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The third Ashes test in men’s cricket kicks off tonight with Australia leading the series 2-0.

Even the most casual observer of the news over the past week would not have escaped the many headlines that flowed after the second test ended in a close win for Australia.

Controversy arose because the Australian team was accused of playing against the ‘spirit of cricket’ when English batter Jonny Bairstow was controversially dismissed, having wandered out of his crease and been stumped while the ball was still live (see photo, above).

Highly respected former England captain Mike Atherton said it was “A perfectly fair and valid dismissal and a dozy bit of cricket from Jonny Bairstow. And a costly one because England may well have won that match.”

However, that’s not how the partisan English spectators viewed the dismissal.

At lunch, as the Australian walked through the Long Room at Lord’s en route to their changerooms, they received a hostile reception with allegations of abuse and tripping being levelled against some of the Lord’s members.

Reports suggest the abuse from different members included calling players a “disgrace”, “liars” and telling them to return home. Australia’s Pakistan-born batter, Usman Khawaja stopped to address the most vocal of the abusers.

The MCC later revealed that three members had been suspended and would not be permitted back to Lord’s while an investigation takes place.

The long-held stereotype of the entitled English ruling class treating ‘the lower classes, especially ‘the colonials’ and ‘the natives’, with no respect was reinformed, in Australia at least, when the extent of the members’ appalling behaviour was made public.

What’s this got to do with recruitment? I hear you ask.

What happened at Lord’s was evidence writ-large that the entitlement attitude from the country’s upper class continues to flow through British society, and, more specifically, to recruitment in the City of London, as recent research by Louise Ashley a senior lecturer at Queen Mary University of London has demonstrated (extracts from this February 2023 article of Dr Ashley’s appear in italics, below).

In October 1986, the “Big Bang” – the name given to the sudden deregulation of financial markets to enhance London’s status as a global financial centre – was also supposed to signal the creation of a new, more egalitarian City. Yet four decades on, research shows that more than half of all partners at the leading law firms are white, male and privately educated, while more than 90% of bosses at eight top financial service firms are from society’s most privileged backgrounds – a demographic that comprises just over 30% of the entire UK population. 

But surely it pays to be a meritocracy? I hear you cry.

Prestigious City firms, some with billion-pound revenue streams, have long tried to position themselves as “money meritocracies”, where success and promotion is based purely on an employee’s performance and the profits they generate.

The reality is it’s just easier to offer jobs to your mates (or mates of mates).

Privately, however, City insiders I spoke to repeatedly blamed deviations from this rule on outright favouritism. One hedge fund manager, Michael, confided: “It’s easy to explain. Basically, we give the top jobs to other posh people who are our mates.”

Investment manager James said that frequently, recruitment and promotion “becomes a subjective call”, at which point decision-makers typically revert to type. I asked him what “type” that might be: “Myself … I’m already doing that role and I know what I’m doing. Therefore, I’m more likely to go towards the sort of people who are like I am, which is why you end up with the stereotypical male – mid-40s white. It’s why the profession’s full of them.”

Despite what City firms promote, and would like to believe, real diversity is still a long way off, especially when it comes to education and gender.

To date, efforts to diversify according to gender and ethnicity appear to have had very limited results. In 2014, The Sutton Trust found that within financial services, more than 60% of bosses educated in the UK had attended private schools, as opposed to just 7% of the population at large. And despite many interventions designed to improve representation of women at senior levels, a 2020 study of the City’s top “deal-makers” in investment banks found that less than one in ten were women.

It seems old habits are very hard to break.

Class-based recruitment strategies are perceived to offer City firms certain benefits – in particular, sustaining the impression of status and prestige to competitors, clients, potential colleagues and even policymakers. This in turn helps justify the high fees they charge, and the exceptional profits they generate.

The grip Oxbridge graduates have on prestigious jobs in London appears to be as strong as it ever was.

Defining employee “talent” in narrow terms creates an artificial impression of scarcity in available skills. At entry level, City firms battle to attract graduates from the UK’s most elite universities. This “war for talent” is largely phoney – in reality, the skills the firms need are available from a much wider cohort of graduates – but it has helped convince both City firms and clients of these employees’ exceptional worth.

One law firm partner explained why his firm preferred to appoint “polished” candidates from elite universities, in preference to the very best who might be educated elsewhere: “From a business perspective, you can’t afford to have people in meetings who will not look good to the clients, [even if] some might be very, very bright.”

Basically, hiring managers are biased, lazy, and unwilling to challenge the status quo

In the context of a considerable oversupply of job applications, a “good” degree from an “elite” university acts as an easy signal of probable competency. As asset manager Reena explained: “If we hire somebody from a completely different background and they don’t work out, the person who hires them is going to look like a fool. [Whereas] if we continue to hire the exact same type of person – the Oxbridge-educated white male, for argument’s sake – and that person doesn’t work out, which often happens, nobody will blame the hiring manager for making that decision.”

It starts at entry-level recruitment but all the way through their employment ‘diverse’ employees seem to have an invisible weight attached to their career progression.

A 2020 study of eight major financial services firms found that employees from less privileged backgrounds took 25% longer to progress, despite no evidence of poorer performance

Those already at the top are unlikely to consider their ascent as anything other than merit-based.

Many people are taken in by the City’s “myth of merit” – not least some of its top bosses, who prefer to believe their own positions are based on exceptional talent and hard work, rather than any inherited privilege.

What happens when some ugly truths emerge in public?

If any unfair recruitment practices or treatment of employees come to light, City firms typically employ the shield of “unconscious bias” to explain away any discrepancies in staff makeup or treatment.

This response can suggest a sort of “no-fault discrimination” where since everybody is to blame, nobody is. Some academics argue that putting a heavy focus on unconscious bias reflects a misguided, highly individualised response to what is actually a systemic, structural problem.

Surely there’s an incentive to change? After all, we are well into the third decade of the Twenty-First century and isn’t it commercially risky to ignore a lack of diversity amongst employees, especially senior leaders?

Efforts at change have generally been pinned on the “business case” – that once hiring managers are convinced discrimination is irrational, they will feel compelled to act. Yet this is unlikely to work because the incentives are not there. Class-based inequalities embedded within systems and structures offer elite City firms certain benefits, while diversification carries perceived risks.

A genuine desire among many City people to deliver fairer outcomes is no match for institutional inertia.

As much as we might like to think that the greater tolerance and acceptance of diversity has spread evenly throughout British society the behaviour of the members at Lord’s reminds us what the research into recruitment and progression in the City of London’s largest and most prestigious institutions reveals – there remains a significant minority of those at the top who believe nothing needs to change and won’t change, while they are in charge.

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Manda Milling

…and the MCC have actually codified the meaning of playing in the’spirit’of the game. I’m happy to distribute where necessary.

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