Too working-class for a career in TV?

Too working-class for a career in TV?

By Ashling O’Connor,
Wednesday, 1st February 2023
Progress? The Frost Report sketch featuring John Cleese, Ronnie Barker and Ronnie Corbett in 1966 (Credit: ITV)
Progress? The Frost Report sketch featuring John Cleese, Ronnie Barker and Ronnie Corbett in 1966 (Credit: ITV)
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Ashling O’Connor examines broadcasters’ efforts to recruit and retain staff from a wider socio-economic base.

Leadership teams are more diverse than ever, but are they any less elite? While the focus has been on visible diversity – rightly so, as underrepresentation persists – an increasing priority for organisations in terms of diversity, equality and inclusion (DE&I) is the socio-economic ­background of their employees.

In media and entertainment, this is a particular challenge. The only professions more socially exclusive than media are medicine and the law. While the appointment of more women and people from ethnic minority backgrounds has increased the diversity of many leadership teams, progress could be curtailed if recruits are drawn from similar social strata and academic institutions.

Ofcom’s most recent annual assessment on equality, diversity and inclusion in television and radio, published in November 2022, concluded that more must be done to attract and retain talent from lower income groups. For example, the report found that 13% of employees in the sector attended private school, compared with the UK benchmark of 7%.

These figures come as no surprise to Marcia Williams, appointed last year as Channel 4’s first director of inclusion. She believes that, as an industry, the primary focus on diversity, rather than on inclusivity, can lead to too much concern with appearances.

“The real goal is to persuade the people we want to attract that we are genuinely serious about it, we have an environment in which they will thrive and their expertise will be valued,” she says. “After years of short-term, programmatic initiatives, many no longer believe us as an industry.”

‘[It is] about moving from diversity and representation to inclusion’

A key metric used to track socio-economic diversity is whether, when a person was 14, their parents were in a professional occupation. But, while such data is an important way of understanding what is working and what isn’t, metrics are not a silver bullet. For a start, they rely on voluntary disclosure — not something everyone is comfortable providing.

At Channel 4, where regard for diverse audiences is a statutory obligation, non-disclosure of class or social origin is much higher than for protected characteristics, such as race. “There’s a lot of complexity associated with feelings about that,” says Chief Executive Alex Mahon. “Some might not want to reference where they came from. People don’t necessarily see it as part of their identity that goes with them [through] their whole lives. Sometimes, there is an aspiration to change that.”

She believes that changing the culture of an organisation to make it more inclusive should be as important as accelerating the proportion of a workforce defined as socially diverse — because retention is more than half the battle. Having overcome the hurdles to entry, the data suggests that social exclusivity increases with seniority.

“People from lower socio-economic backgrounds end up leaving in far higher numbers because they feel they don’t fit,” says Mahon. “Television has a culture of sponsorship [involving] people who are socially familiar and have a set of behavioural codes – like wearing the same trainers, going to Soho House, sending their kids to private school. That’s perfectly fine but you shouldn’t act [as if] that’s the correct way, as people who aren’t like that feel like they can never belong. They feel they will never overcome that gap between who they really are and who those other people are. To them, this feels impossible – and so they quit.”

So, what are broadcasters doing?

The first step is measurement. ITV has published a Diversity Acceleration Plan, which includes a new target to increase the proportion of colleagues from working-class backgrounds to 33% by 2025. ITV was also the first FTSE 100 company to have a dedicated group director of diversity, Ade Rawcliffe, on its executive board, something in which CEO Carolyn McCall takes great pride. “The conversation has definitely broadened and changed as a result of having her on the board,” she says.

The publicly funded BBC is under more pressure, as Director­General Tim Davie is all too aware. It is the first UK broadcaster to measure and publish data on the socio-economic diversity of its staff, and is the only media organisation listed in the top 50 of the Social Mobility Employer Index.

The corporation has also increasingly prioritised its MediaCityUK studios in Salford, now home to about 2,700 staff. “Socio-economic diversity is an incredibly powerful resource for talent and leadership,” says Davie. “Today’s hires are tomorrow’s CEOs, and, from entry level to the executive board, socio-economic diversity brings a vital perspective. Only when this is fully reflected throughout organisations can we give everyone the chance to reach their full potential.”

Channel 4, meanwhile, opened a national headquarters in Leeds in 2019, followed by regional hubs in ­Glasgow and Bristol, alongside its ­existing office in Manchester; 26% of its 1,200-plus staff are now based outside London. As well as banning work placements from family and friends, its 4Skills programme invests £5m a year to create more than 15,000 training, learning and development opportunities annually. The proportion of staff defined as “socially mobile” has risen from 34% in 2016 to 40% in 2022.

‘People from lower socio-economic backgrounds end up leaving in far higher numbers’

Like every diversity metric, social mobility does not stand alone. There are many points of interconnectedness, and this is a key priority at ITV, where its five DE&I groups come together to share and learn. “We don’t have a set [single network] for social mobility, because, in each area of diversity, there are elements of social mobility,” argues McCall. Initiatives include matching senior leaders from minority ethnic groups with sponsors on the Management Board and the Board of Directors. In turn, these senior leaders sponsor someone on the government’s Kickstart scheme for young people on universal credit (now closed to new applicants). The CEO mentors a senior leader on this programme.

“The big thing for us will be going back five years to monitor how many senior leaders and Kickstarters actually stayed,” she says. “A lot of people come into organisations in media and say: ‘It’s not for us; not my people; I don’t feel included.’ Inclusion is a big part of retention and we’ve worked really hard at that.”

There is, and will always be, more to do. While leadership teams must look diverse, change must go deeper to make it stick.

“The most cutting-edge work in this sector is about moving from diversity and representation to inclusion,” says Mahon. “The big focus now is: what does true inclusion look like in the workplace and as a leadership skill set? How do you draw out all the voices in the room, ensuring recognition of potential in your staff – rather than observation of potential? You don’t get the full contribution from each employee if they are not bringing their whole selves to work.”

From more meritocratic, entry-level applications to intentional recruitment of senior executives who do not fit the mould, change is happening. The leaders we spoke to know that management teams that better reflect their consumers will be more successful and avoid groupthink.

“People need to see the whole of society represented, not just one aspect. And I think that means working class as well as disability and ethnicity,” McCall concludes. “It’s the whole range of difference. It is much better for business.”

Ashling O’Connor is a consultant in Spencer Stuart’s Technology, Media, Telecommunications & Services Practice (email).