As a new toolkit is launched to help employers improve social mobility in the workplace, Sandra Wallace describes her personal journey to becoming managing director of law firm DLA Piper.
The Prime Minister has said he is committed to “levelling up” Britain, improving economic performance in all parts of the country. A good place to start would be through tackling social mobility and improving socio-economic diversity in the workplace. We can all agree that someone’s background shouldn’t determine their future and yet for too many in our society, it still does.
When I joined my first law firm, I felt out of place at times, because I had never been abroad for a holiday, or ventured very far from home”
I’ve seen it first-hand. I was the first in my family to go to university and worked at the local council to fund my degree and put myself through law school. A mixture of determination, encouragement and luck saw me through and I’m now proud to be a senior employment lawyer and executive at a global law firm.
But like countless others in my situation, I had to overcome barriers every step of the way – any one of which could have knocked me off course and drastically impacted my likelihood of success.
I was told that I wouldn’t become a lawyer because I didn’t go to the right university and because I didn’t get the best grades. When I joined my first law firm, I felt out of place at times, because I had never been abroad for a holiday, or ventured very far from home, so I didn’t know the business or social etiquettes taken for granted by my better educated and more privileged peers.
The barriers can be subtle. Sometimes it’s simply a lack of confidence that means you don’t consider yourself able to ask for career training or the opportunity to progress in your career. These obstacles can be present even before you apply for a role, because you make assumptions about an organisation and the “type” of people that would work or fit in there.
These are complex issues, with no single silver-bullet. Employers are missing out on talent in diverse groups who can help drive competitiveness. The solution requires collaboration between government, the education sector and our communities. Clearly employers have a crucial role to play in rebalancing the scales.
Diversity and inclusion
That’s why I am pleased to be supporting and promoting a new employers’ toolkit – published by the Social Mobility Commission – for improving social mobility in the workplace.
The toolkit enables employers to champion their industries by identifying the make-up of their organisations and then showing them practical steps to create a more rounded environment. I’m pleased to say that my own firm, DLA Piper, has committed our people, resources and networks to advancing social mobility in a variety of ways which includes recognising interventions need to start early.
Increasing social mobility is not about ‘punishing’ those who have had the good fortune of a better start in life. It is about levelling the playing field. It is not only a just cause, but smart business too. Employees from lower socio-economic backgrounds perform at least as well as their more advantaged colleagues, and often outperform them.
The result will be a more balanced workplace, where no one’s background or any other characteristic, determines what they are able to achieve in their organisation. I encourage all employers to embrace our toolkit and urge the government to include social mobility in its mission to level-up.