Inching towards consensus on social mobility

A cross-party report describes Britain's failure to offer children reliable routes out of poverty bu

An intriguing parliamentary report was published this week. No, not that one.  Another one. Given the competition from the Media Select Committee’s agenda-hogging inquiry into malfeasant News International executives, the interim report of the All-Party Working Group on Social Mobility was unlikely to steal the headlines. It has nonetheless been reported in a few places and is worth a look.

The group was established last year to investigate why Britain seems so bad at providing reliable avenues for children from poorer backgrounds to get on in life. And the UK record on that front really is appalling, among the worst in the OECD group of industrialised countries. By some measures, British children’s future prospects are more firmly tethered by their parents’ income than their peers in the US, France, Italy, Germany, Spain, Denmark, Australia, Canada ... More dispiriting still, the situation appears to be getting worse. Today’s 40-somethings have progressed, as a cohort, less than the generation that preceded them. The life chances of children born today look substantially pre-determined by the circumstances of their birth. There are exceptions, of course, and tales of heroic - or mundane - emancipation from difficult circumstances. The point that the report makes, largely by aggregating data from a range of wider surveys, is that the pattern is soul-sapping immobility.

It is just an interim report, with wider conclusions due later in the year. The current document generally limits itself to the task of defining social mobility (not straightforward, since one generation superseding the last is a different business to one child out-performing his or her parents) and hinting at some of the areas where policy can intervene. It is framed as “Seven Key Truths about Social Mobility”. Inevitably, education is identified as the dominant theme and, specifically, the need to examine how the hold that private education has on top university places is really an expression of those schools’ capacity to churn out higher rates of top A-level grades. Once at university, state educated children with lower grades promptly catch up with or overtake their multiple-A-starred peers. There is also a heavy emphasis on intervention in the early years of children’s development, which ample research has shown to be the most effective way to influence life chances.  

There is always the risk in these reports of surrender to platitude and well-meaning abstraction. Naturally, everyone wants all children to get the best start in life. No-one celebrates entrenched cultural and institutional barriers to advancement. No-one advocates complacency or low aspiration. The group will go on to look at other factors affecting social mobility - “higher education and the role of contextual admissions; careers advice, mentoring, role models; enterprise; geography; disability, gender and ethnicity ...”  Conspicuously absent is any consideration of the impact of the current fiscal settlement on incomes, access to services etc. The distributional effects of austerity policies are hard to ignore in a discussion of future social mobility and practically impossible to debate in a parliamentary context without falling behind party lines. Likewise, the interim report contains only a brief and slightly squeamish reference to inequality:

Though they are clearly not the same thing, there is a recognised correlation between developed countries with high levels of mobility and high levels of income equality. Although it is hard to determine causality, there are a number of plausible reasons why high inequality reduces social mobility.

Indeed there are. But the ensuing conversation about potential remedies leads down a path so fraught with ideological and partisan passions that an all-party group scarcely dares tread there.

Given those limitations, the report and the group’s chairman Conservative MP Damian Hinds deserve credit for establishing some common ground on which an urgent debate should follow. The seven truths are:

1. The point of greatest leverage for social mobility is what happens between 0 and 3, primarily in the home

2. You can also break the cycle through education…

3. …the most important controllable factor being the quality of your teaching

4. But it’s also about what happens after the school bell rings

5. University is the top determinant of later opportunities – so pre-18 attainment is key

6. But later pathways to mobility are possible, given the will and support

7. Personal resilience and emotional wellbeing are the missing link in the chain

Each is fleshed out with supporting data and analysis. The full report is here.

 

British society is among the least mobile in the developed world

Rafael Behr is political columnist at the Guardian and former political editor of the New Statesman

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Harmful gender stereotypes in ads have real impact – so we're challenging them

The ASA must make sure future generations don't recoil at our commercials.

July’s been quite the month for gender in the news. From Jodie Whittaker’s casting in Doctor Who, to trains “so simple even women can drive them”, to how much the Beeb pays its female talent, gender issues have dominated. 

You might think it was an appropriate time for the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) to launch our own contribution to the debate, Depictions, Perceptions and Harm: a report on gender stereotypes in advertising, the result of more than a year’s careful scrutiny of the evidence base.

Our report makes the case that, while most ads (and the businesses behind them) are getting it right when it comes to avoiding damaging gender stereotypes, the evidence suggests that some could do with reigning it in a little. Specifically, it argues that some ads can contribute to real world harms in the way they portray gender roles and characteristics.

We’re not talking here about ads that show a woman doing the cleaning or a man the DIY. It would be most odd if advertisers couldn’t depict a woman doing the family shop or a man mowing the lawn. Ads cannot be divorced from reality.

What we’re talking about is ads that go significantly further by, for example, suggesting through their content and context that it’s a mum’s sole duty to tidy up after her family, who’ve just trashed the house. Or that an activity or career is inappropriate for a girl because it’s the preserve of men. Or that boys are not “proper” boys if they’re not strong and stoical. Or that men are hopeless at simple parental or household tasks because they’re, well...men.

Advertising is only a small contributor to gender stereotyping, but a contributor it is. And there’s ever greater recognition of the harms that can result from gender stereotyping. Put simply, gender stereotypes can lead us to have a narrower sense of ourselves – how we can behave, who we can be, the opportunities we can take, the decisions we can make. And they can lead other people to have a narrower sense of us too. 

That can affect individuals, whatever their gender. It can affect the economy: we have a shortage of engineers in this country, in part, says the UK’s National Academy of Engineering, because many women don’t see it as a career for them. And it can affect our society as a whole.

Many businesses get this already. A few weeks ago, UN Women and Unilever announced the global launch of Unstereotype Alliance, with some of the world’s biggest companies, including Proctor & Gamble, Mars, Diageo, Facebook and Google signing up. Advertising agencies like JWT and UM have very recently published their own research, further shining the spotlight on gender stereotyping in advertising. 

At the ASA, we see our UK work as a complement to an increasingly global response to the issue. And we’re doing it with broad support from the UK advertising industry: the Committees of Advertising Practice (CAP) – the industry bodies which author the UK Advertising Codes that we administer – have been very closely involved in our work and will now flesh out the standards we need to help advertisers stay on the right side of the line.

Needless to say, our report has attracted a fair amount of comment. And commentators have made some interesting and important arguments. Take my “ads cannot be divorced from reality” point above. Clearly we – the UK advertising regulator - must take into account the way things are, but what should we do if, for example, an ad is reflecting a part of society as it is now, but that part is not fair and equal? 

The ad might simply be mirroring the way things are, but at a time when many people in our society, including through public policy and equality laws, are trying to mould it into something different. If we reign in the more extreme examples, are we being social engineers? Or are we simply taking a small step in redressing the imbalance in a society where the drip, drip, drip of gender stereotyping over many years has, itself, been social engineering. And social engineering which, ironically, has left us with too few engineers.

Read more: Why new rules on gender stereotyping in ads benefit men, too

The report gave news outlets a chance to run plenty of well-known ads from yesteryear. Fairy Liquid, Shake 'n' Vac and some real “even a woman can open it”-type horrors from decades ago. For some, that was an opportunity to make the point that ads really were sexist back then, but everything’s fine on the gender stereotyping front today. That argument shows a real lack of imagination. 

History has not stopped. If we’re looking back at ads of 50 years ago and marvelling at how we thought they were OK back then, despite knowing they were products of their time, won’t our children and grandchildren be doing exactly the same thing in 50 years’ time? What “norms” now will seem antiquated and unpleasant in the future? We think the evidence points to some portrayals of gender roles and characteristics being precisely such norms, excused by some today on the basis that that’s just the way it is.

Our report signals that change is coming. CAP will now work on the standards so we can pin down the rules and official guidance. We don’t want to catch advertisers out, so we and CAP will work hard to provide as much advice and training as we can, so they can get their ads right in the first place. And from next year, we at the ASA will make sure those standards are followed, taking care that our regulation is balanced and wholly respectful of the public’s desire to continue to see creative ads that are relevant, entertaining and informative. 

You won’t see a sea-change in the ads that appear, but we hope to smooth some of the rougher edges. This is a small but important step in making sure modern society is better represented in ads.

Guy Parker is CEO of the ASA