same time.
- While it can be a perk to use connections to progress relatives and friends, it will help to put in place a program to reach people who may not have access to these connections.