These statistics illustrate the persistent class divide at Britain’s elite firms

The Oxbridge effect.
The Oxbridge effect.
Image: Reuters/Paul Childs
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Access to upper-crust professions is one of the surest paths to upward social mobility, and it’s often unavailable to the working class. That’s especially true of jobs at elite firms in the UK, where a study by the government’s Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission found that class divides strongly persist in recruiting and hiring.

The report found that firms discriminate in two different ways. First, they make a majority of their offers to people from a small subset of elite schools. Then, they select for things like self-confidence and a “polished” appearance, which, the authors argue, tend to “map closely on to social class.”

Those tendencies tend to be a matter both of habit and convenience. From one recruiter at a top law firm, who was cited in the research:

We do see the problem and for us it boils down almost to a budgetary one, being frank about it . . . is there a diamond in the rough out there at the University of XXXX? Is there a diamond out there? . . . statistically it’s highly probable but the question is . . . how much mud do I have to sift through in that population to find that diamond?

The study looked at 10 top law and professional services firms in England, concentrated around London.

The statistics are pretty extreme.

  • Fewer than 5% of job offers go to students who received free school meals growing up.
  • Up to 70% of new graduates who get job offers from professional services firms come from a selective state school (7% of the population), or a private, fee paying school (4%). They make up about 40% of applicants.
  • One law firm got 60% of its new hires from just Oxford or Cambridge.
  • The hiring rate for graduates of Russell Group schools (a group of research universities with high entry standards, where students are disproportionately from advantaged social backgrounds) is about 9%. It’s less than 3% for those who went to other universities.
  • Only 50% of Russell Group applicants get screened out during the initial stages, versus a 75% drop rate for everyone else.

Elite students get a string of advantages, the authors found. They’re actively recruited. They have access to information on how to better their chances when they apply. They get the opportunity to take practice psychometric tests, and have test interviews.

Perhaps more troubling than the stats alone are the attitudes that justify them. Many focus on the convenience aspect, and the sheer number of applications. The word “polish” turns up over and over and over again in reference to preferred applicants, ostensibly because clients prefer it.

“Poise and gravitas in the room is part of that,” one recruiter told the authors. “The people who will be the most confident are generally those who are from what people would see as a more stereotypical background for a City lawyer. They’ve grown up in a world where they feel more comfortable.

Some of the recruiters the study’s authors talked to, perhaps encouraged by the anonymity they were granted, were rather unapologetic:

I’m sorry, but it is absolutely true that homogeneity breeds a huge amount of efficiency in organisations . . . I can sort of write, you know, an obscure comment in the margin and you’ll know exactly what I’m talking about. You get my jokes. There’s not a risk that I’m going to offend you by saying something, because we get each other and that’s hugely efficient.

This is not unique to the UK. The sorts of practices documented here are highly similar to the ones that Lauren Rivera, a professor at Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management, found at elite firms in the United States.

These practices persist because they are, on the surface, meritocratic. These firms are hiring people who outperform academically and on a variety of tests. But this narrowness fails to take into account the context and advantages they enjoy.

Change is expensive. But when you don’t make the effort, you end up with workforces of startling sameness.