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Social Mobility Is One Of The Best Investments Banks Can Make

03/10/2016 10:03

Rarely has the old phrase 'if the shoe fits wear it' seemed so apt. The Social Mobility Commission report into the socio-economic backgrounds of investment bankers simply served to reinforce the image of the industry as a bastion of entrenched privilege and old boys' networks only recruiting those with the right school tie.

It showed that while only 11% of UK children attend a selective school and 7% fee-paying schools, 34% of new entrants into investment banking over the previous three years had attended a fee-paying school and 14% had attended a selective state school.

And in some ways the situation is getting worse, since not only are 51% of current leaders privately educated, but privately educated leaders are more prominent in the under 45s (at 72%) than the over 55s (at 57%).

Nor does it seem that there is sufficient will in investment banking to change this. The eye-catching headline was that some investment bankers won't hire those who wear brown shoes, but this is just one manifestation of seemingly deep-seated prejudices where people are judged more on their accent, speech, behaviour and other indicators of their social class than their true skills and potential.

This damages not just individuals but also wider society and even the banks themselves, with some bankers interviewed for the report acknowledging that a homogenous workforce can engender dangerous 'group think', which may have been one of the causes of the financial crisis.

But we should be honest and acknowledge that preconceptions can work both ways. Yes, investment bankers might be reluctant to hire new recruits from different backgrounds more through lack of understanding than a conscious decision to shut them out. But many young people are put off applying to the industry in the first place because of the belief that it's just not for 'people like them'. The report finds evidence that many young people choose not to apply because they don't feel they're what the employer is looking for, and lack the confidence, knowledge and networks to navigate the more informal codes of etiquette and connections still part and parcel of the process. This is often the case even if they can brandish a top degree from one of the selective universities where investment banks concentrate their recruitment efforts.

The focus on a narrow range of universities is actually a large part of the problem, as they are disproportionately populated by richer students. Whilst it's true that disadvantaged students are more likely than ever before to go to university they're still six times less likely to go to the more selective institutions than their more privileged peers. The reason for this is largely attainment.

But lack of information and aspiration plays an important role too. The recent UCAS report on perceptions of higher education found that 77% of disadvantaged young people thought that people at university were from wealthier backgrounds than them, but also that they would be more likely to apply if universities were more transparent.

While progress in widening participation at some universities is painfully slow, those places it is happening fastest are where outreach teams are focusing on explaining the whole student experience as much as just the academic side in their work with disadvantaged students. This means not just helping with filling out a UCAS form or attending mock lectures but introducing them to others from similar backgrounds at summer schools, or connecting them with current undergraduates who can not only help them decipher the information they might find in prospectuses, but can also give them tips they won't find there, emotional support and insight from their own personal experience as well. In doing so they demystify higher education for young people who otherwise might find it as arcane as investment banking dress codes if they're the first in their family to consider university.

There is much that the investment banking industry could learn from the universities with the most effective outreach. Mentoring schemes such as J.P Morgan's 'Aspiring Professionals' scheme with Social Mobility Foundation are rightly cited by the Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission as examples of good practice.

Mentoring provides young people with the contacts and social capital normally only available to those who can afford to do an internship in London - something quite simply out of the geographical and financial reach of many of those investment banking needs to attract. Mentoring helps young people understand how the sector works, the opportunities within it and how to access them. It also builds the soft skills and confidence that are just as important as qualifications for successfully entering and progressing in their careers, and which are often successfully nurtured in the private school system.

Most importantly, mentoring gives the industry a human face much more welcoming than stereotypes of men in pinstripe suits. At the same time, it challenges bankers' preconceived ideas about where talent can be found and what it looks like by letting them see firsthand the energy, imagination and drive of young people that can't be gleaned from a quick glance at their CV. Meaning they're encouraged to hold the doors of the industry open wider to let more young people step through - whatever shoes they're wearing.

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