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Breaking the socio-economic barriers to joining the Civil Service

Saffron Passam, a researcher from Aberystwyth University, discusses a collaborative relationship with Joanne Hopkins, chair of the Home Office Women’s Network and senior sponsor to the Gender Equality Network, whose role includes responding to the priorities of gender, diversity, and inclusion matters. In a joint project, they seek to develop a better understanding of the barriers facing female graduates from lower socio-economic backgrounds who may aspire to progress within the Civil Service.

Higher education has long represented an opportunity for upward mobility, considered an escape route from restricted occupations. But a graduate’s background is also acknowledged to impact where, and how, they enter the workforce, irrespective of their efforts and ability.

This issue is topical for the Home Office and across the Civil Service. Recent publications have highlighted that people from the poorest backgrounds are under-represented in the Civil Service Fast Stream programme. Similarly, the Sutton Trust  showed that only 23% of senior Civil Service employees attended a comprehensive school, and 7% attended universities outside of the top 30. These figures indicate a huge range of untapped skills and experience.

My research specialism takes a psychological approach to employability, investigating the strategic actions that undergraduate students take towards a future goal of becoming employable – with a specific focus on how people regulate their learning using cognitive behaviours like planning and problem solving.

These actions alone do not guarantee success, since we will all be familiar with people, even ourselves maybe, who are bright, articulate, and determined, but yet do not achieve their goals. This is where our identity is instrumental. Many psychologists think that people adopt multiple identities, and in doing so adhere to sets of beliefs and values which are influenced by the different social groups that we belong to. This means that whilst we may be performing actions in one role, for example within a professional occupation, this identity will interact with our other roles, perhaps being a mother.

But crucially, we know that aspirations are intertwined with the identities available with our social environment, which can both grow and restrict our capacity to achieve goals.

Those from lower socio-economic backgrounds tend to have lower career aspirations, may have differences in decision-making behaviour, and may underestimate their capacity to achieve goals, all irrespective of their academic performance. Furthermore, particular identity challenges are shown for those who do move outside of their social group, who may face tension or devaluation from their home communities and support systems. 

In response to these issues, earlier in the year I spoke to several groups of female undergraduate students about their career aspirations. All were identified as from lower socio-economic backgrounds using a selection of criteria. These women are articulate and educated, but they do not plan to work within the Civil Service. Through listening to their experiences, the analysis will highlight the nuanced barriers expressed by the groups. Later in the summer, I will repeat the exercise with employees of the Home Office.

The results will then be presented to women attending Aberystwyth Summer University and AberForward employability programmes. This will provide an opportunity for reflective engagement, allowing a grassroots approach to recommendations for future interventions.

Ultimately, this research hopes that, by listening to the voices of these women, more understanding can be gained about the barriers to progression. This will highlight optimal ways to shape our organisations and hopefully increase the numbers of women from disadvantaged backgrounds joining the Civil Service, ensuring that the expertise and potential of these women is utilized to meet the challenges of the future.


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