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Why banks still like hiring thin, already rich people

As bankers (in the UK at least) resume their identities as public enemy number one, headlines referencing fat cats are already in circulation. However, while bankers may be rich, they are unlikely to be fat. They are also unlikely to have got where they are entirely on the basis of merit.   

So says Dr. Louise Ashley, a senior lecturer at Queen Mary University, London. Ashley, who worked for a London law firm in an earlier incarnation, has just published a book* based on 10 years' research and 400 interviews with people working in the London financial services industry. She disparages the notion that banks are meritocracies, and instead highlights their partiality to people who fit their preconceived notions of success. 

"We're focused on appointing the best of the best"

In theory, banks are open to hiring anyone, so long as they perform. Jacob, a senior banker Ashley spoke to in 2016, highlighted this hypothetical approach. "We’re totally focused on appointing the best of the best," he said. "We do not care whether they are male or female, or black, white, orange or green for that matter, we just look for incredibly bright graduates with the best degrees which tells us they can cope with what we do.”

However, both banks' historic diversity numbers and Ashley's other anecdotal evidence suggest this isn't always the case. A report this summer from a government-appointed taskforce found that men from white working class backgrounds account for only 13% of senior roles in the City of London, compared to 45% for men from professional backgrounds. 

Leslie, a corporate financier Ashley spoke to in 2019 helped clarify why this is: ‘We look for confidence … [but] it has to be a certain type of confidence," he told Ashley. "It’s quite hard to explain it, but we have to sort of be robust, give robust advice, in a robust way, but also make [clients] feel that we’re … deferential in some way. It’s a really difficult balance … not everybody gets it right . . . It’s often done best by a privately educated bloke.’

While "privately educated blokes" thrive, Ashley also spoke to multiple people from underprivileged families in finance who said they'd been reprimanded for wearing brown shoes, or locked out of banking jobs irrespective of their qualifications and competence. Max, a black candidate from a comprehensive school in South London, said he'd been taken aside by other black men in the bank who'd told him that, "If you’re white, your job is to stand out, and that’s how you get on...", but if you're black "your job is to fit in." He was subsequently informed that he didn't get the job because he didn't "fit" and so went into the public sector instead. "What kind of industry is this, where I can be told that I’m a good candidate, I’m sharp, but I’m not polished enough?," he asked Ashley of banking.

Even when working class candidates made it into City jobs, they told Ashley they felt like anomalies. In an echo of the Goldman Sachs 2020 town halls during the pandemic, where the firm's black employees surprised colleagues with the accounts of the racism they'd experienced, Liberty, an intern with an investment management firm, said she'd mentioned how a man with a gun was arrested by the police in an alleyway near her home on the weekend. "Everyone kind of just went silent and changed the topic."

Ultimately, Ashley argues that banks are still too wedded to preconceived notions of what success looks like. In this, she echoes Lauren Rivera, the US professor who's studied banks' preponderance for hiring people with "polish" who engage in upper middle class leisure activities. 

Nor is it just class that banks sort for. Alexander, a recruitment consultant, told Ashley that banks don't like fat people either. "They look for motivated people," he told her. "The first thing is that motivated people are rarely fat. Fit mind, fit body is the general mantra. You can only get away with being overweight in the City if you are older and very successful."

Diverse candidates fight against pigeonholing 

But what about all the diverse candidates banks say they're hiring? Ashley's research suggests that many find themselves shunted into middle and back office jobs. George, a 21-year-old intern from a "crappy town" told Ashley his spring week class was highly segmented. While front office jobs were filled by students from Oxbridge, the London School of Economics, UCL Imperial and Warwick, people in HR and the middle office "were a lot more varied," observed George. "They say we recruit for all these kinds of areas. And then they put like maybe the lesser universities into maybe like middle office roles."

If banks are to genuinely change, Ashley says they'll need to espouse "more muscular intervention." This might mean quotas. It certainly means a more radical response from banking leadership. Ultimately, Ashley would like social class to become a "protected characteristic in law," but she notes that this would require government intervention.

*Highly discriminating 

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AUTHORSarah Butcher Global Editor
  • ph
    6 January 2023

    Sure, competence is important. But so is hiring the same spoiled brat type that the now bosses were once themselves. People who are used to big money.

  • Si
    28 September 2022

    Frontline banking is a relationship business. Being smart and driven is an expected given. Those able to build relationships with decision makers at client companies are the ones who are the most successful.

  • pr
    27 September 2022

    When the wealthiest clients aren't majority white anymore, only then will things change for diversity in the front office. Watch Partner Track on Netflix. It isn't just banking. And it certainly isn't just London.

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