By Professor Joanne Duberley, Professor of Organisation Studies at Birmingham Business School.
Since John Major’s promise of a classless society, politicians have intermittently raised the importance of enabling social mobility, based on merit. Surely it must be good for society if those with most talent rise to the top of society, occupying the best jobs. Recently Theresa May’s cabinet was heralded as the ‘march of the new meritocrats’, yet increases in wealth inequality suggest that the reality of meritocracy is more complex and recent debate has identified the potential limitations of seemingly meritocratic structures and processes.
Recent research for the Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission involving colleagues from Birmingham Business School, Royal Holloway University and Strathclyde University into the workings of professions such as law and accounting firms and investment banks in the City of London suggests that the discourse of meritocracy can actually curtail opportunities for social mobility. The findings show that despite improvements in recruitment and selection processes and a perception in some quarters that the City is “fiercely meritocratic”, it remains difficult for hard working talented people from lower socio-economic groups to gain access to these top jobs. In particular, research highlights the disproportionate number of people working in the elite professions who have been privately educated. For example, The Sutton Trust recently found that while 7% of the general population attends a fee paying school, 34% of investment bankers were privately educated, rising to 69% of those working in private equity.
In many ways the recruitment and selection processes adopted by elite firms appear to be meritocratic and fair. They certainly cannot be blamed for looking to recruit the most talented students to work for them. The difficulty arises when trying to assess what is meant by talent. Largely this is seen to equate with good A level grades and a degree from one of the ‘top’ universities. At first glance pre-screening of applicants based on A level results may seem a fair way of dealing with large numbers of recruits, however it is important to remember that A level performance is strongly correlated with social background. Similarly, focusing on students who have gained degrees at our most elite universities might appear sensible, however those universities are themselves more likely to recruit students from privileged backgrounds. Less objective aspects of the recruitment process can further disadvantage those from lower socio-economic backgrounds. For example, final stage interviews with senior staff are often used to judge whether the applicant would fit in to the firm. We were told repeatedly how important being ‘polished’ and wearing the right clothes was to this decision. Added to that an increasingly early start to the recruitment cycle involving applying for internships either before or in the first year of university study means that if applicants lack the appropriate knowledge about opportunities and social networks they are likely to miss opportunities. Taken together these processes seem to support the status quo and make it difficult for those from less privileged backgrounds to access elite professions.
Closing the meritocracy gap
So what can these firms do? Some are clearly working on this and the increase in apprenticeship and post 18 entrant schemes in accounting has been one response. Other leading firms have opted to introduce the use of contextual data such as School performance data, to help them judge A level results. In addition to this some firms engage with third sector organisations such as the Sutton Trust, Sponsors for Educational Opportunity and the Social Mobility Foundation to offer outreach programmes. These have been successful up to a point, yet change appears slow. In order to facilitate further change it is important that firms measure and monitor the social background of their recruits; examine all aspects of how they attract and select applicants and consider ring fencing opportunities for internships from non-traditional entrants. However, perhaps more importantly, in order to recruit based on merit there needs to be a more work done on what talent is in the context of different socio-economic backgrounds. Potential to develop the attributes of a good professional are just as, if not more, important than the polish.