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Social mobility and the City: does everyone get a fair chance with graduate recruiters?

A look at the effectiveness and the justice of graduate recruitment in the City
Application advice

What is social mobility and why should it matter to you? Social mobility is about your right to embark on the career path of your choice and progress as far as you want to, subject only to your abilities and ambitions. Whether your peers can do the same also affects you - organisations with a mix of people with different backgrounds and experiences function better, and offer their employees richer working lives.

However, Elitist Britain, a report published earlier this year by the Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission, states: "The sheer scale of the dominance of certain backgrounds [in influential and prestigious professional roles in the UK] raises questions about the degree to which the composition of the elite reflects merit."

"Access to top jobs and opportunities should not be dependent on where you come from," the report adds. We agree, so we're taking a look at City and business careers and social mobility in a series of articles: what the problems are, why they matter, and what employers are doing to combat them. In this article, the focus is on the first part of any career: recruitment.

What's going wrong

"The best people need to be in the best jobs; in a truly meritocratic society, employers recruit people on their aptitude, competence and potential for a certain role," says the Elitist Britain report.

But, says Lee Elliot Major of the Sutton Trust, an organisation that works to improve social mobility, graduate recruitment in the UK today is falling short of this ideal: "The evidence and research we've commissioned and that others have done [shows] that the barriers to social mobility are increasing. There's a huge amount of talent out there that we're not exploiting."

Both Lee and the Elitist Britain report identify not attending a highly-ranked university and not having access to careers information and assistance as factors unfairly holding some candidates back in the recruitment process.

Lawyer Chris White, who left his job in the City to found diversity organisation Aspiring Solicitors, experienced these kinds of difficulties when trying to get started on a legal career, being from a low income and non-professional family, state-educated, and someone not studying at a highly-ranked university.

"Through the application process I came across a number of barriers and discrimination," Chris says. However, while he encountered some direct prejudice against his background, he points out that barriers and discrimination in the City's graduate recruitment processes can also take the form of unconscious bias or practical limitations - for example, many employers lack the resources to target as many universities as they would like, so they concentrate on those at the top of the league tables and thereby miss some excellent potential candidates.

What the City is getting right

Efforts are being made, however, to ensure that top students and graduates from every background get the opportunities they deserve to start their careers in the City.

Social mobility organisations, including the Sutton Trust, run a number of programmes designed to encourage top students from all backgrounds to go for City graduate jobs. All university students interested in a career in law can join Aspiring Solicitors, which runs commercial awareness sessions, employer presentations, and networking events.

City employers are playing their part too. Many are targeting students from a wider range of universities than they did in the past. Some employers are working with the Sutton Trust, Aspiring Solicitors and other organisations to spread information about their graduate opportunities further, educate their recruiters about unconscious bias, and generally make their recruitment processes fairer.

It's also worth noting that City employers here have a better track record than those in the UK's other elite professional sectors on fair graduate recruitment processes in some respects, having generally never used unpaid internships extensively or required graduates to pay for essential postgraduate training themselves, two areas that were highlighted in Elitist Britain as particularly problematic in social mobility terms.

Show your potential and be proud of who you are

There are a few particularly interesting and encouraging steps being taken by City and business employers to make their recruitment processes fairer that you might encounter.

Some financial institutions and professional services firms, including global bank BNP Paribas and KMPG, are using online skills-based games as ways of engaging with and assessing the potential of students that might not have access to traditional recruitment channels and opportunities.

Meanwhile, in the legal sector, international law firm Clifford Chance is a good example of an employer moving firmly in the right direction in an innovative way, having recently won awards in the social mobility and graduate recruitment area from the Association of Graduate Recruiters and the Black Solicitors' Network.

Among other social mobility initiatives, all recruitment for graduate places at the firm is done on a CV-blind basis - that is, applicant CVs are not given to interviewers in advance in order to prevent them making snap judgements about applicants on the basis of their background, education, career history, or interests. The measure has received a lot of media attention and has been adopted by some other City law firms.

However, the firm does recognise that winning a place at a good university, getting high grades, work experience, and other achievements typically found on a CV are significant to recruitment decisions, says Laura Yeates, Graduate Recruitment and Development Manager at the firm.

"It's not that there are certain questions that are off-bounds [in an interview]," she says. "Rather, the individual candidate provides their own narrative of their particular strengths and experiences."

This approach hints at something you can do yourself to make sure recruiters give you a fair chance: have self-belief and the confidence to pursue what you think you're capable of achieving, even if you encounter setbacks. Chris offers this advice: "Be proud of who you are and don't let anybody tell you that because you're gay, because you're black, because you're state-educated that you're not as good as somebody else."

"The only two things that a potential employer should judge you on [are] your ability and your personality and if anybody says anything outside of that, don't listen to them because they're wrong."

Image: Ania Mendrek (