Socioeconomic Inequality and Diverse Leadership

While gender and cultural diversity are on the rise, also at top level in business and politics, there are other ‘less visible’ dimensions of diversity. Equally important as they are, these might be overlooked. We are referring to socioeconomic inequality, a phenomenon that isn’t measured by an arbitrary income nor a neat divide. There is a certain naïve optimism as regards such a divide: once crossed the line, all will be fine. But such is not the case, and the explanation is to be found in what socioeconomic inequality really means: the distances between the relative positions occupied by the various segments of society. The visible and invisible rope ladders.

Societies are ecosystems in their own right. There is movement, change, and today’s status quo is only a moment in time. If differences in opportunities increase and chances for socio-economic mobility decrease, this might lead towards a scenario in which leadership positions are only for the happy few, i.e., those from a privileged socioeconomic environment. This, as a consequence, may cause a more narrow perspective, due to the nature of homogeneity.

What’s at stake? Recently also the Dutch media paid attention to the corona school closings. The key question was how this affected the young. One quite alarming aspect stood out: closings amplified opportunity inequality. When following online lessons became the new normal, differences between families in terms of (financial) resources, time available, language proficiency and familiarity with the teaching materials, widened the gap between the ‘many and the little opportunities’ children.

Another aspect is the school advice that children get when they switch from elementary to high school. This practice seems not to be beneficial to all and perhaps even counterproductive in the long run. It should be noted that concerns have been voiced before, because children from more socioeconomically privileged families would get the benefit of the doubt, whereas children of the less privileged would need to prove their grades and abilities even more. We all know that education matters. It is the most important means to climb the socioeconomic ladder. Therefore, the aforementioned tendency to underrate, reduces the opportunities for upward mobility.

Socioeconomic environment goes hand in hand with the opportunities, resources and experiences that one has in life. Being in a leadership position is considered to coincide, both historically and nowadays, with a privileged socioeconomic environment. However, it is not only the current environment that matters. Socialization processes take considerable time and the nature and nurture parts of a personality are formed and merged mainly during childhood and adolescence. As can be expected, the socioeconomic environment of the younger years has been found to have a lifelong impact. Various studies show that socioeconomic background has its impact on worldview as well as decision making. This process of making choices is influenced through two mechanisms: by shaping one’s preferences and by the formation of the mental frameworks being used to consider the available opportunities and chances of certain outcomes. Hence, it could be argued that a decrease in socioeconomic diversity in leadership positions, as a result of decreased upward socioeconomic mobility, has the potential of detrimental effects of policy and decision making in our society.

If socioeconomic diversity diminishes amongst those in leadership positions, this could cause more homogenous decision making, which fails to lean on different views and potentially leads to reduced decision quality. Let’s not forget that it is in not being equal to one another, that we are a society. We are not ‘the same’. We share our human strengths and weaknesses, and by embracing our differences we can empower each other for the better. It is therefore meaningful to have a broad take on diversity and to also consider dimensions of diversity that are not instantly visible. When socioeconomic diversity in leadership falls short, fresh ideas, perspectives, and new variations to a theme might not be voiced. In a time that asks for wisdom, creativity, perseverance and care, especially from those in leadership, it would be a breakdown of opportunity.


Lisanne Veter (PhD candidate at Erasmus Governance Institute and Program Director of  Masterclass ‘De Waarde(n) van Diversiteit’)

We Trust. We Share. We Build.

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