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Why Paragon is a founder member of Progress Together

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Paragon Bank is proud to be a founder member of Progress Together, the new, nationwide membership body focused on improving socio-economic diversity at senior levels in the financial services sector.

We spoke to Richard Rowntree, Paragon Managing Director of Mortgages and the Bank’s representative at the body, about why the company has signed up and why broader representation at senior levels is so important.

Why has Paragon Bank signed up to Progress Together?

We believe organisations are stronger if they are comprised of individuals from a range of backgrounds. A broader spectrum of views, experiences and inputs results in a more balanced, focused and positive business.

However, the evidence shows that today 89% of senior roles in financial services are held by people from higher socio-economic backgrounds, compared with 37% across the UK working population.

In addition, employees from lower socio-economic backgrounds progress 25% slower than peers within financial services, with no link to performance, plus the pay gap is the largest in any sector.

That clearly needs to change.

What do you hope the membership body will achieve?

The clear aim of the membership body is to address this imbalance, understand why it is occurring and remove some of the barriers for those people from households with parents in non-professional jobs to achieve senior roles within financial services firms.

People from lower socio-economic backgrounds are 30% less likely to be working at a senior level compared with those who grew up with parents in professional occupations.

We want the body to support talented people and encourage greater levels of socio-economic diversity, levelling the playing field for all in the sector. We want to create more opportunity for all to succeed, based on ability, not background.

What will the outputs of the Progress Together look like?

The body will enable an industry consultation and roadmap on how Government, regulators and sector bodies can incentivise employer action on socio-economic diversity at senior levels across UK financial and professional services.

It also provides a peer network for financial services employers which is a safe space to share best practice and benchmark against sector peers on socio-economic diversity at senior levels.

What does it mean to you personally?

I grew up in a household where my parents weren’t professionals. It was a very happy home and we were by no means on the breadline, but we weren’t privileged and there was no automatic route to a senior level career.

We have so many talented people being overlooked in our communities and so much energy is lost in people hiding who they are which could be spent on growing careers. That is such a waste of talent in this country and good people should be nurtured and supported to progress, regardless of their background.

My role as a leader is to create the conditions for people to reach their potential and that is something I have strived to do throughout my career. I feel an obligation to widen the gate. We don’t need rags to riches stories but we do need authentic and open storytelling that resonates and inspires.

What is Paragon doing to improve socio-economic diversity at a senior level?

Our starting point has been to understand our baseline of where we are today.  We ran a data capture campaign last year and asked employees to provide information regarding the occupation of their parents at the age of 14, and the type of school they attended between the ages of 11-16.  This data is now allowing us to track whether our employees from lower socio-economic groups have access to the same opportunities as everyone else.

We launched our Equality, Diversity and Inclusion network in 2020 with the aim of changing perceptions and breaking down barriers, as well as raising awareness and understanding of EDI in the workplace.   One of the most powerful ways we have done this is through people, including me, telling their own stories about the challenges they’ve faced and how they’ve overcome these.

On a more practical level, we have widened the number of colleges and universities we work with to attract entry level talent so that we can tap into talent from a broader mix of communities.  We have also introduced greater flexibility into our working patterns to enable people to progress without presenteeism.  We are also planning to broaden our involvement in a cross company mentoring programme that we are already part of to help improve gender diversity to a wider group of people, including those from lower socio-economic backgrounds. 

What advice would you give to somebody from a non-professional background seeking to build a career in financial services?

My main piece of advice would be to focus on the culture of an organisation, make it a big factor in where you offer your skills. Don’t settle if there is a poor or outdated approach to diversity and inclusion, vote with your feet.

Also, don’t be afraid of hard work. If working harder than your peers to get ahead troubles you then you are in for a hard ride. Equally, don’t let imposter syndrome hold you back. Everyone has it, it’s just that some people are better at hiding it.

We all need a bit of luck and for me that usually comes in the form of a mentor or boss that sees your potential. Early in your career you are going to make more mistakes and have more failings. Having someone turn these into learning opportunities for you is vital.

Finally, be curious and keep a lifelong openness to learning.

Vist the Progress Together website to learn more about the organisation.