Why the City isn’t fair

The allocation of the City of London’s ‘top job’ remains both highly exclusive and arguably unfair, says Louise Ashley in her new book ‘Highly Discriminating: Why the City Isn’t Fair and Diversity Doesn’t Work’.

A senior lecturer at Queen Mary University of London, Ashley, believes and the current diversity agendas ostensibly aimed at rectifying this situation do not work either, and that the opening up of access has had limited effect and has just legitimised a situation where a narrow group continue to be rewarded. And, she is including the big accountancy firms here.

She says that over the last 40 years the City’s recruitment practices and associated narratives have helped sustain an impression that appointments take place on the basis of ‘merit’. She states for her this is just not the case.

Looking at the recruitment process she see’s many of the City employers going back to the same old set of universities (Russell Group) and insisting on at least a 2.1. But as one top recruiter admitted: “It was typically felt that unless you had a 2:1, you wouldn’t be intellectually or academically robust in a profession or in an investment banking arena to learn and develop and have the strength of rigour academically to progress in that environment. In reality I’m not sure that was ever proven to be the case, so in HR I felt it was a tool to just narrow down the numbers. We did have some people with 2:2s – there was no difference in their performance.”

It has also meant that despite accountancy firms continually emphasising they are building and communicating a unique brand, accountants and consultants at competitor firms seem increasing  to look alike!

The problem is, Ashley explains, for people to move up others have to move down. Creating a fluid society means on top of offering support to disadvantaged groups you have to weaken the entrenched positions of the most advantaged classes. Organisations simply sharing middle class culture with a wider group doesn’t create that fluidity. It just means working class people have to ‘pass’ as middle class.

Social mobility programmes can have life-changing effects on those involved. However, following what is a relatively benign introduction to City Life, participants often encounter a different set of experiences during mainstream graduate recruitment processes, Ashley ventured. Meaning that what firms say about diversity is a considerable distance from what they do!