It is 6:30am. I am to travel to a prestigious law firm with a tower so high it will hurt my neck to see the top. I look into the full-length mirror in my hotel room. Hair slicked back into a low bun, a cranberry red power dress on, Nike Airs on my feet, ready for the tube journey through London. I inspect my hair one final time and check that my sensible Clarks shoes are in my backpack. I grab the elbow crutch that is resting in the corner near the door, a trusty companion waiting for a new adventure. I do not look or sound like a typical City worker; my skin is too golden, my accent too rough, my disability too pronounced. Still, I know that whatever situation I am presented with today, I will walk with my head high and know that I am just as good as any other prospective City worker.
According to the Social Commission, only 21% of working-class people with disabilities get a job in a top profession such as law, banking and the civil service. When looking at those with physical and visible disabilities, the percentage is alarmingly lower. Walk around the streets of Bishopsgate or Fleet Street and you will find that those who roam those streets are socially polished individuals, often cut from the same cloth as senior management, and white. The City has a distinctive look and feel to it; it is hard to feel at ease when trying to walk as fast as a London commuter or sound as polished in a Starbucks, particularly when you are wielding an elbow crutch and trying to hold open a heavy glass door with weak arms.
A summer of interning in journalism, investment banking and professional services has taught me to walk the walk and stride with as much confidence up Ludgate Hill as the seasoned professional walking beside me. Perhaps there is a sense of uniformity when workers don their suits and pencil skirts, almost as if the school uniform of the City removes the personality, leaving everyone on an equal footing with a sense of silent solidarity with their fellow worker. However, for those from similar backgrounds to mine, walking past the historic Bank of England building or the looming tower of One Canada Square can feel intimidating, particularly when those around you seem at ease.
If everyone at a London firm has the same background, looks the same and studied at the same places, how are they to learn cultural sensitivity?
Firms in the Square Mile have started to realise why diversity is crucial for their business but continue to struggle with recruiting students from diverse backgrounds. The problem lies with how firms view diversity. For some firms, recruiting students of colour are their only priority, but this puts working class white students at a disadvantage, especially as working-class white males in the UK are one of the worst performing groups in the UK. Firms need diversity and students from low socio-economic backgrounds to create diversity of thought within the company in order to remain competitive and think outside the box, as well as working more efficiently with clients with an increasingly global outlook or from regions such as East Asia and the Middle East. Globalisation has brought with its products from far-flung corners of the world, but the financial services industry is often overlooked. For London’s Financial Services sector to continue being competitive, clients from across the world must see themselves in the advisors that they trust with their company, through increasing commercial awareness and knowledge of a vast range of cultures, countries and markets. If everyone at a London firm has the same background, looks the same and studied at the same places, how are they to learn cultural sensitivity that they have not experienced from within their own firm? While London is a melting pot of culture and diversity, the expectation to assimilate into a typical London culture can hold firms back from attracting lucrative work from far-fetched corners of the world.
To combat the lack of diversity in top careers, human resources departments across the City are propagating ‘diversity and inclusion’ into recruitment. While this is certainly a step in the right direction, initiatives to increase diversity into prestigious professions only accept diversity, rather than champion it. In short, attempts to diversify have been successful but mostly at the most junior levels, meaning that students from diverse backgrounds still do not see themselves in the senior ranks, nor do they experience people who look like themselves sitting across the table to them during gruelling interviews.
Companies and charities such as Strive Consultants, Rare Recruitment and upReach offer ambitious students the opportunity to be better prepared for interviews and assessment centres, as well as allowing students to explore careers in the City. Some even offer the chance to attend sought after open days and work experience at sponsor firms which are crucial for demonstrating an interest in the industry. For students who do not have connections in the industry, initiatives such as these provide a much-needed push into the world of finance and allow students to prove that they are just as good as their peers who had opportunities from a younger age. Unpaid internships and work experience schemes still make up 40% of internships in the UK, which isolate poorer students from undertaking professional work experience that is often a requirement for future careers.
From my own experiences, I was only able to afford work experience in three industries because I was paid. Attending open days and one-to-one sessions prepared me by putting me on par with my wealthier counterparts. It was not about making the process any easier for me but making me a better candidate. Furthermore, these schemes created a sense of community when I went to talks by successful grad-schemers who were from the same background as me. In the UK, non-selective state schools educate 90% of the population, yet only account for 30% of those on top graduate schemes. Seeing former students who had defied the odds and become commercial lawyers, bankers and analysts is a crucial motivator as it provides the inspiration that wealthier individuals with parents working in the top industry have had from a younger age, hence why these initiatives are important for increasing meaningful diversity in the City.
For the changes to be meaningful, diversity and inclusion needs to be mirrored in senior management and HR departments across the City
The solution to championing diversity and creating greater inclusion is looking at achievements in relation to backgrounds and accepting that flashy work experience does not necessarily equate to a candidate performing better in a corporate background. Looking at A level grades in relation to the background of a student allows an employer to see whether the student performs better or worse compared to their peers. If a student achieves AAB while their year group achieves CCC, it is clear that the student is an overachiever, despite their background. If the average grades of a school are A*AA, it is obvious that the student is clearly underachieving, despite achieving the minimum expected grades for most graduate schemes. A second solution is a CV blind process, which takes off grades, university and any information that graduate recruitment may have an unconscious bias against. Some employers such as the Civil Service have already started removing certain details and have seen an increase in students from different universities, backgrounds and cultures. However, CV blind recruitment processes can have a negative impact as they do not explain gaps such as illness, childbirth or caregivers, which discriminates against students who have extenuating circumstances and those with long-term medical conditions and disabilities. Nor do they have an effect when it comes to interviews as the interviewer is able to make assumptions while interviewing them. In private equity firms, where teams are close-knit and a perfect fit is crucial, an applicant can have more than 12 interviews to assess whether the applicant shares the same interests as the rest of the team. If the applicant is from a different background, regardless of their skills and a CV blind application process, the applicant is less likely to get the job as they do not have expensive hobbies that the elite grew up with.
While diversity and inclusion in the Square Mile is certainly increasing, for the changes to be meaningful, diversity and inclusion needs to be mirrored in senior management and HR departments across the City. It is clear that firms cannot do this alone and using diversity recruitment companies and charities allows them to truly understand the challenges that young people from low socio-economic backgrounds face, such as fewer opportunities and unpaid internships, and how to tackle them. Only then will the City be able to attract the brightest minds across the UK, allowing them to make better use of their resources, attract global clients and have meaningful diversity of thought in their business. For now, I know that I will never let my background stop me. I bring resilience from spending my teenage years in hospital, the solidarity and teamwork from being a part of a diverse community and work ethic and grit from working part-time jobs and studying at a low-achieving school. I will walk into the doors of the firm with the intention of proving that despite my background and my terrible spine, I am just as good as the bright minds around me.