People working within EA roles have the power to enact social mobility, explains Toni Kent

“Toni, that is not how you sort out timesheets!”

That’s my first ever manager, Denise, explaining to the nineteen-year-old me that sitting cross-legged on the floor of Reed Employment in Reading, England, surrounded by paperwork and payslips, was most certainly not the correct way to conduct yourself in a professional workplace.

As someone who had grown up in a family where no one had an ‘office job’ and women most certainly didn’t have careers, my reaction to administrative overwhelm was to revert to how I would have organised myself in the overcrowded house I grew up in. When you don’t have a dedicated place to study, it’s easier to clear a space on the floor.

Writing this today, I’m sitting at a beautiful desk in a house that I own. One in which my children experience none of the disadvantages of my earliest days and all the opportunity that comes with a financially stable household.

This is the story of the power of the Executive Assistant to enact social mobility – and why it still matters today.

Community, Convenience and Council Estates

If you were to categorise my background, you’d say I was of ‘working-class’ stock. We lived on a large council estate that was designed to provide community and convenience for families who were mostly relocated from London during the post-war boom years of social housing.

My parents did manual work. As did their parents, and their parents before them. I’m from a long line of labourers, laboratory packers and low-income workers. How was I supposed to know how to operate in the professional world? The death of my dad, when I was a teenager, turned my world upside-down and heaped additional financial and social disadvantages upon an already stressed household. Bearing witness to the struggles faced by my mum as a single parent, and those of friends in a similar position, I didn’t know what I wanted out of life except that I wanted out.

The Right Models at the Right Time

Role models for the route I wanted to take were in short supply – women were expected to take part-time work, not be breadwinners. If it wasn’t for Denise guiding me through those earliest moments and the inspiring, ambitious women she employed, the story could have been very different.

Fast forward 30 years and following a career that took me from that first Branch Administrator role to supporting leadership teams across the logistics and technology worlds before becoming a leader myself – I have experienced a level of social mobility that, according to the Institute for Fiscal Studies, would normally take five generations to achieve.

Why Social Mobility Matters to the C-Suite

The topic of social mobility – that is, the ability for an individual to improve their socio-economic status relative to that of their parents or within their own lifetime – is rapidly rising up the C-Suite agenda. Leaders acknowledge that a lack of socio-economic diversity can be bad for business in ways that include:

  • Narrow recruitment practices leading to a restricted talent pool
  • Groupthink which creates unintentional bias and focusing on ‘fit’
  • Failure to meet Environmental, Social and Governance (ESG) targets in competitive bids (many procurement bids now require a minimum of 10% weighting on this factor)

In the UK, visible steps forward include The City of London’s task force to solve the issue at senior levels within the Financial and Professional Services sector and major law firms focusing on bringing more people in via Solicitor Apprenticeships. From leading a boardroom to being ‘called to the bar’, the argument for better representation is stronger than ever.

Following the Leaders

Alongside the big hitters, there are campaigns to widen participation in the creative sector, which is worth a whopping £109bn to the UK economy. Take ERIC – led by two phenomenal young women who are making the creative industries more accessible to people from lower socio-economic backgrounds (and improving the talent pipeline for companies in the sector) via outreach and an app that challenges old-fashioned and elitist narratives.

There are also organisations such as Not Going to Uni that connect employers to talented young people for whom university is inaccessible, unaffordable or undesirable. Once again, this helps to solve the talent shortage for businesses ranging from Royal Mail to the RAF and all manner of household names in between.

Finally, businesses of all stripes are taking the Social Mobility Pledge – co-founded by Rt Hon. Justine Greening in 2018 with entrepreneur David Harrison, it is now the UK’s largest social mobility campaign with more than 700 organisations signed up to making their recruitment processes fairer.

Countering a Common Question

For those who remember the wholesale rebuilding of towns, and investments that raised the living standards of entire communities, it is tempting to believe that low social mobility is a result of people not working hard enough. Headlines that sensationalise the struggles of low-income families for the purposes of entertainment serve to distract us from the hardships many people face and forget that, in all of this, there are young people paying the price simply by virtue of where they were born.

The truth is that decades of funding cuts, economic instability and the ongoing impact of the pandemic means that social mobility has got progressively harder. Recent research shows the UK has one of the lowest social mobility rates in the developed world. It’s for this reason that those who put their hands up for an opportunity need to be welcomed with open arms – not pushed away for having the ‘wrong’ accent, background or clothes.

And, once we’ve welcomed them, the work to ensure equity must continue: a study by the Department for Opportunities found that working class people in professional/managerial roles earn 13% less per annum than peers from more privileged backgrounds.

Why EAs Are Well Placed to Drive Change

In my work as a Keynote Speaker with organisations that include some of the largest financial services, technology and law firms in the UK, one thing that is striking is the socio-economic distribution of staff. It is not uncommon to encounter a business where fee earners or executive teams come not just from the same universities, but the same colleges within Oxford or Cambridge. Conversely, Business Support staff are more likely to hail from less privileged backgrounds and to represent a wider range of socio-economic experiences.

Given this, it’s my belief and experience that people working within EA roles are perfectly positioned to provide leadership on how to best identify the challenges, and opportunities, that exist around improving their organisation’s socio-economic diversity.

Why EAs Are in the Best Position to Lead

In sitting on a recent EA awards judging panel where we were tasked with selecting the Diversity Champion, I was reminded of why it is so often a member of the EA community that is entrusted with championing ED&I (Equity, Diversity and Inclusion) efforts. Frankly, they are more likely to represent the community that the ED&I programme is designed to support. For ED&I to be successful, you need people with lived experience leading the charge.

Getting Started

If this strikes a chord, there is so much you can do to support your organisation in becoming a leader in social mobility. And, because we know that for all the great stories, we need data too, I’ve provided resources to help demonstrate the business value in investing time and money in social mobility programmes and networks.


Read McKinsey’s excellent piece on the business value of socio-economic diversity. Also read the foreword in the Social Mobility Commission’s State of the Nation report, which demonstrates how social mobility intersects with other characteristics such as race, gender, disability and sexuality. A focus on social mobility will help your other ED&I efforts.


Tell your employees why this matters to the organisation and how you plan to map your socio-economic data. Reassure them that it will be treated confidentially and ask for feedback.


People can (rightly) be nervous to disclose if they are from a lower socio-economic background. Many people in professional organisations will have ‘masked’ their background based on historic bias. Make sure you have time for a round of feedback.


Do you have a senior leader with a social mobility story to tell? This is one of the single most powerful things you can do to reassure staff that they are safe to share their experiences.


The Social Mobility Commissions Cross-Industry Toolkit will walk you through the steps necessary with best practice examples.

Executive Support

Throughout my career I’ve had the privilege to be mentored and offered support by some incredible executives. My time spent working alongside senior leaders gave me an inside knowledge of how business gets done, the ability to operate at the highest levels and a network that would have been unimaginable to the teenage me being reprimanded for sitting on the floor.

If I reflect on those who had the greatest impact, it’s the people who saw the indicators of the potential that I had – not the background that I came from. More people deserve this opportunity.


Institute for Fiscal Studies:

Social Mobility Definition:

City of London Task Force:

Solicitor Apprenticeships:

Value of Creative Industries:,the%20UK%20economy%20in%202021.


Not Going to Uni:

Social Mobility Pledge:

UK Social Mobility Rates:

Working Class Pay Gap:,in%20every%20seven%20for%20free.

McKinsey – Business Value of Social Mobility:

Social Mobility Commission State of the Nation Report:

Social Mobility Commission Cross-Industry Toolkit:

Toni Kent is a keynote speaker, stand-up, writer and podcast host who specialises in social mobility. She is trusted by organisations across the UK to deliver empowering, humorous talks on why social mobility is important, breaking cycles and embracing ... (Read More)

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