‘Class is the biggest barrier to career progress’

New research from KPMG shows that class has a bigger impact on career progression than other diversity characteristics.

Metaphor of a parent being stuck with no career progression


Socio-economic background measured by parental occupation has the biggest impact on an individual’s career progression compared to any other diversity characteristic, according to new research from KPMG UK which found that white women from lower socio-economic backgrounds had the slowest progression rate.

The finding is based on analysis by experts from the Bridge Group analysed the career paths of over 16,500 partners and employees at KPMG over a five-year period. The analysis found individuals from lower socio-economic backgrounds took on average 19% longer to progress to the next grade, when compared to those from higher socio-economic backgrounds.

According to the research, KPMG’s senior and junior colleagues are its most socio-economically diverse cohorts, but middle management grades are comparatively less diverse. It says this suggests those from a low socio-economic background face a bottleneck as they try to progress to middle-management roles.

However, as people became more senior, the trend reverses. Those from lower socio-economic backgrounds who were promoted from director to partner actually progressed more quickly, compared to higher socio-economic background.

Using the insight from the data, the firm is launching a targeted plan to review work allocation, enhance data insight into career progression and pilot a new promotion readiness programme designed to support individuals at a manager grade, who are from historically underrepresented groups and have been identified as ready for promotion in the near-term.

The findings were also compared to research carried out for the firm in 2018. It says this showed that initiatives and interventions the firm has put in place since 2018 to support historically underrepresented groups are working. It states that employees who are from an ethnic minority background or are women now progress faster than the average rate of progression, at 12% and 2% faster respectively (compared to 2% and 8% slower in 2018) and that there were no significant progression gaps relating to sexual orientation or disability. The progression gap for those from a lower socio-economic background had also improved, from 22% in 2018 to 19% in 2022.

The report also looked at intersectional barriers, for instance, finding that lower socio-economic background combined with being female and/or being from an ethnic minority background is associated with the slowest progression. It found that, if comparing the fastest progressing combination (Asian males from high socio-economic backgrounds) with the slowest (white females from low socio-economic backgrounds), the progression gap is 32%.

Nik Miller, Chief Executive at the Bridge Group, said: “Driving greater social equality is the defining societal and economic challenge of our time. There remains a proven link between someone’s social background and their educational and employment outcomes and social inequality is estimated to cost the UK £39 billion per year. It is exacerbating lower levels of productivity, poor mental health, and diminishing people’s life expectancy.

“Progression is one of the truest indicators of inclusion in an organisation, across all and any diversity characteristics. KPMG’s research is pioneering, and we commend the firm for its leading-edge approach. The more we can highlight and understand the impacts of socio-economic background, including how it affects progression, the more we can create more equal outcomes for all. Talent and productivity must always be the basis for hiring and progression, and certainly prioritised over background.”

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