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A qualitative evaluation of
to the elite professions
Dr Louise Ashley, Royal Holloway University of London
Professor Jo Duberley, University of Birmingham
Professor Hilary Sommerlad, University of Birmingham
Professor Dora Scholarios, University of Strathclyde
Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission
20 Great Smith Street
About the Commission
The Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission is an advisory non-departmental public body established under the Child Poverty Act 2010 (as amended by the Welfare Reform Act 2012) with a remit to monitor the progress of the Government and others on child poverty and social mobility. It is made up of 10 commissioners and is supported by a small secretariat.
The Commission board comprises:
The Rt. Hon. Alan Milburn (Chair).
The Rt. Hon. Baroness Gillian Shephard (Deputy Chair).
Tom Attwood, Chairman of HG Capital Group and Chairman of Attwood Academies Trust Paul Cleal, Africa Business Group Leader at Pricewaterhouse Coopers. Paul Gregg, Professor of Economic and Social Policy, University of Bath.
Christian Guy, Director of the Centre for Social Justice.
Douglas Hamilton, Director of the RS Macdonald Charitable Trust.
David Johnston, Chief Executive of the Social Mobility Foundation.
Catriona Williams OBE, Chief Executive of Children in Wales.
The functions of the Commission include:
Monitoring progress on tackling child poverty and improving social mobility, including implementation of the UK’s child poverty strategy and the 2020 child poverty targets, and describing implementation of the Scottish and Welsh strategies.
Providing published advice to ministers on matters relating to social mobility and child poverty.
Undertaking social mobility advocacy.
Contents Section 1 Overview 6 1.1. Methodology in Brief
1.2 Defining ‘Social Class’
Section 2 Executive Summary 9 Section 3 Recommendations 17 Section 4 Background: social mobility and access to elite professions 21 4.1: About Social Mobility in the UK
4.2: Explaining Social Exclusion from the Professions
Section 5 Understanding Entry Routes and the Effect on Social Inclusion 28 5.1: Current Patterns of Social Exclusion
5.3: Initial Screening (Pre-Selection)
5.4: Psychometric Tests
5.5: Telephone Interview, Assessment Centre and Final Interview
5.6: Selection Decision
5.7: Vacation Placement
Section 6 Understanding ‘Talent’ 43 6.1: Understanding ‘Talent’
6.2 The Business Case for Change
6.2: Fairness in Recruitment and Selection
Section 7 Social Inclusion Initiatives: Evaluation and Best Practice 52 7.1: Raising Aspirations
7.2: Fair Access – Supply-Side Interventions
7.3: Fair Access – Demand-Side Interventions
7.4: Fair Selection Processes
7.4.1: Move from competencies to strengths
7.4.2: Academic Credentials
7.4.3: CV Blind
7.5: Measuring and Monitoring
Section 8 Career Progression 69 8.1: Explaining the ‘class ceiling’ in elite firms
8.2: How can firms provide support?
Section 9 Financial and Related Professional Services in Scotland 75
9.1 Graduate Employment in Scottish Financial Services
9.2 Understanding Barriers to Entry
9.2.1: Profile of Financial Services Professions
9.2.2: Initiatives to Widen Access
9.2.3: Non-graduate Entry Routes to Professional Qualifications
9.2.4: Preferred Universities
9.2.5: Access to Internships and Work Placements
9.2.5: The use of Social Media as an Attraction Tool
9.2.7: Background screening
9.2.8: Psychometric testing
9.2.9: Telephone/digital interview
9.2.10: Assessment Centre and Final Interview
9.2.11: Selection decision
9.3: Understanding ‘Talent’
9.3.1: The Focus on Personal Qualities
9.3.2: The Business Case for Change
9.4: Social Inclusion Initiatives: ‘Best Practice’
9.5: Summary and Recommendations
Section 10 Future Trends 99 10.1: Future Trends
Appendix 1 Methodology 105
Appendix 2 Acknowledgements 108Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission Non-Educational Barriers to the Elite Professions Section 1 Overview This report sets out the findings from a qualitative study, focusing on two main areas.
The first (Study A) examines the barriers to entry for people from less privileged socioeconomic backgrounds to elite law and accountancy firms, with a particular focus on London. The second (Study B) examines the barriers to entry for people from similar backgrounds to elite financial service firms (including accountancy) located in Scotland.
The study finds that despite their efforts to improve social inclusion over the past ten to fifteen years, these elite firms continue to be heavily dominated at entry level by people from more privileged socioeconomic backgrounds. This can be attributed primarily to a tendency to recruit the majority of new entrants from a narrow group of elite universities, where students are more likely to have attended selective or feepaying schools, and/or come from relatively affluent backgrounds. In addition, elite firms define ‘talent’ according to a number of factors such as drive, resilience, strong communication skills and above all confidence and ‘polish’, which participants in the research acknowledged can be mapped on to middle-class status and socialisation.
Against this backdrop, the key purpose of the study is to explore what more can be done to open access to elite professions. More generally, the study responds to evidence that the dominance of people from more privileged socioeconomic backgrounds within elite professions has become more pronounced over the past thirty years. For example, research from the Cabinet Office shows that recent generations of lawyers and accountants are more likely to come from families with significantly above-average incomes1. There is also some evidence that where diverse individuals gain access to the elite professions, their subsequent career progression is affected by social background, though the extent and cause of this challenge has been under-researched to date. As we shall demonstrate, these issues seem particularly acute in the UK’s largest and most prestigious law, accountancy and financial service firms, on which this study is focused.
A key focus of the current study is on talent. Whilst talent is sometimes presented by firms as though it is an unproblematic concept, it is in fact highly ambiguous.
Previous research suggests that this ambiguity is a key factor encouraging firms to rely on proxy measures of potential associated with middle-class status, thus accentuating rather than reducing, non-educational barriers to entry and, possibly, career progression2. In order to explore this issue, we look here at how talent is identified and defined at entry level by organisations within the elite professions.
In addition, we also address three specific gaps in current knowledge of graduate hiring processes and practices and career progression.
First, we address a lack of transparency about the precise mechanics of the recruitment and selection process, and subsequent promotion decisions. In particular, we ask what non-educational barriers to entry and progression do elite organisations construct? Who are these barriers constructed by? And at what points in the hiring process do these barriers come into play?
Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission Non-Educational Barriers to the Elite Professions Second, we examine the organisational dynamics behind a lack of diversity on the basis of social background, including factors in support of change, and in favour of the status quo. As part of this, we explore the role played by the business and moral cases for change, and discuss current best practice with respect to social inclusion initiatives.
Third, we ask what role clients of leading firms may play in building a better case for change? Whilst elite organisations regularly claim that client expectations of their professional advisors are a barrier to diversity, there has been no independent study of the client perspective on social background to date. This is important because in other diversity strands, including gender, the client voice has arguably been important in driving forward at least some progressive change.
1.1. Methodology in Brief The full methodology is described in the appendices of this report. However, in brief, this research adopted a case study approach.
For Study A, the research focused on ten elite firms (five accountancy and five law firms).
For Study B, (focusing specifically on Scotland), the research investigated four firms from across the professional employment sector, including three banks and one accountancy firm.
The studies were devised in order to understand whether the barriers to entry for people from less privileged backgrounds were similar in Scotland to those operating in the rest of the UK. Where differences were identified, the project team sought to understand why, and whether these differences led to different outcomes.
At each firm, the project team sought quantitative data demonstrating for example the socioeconomic and educational background of applicants to the firms compared to those who are offered jobs and appointed, in specific cohorts. However, the main focus of the research was in-depth interviews with individuals at each firm.
Interviewees were drawn from across firms’ hierarchies. For Study A the project team conducted fifty-five interviews at the ten case study firms. In addition, the project team conducted ten interviews with General Counsel and their deputies within the FTSE100, who are senior lawyers within corporates, who instruct and work with law firms. Efforts were made to include Finance Directors and Chief Operating Officers who work with and instruct leading accountancy firms. However, none agreed to take part.
For Study B, interviews were conducted with fourteen mid-level and senior managers/partners and six Heads of HR, Talent, diversity or recruitment officers.
Further contextual background was offered by interviews with two senior figures responsible for the operation of scholarship, bursary, internship and mentoring programmes for gifted university students from socially disadvantaged backgrounds wishing to enter accounting and finance professions.
All firms and interviewees took part on the basis of confidentiality.
1.2 Defining ‘Social Class’ The focus of this study is on the role that social class plays in relation to access to the professions. However, it is important to note that there is no consensus about how to measure social class. A common indicator used by economists is parental income, where comparative privilege is related primarily to material advantage.
However, this is a static measure which cannot track changes over the parental life course. In addition, income may not necessarily map on to an individual’s relative social status or social class. An alternative or additional measure is parental occupation, which fits more closely with sociological perspectives on social class.
In the absence of either form of measurement, proxy indicators of both economic and social status may be used. In the current report we rely predominantly on three of these. The first is whether the individual received Free School Meals (FSM), which are provided to children at state schools whose parents are in receipt of certain benefits or who have an annual income of less than £16,190. The second is whether one or both of an individual’s parents attended university or whether they were the first generation in their immediate family to do so. The third is based on the individual’s educational background, specifically, whether they were educated at a non-selective state school, a selective state school, or a fee-paying (private school), which account for eighty-eight, four and seven percent of the population respectively.
We use these indicators because at least one is currently also used by most elite professional service firms, seeking to measure the social background of new entrants, and sometimes, experienced members of the professions. In doing so, we recognise that all are problematic. For example, FSM may tell us about an individual’s parental income, but little about their occupation or relative social status.
Educational background offers some information on both social and economic status, since we can assume that many students who attend fee-paying schools come from privileged socioeconomic backgrounds. However, this is far from certain since some at least receive scholarships, and many students who attend state schools have affluent parents. Nevertheless, we contend that these proxy measures offer a useful though inevitably incomplete guide to current and historical patterns of social exclusion.
The remainder of this report proceeds as follows. Section 2 is an executive summary of findings. Section 3 summarises the recommendations originating in this research.
Section 4 comprises a brief literature review, summarising previous research on social class and access to the professions. Sections 5 - 9 provide more detailed analysis of key findings originating in the study. Section 10 comprises a summary of possible future trends and conclusion.
Section 2 Executive Summary Study A Elite law and accountancy firms continue to employ young people who are predominantly from more privileged backgrounds.
The elite professions have traditionally been the preserves of the upper reaches of UK society. While data is patchy on the socioeconomic background of their current populations, it does indicate that access to elite professional firms remains unequal and that their professional employees generally have privileged backgrounds in comparison to the UK population.