Professional accountancy can make a meaningful contribution to improving social mobility around the world – with public finance professionals playing a key role in helping to equalise opportunity.
By making opportunities available to all regardless of their background, removing artificial barriers and advocating improved social mobility within government, the profession can embed enabling of social mobility as a core reason for its existence. In so doing, it can build on and reshape its role in economies and societies that are undergoing dramatic change, are exposed to new risks and, in some cases, are dealing with the negative externalities of long-term practices that have made access to opportunities highly unequal.
For the accountancy profession, improving social mobility can go hand in hand with playing its role in building enduring and sustainable, inclusive economies. Through active engagement, accountancy can move beyond unrealised visions that are at odds with the systemic, complex nature of current challenges, and become a leader among the professions in demonstrating the value of improved social mobility in enhancing societal outcomes.
Addressing social mobility issues must not be an ineffective ‘add-on’ but be done in a way that is truly embedded into the profession’s future. It can strongly link to the technical and ethical components of the profession that set it apart and that, in today’s world, are more important than ever as globalisation and technological developments create ever more challenges. Some practical steps are suggested below.
5.1 Awareness: making the profession better known as a career choice
The survey results showed that individuals from higher SEBs are more likely to be influenced by their parents to join the profession. Therefore, there is a need to make the profession better known as a career choice among those who have not grown up among family and friends with professional qualifications or university degrees and those who live in areas that lack opportunities.
Increasing the number of people who study and qualify as professional accountants, whose parents did not go to university or have a professional qualification, means reaching beyond traditional networks and developed urban areas. It requires meaningful engagement with schools and career services to ensure that they are equipped with the information they need to present professional accountancy as a career option.
5.2 Removing barriers: making qualifications and employment opportunities more accessible
Survey respondents, particularly from the public sector, said that the ACCA qualification was accessible, but that there is still room for improvement, and the goal of accessibility needs to be adopted across the global profession. Making accountancy qualifications more accessible will require improving the degree of flexibility in learning and examinations to meet the education needs of current student cohorts. Flexible learning that is more digestible, more relevant and more targeted than traditional methods will continue to be demanded, alongside traditional practices. Increasingly flexible approaches allow individuals who may not previously have been able to access qualifications, owing to work or family commitments, to be able to study at their own pace and for a part of the qualification that is meaningful for them (ACCA 2018d).
For public sector organisations, barriers in the hiring processes must be lowered to remove biases that can affect the success of candidates. For example, while work experience may be valuable, some candidates may not have had the opportunity to take up a work experience position owing to their circumstances. The same applies to internships. Promotion must be handled in a similar fashion to avoid merely ‘hiring in the hirer’s image’. These activities make business sense and equip the organisation with the diversity of perspectives that are so necessary for today’s world.
5.3 Skills and the changing world of work: basic skills and lifelong learning
The ‘sticky floor’ of social mobility described in Section 2, subsection 2.1 i, can be exacerbated by the prevalence of poor basic numeracy and literacy. Volunteering to develop financial literacy skills in the community can be an important contribution by those professional accountants who have the opportunity of acting as role models for young people who may not have considered working in a profession.
Lifelong learning must remain a driving purpose behind professional accountancy qualifications. The world of work is changing, being driven not only by technology but also by other factors. Catering for a more diverse set of career opportunities – for example, environmental accounting, computational thinking and data analytics, broadens the usefulness of the accountancy profession and can help it become a career choice for those for whom it may not have seemed relevant previously.
5.4 Data: Greater data collection on the social diversity imperative
Understanding the issues that affect social mobility is one part of tackling it. For businesses and governments, making the case internally and externally requires evidence. Collecting more social diversity data from employees can help inform decision making and help improve social diversity within an organisation so that this can become a measurable part of strategic performance and a board-level issue.
Public sector finance professionals have an equally important role in collecting data, setting targets and measuring outcomes to help bring social mobility to the forefront of organisational thinking. Equal opportunity and diversity need to be built into government decision making and finance professionals in the public sector are often well placed to measure these factors and champion social mobility as a priority.
Figure 5.1: Tangible steps for public sector finance and accountancy professionals