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How to break into the elite

How to break into the elite

Christianah B

10/09/2019

Work hard and you will be successful – but is this all that it takes? 

The BBC documentary How to Break into the Elite conducted a deep dive into the realities of how high-achieving graduates from diverse backgrounds such as Nottingham, Birmingham, Leeds, Dagenham and London try to get into the ‘elite’ professions. How much does class still matter in Britain’s elite professions? Is working hard enough, or are your chances in life still determined by where you come from? 

The hour-long documentary shows how much more that professional sectors such as law and banking need to do to improve social mobility into graduate programmes. When it comes to top professions, Sam Friedman of the London School of Economics explains that grads from working-class backgrounds with top degrees are much less likely to get elite jobs than their more privileged counterparts. A third of the population comes from a working-class background, but only 10% of that group will make it to elite occupations. And even when working-class backgrounds make it into Britain’s top professions, they go on to earn an average of 16% less than their colleagues from more privileged backgrounds. This is a stark reality in sharp contrast to the notion of meritocracy in this country; statistical evidence shows that class holds people back. You’re six times more likely to land an elite job if you’re upper-middle class.

But how do Black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) individuals break the glass ceiling? Working hard at uni is probably a good start, but it does not guarantee entry into the elite professions. An aspiring banker who achieved a first at a Russell Group university hopes his degree result will lead the way to the job of his dreams. What does the data say? There are some striking stats on this. Those who have attended Russell Group universities, are from privileged backgrounds and get a 2:2 degree are still more likely to go into a top occupation than those from working-class backgrounds who’ve got into the same universities and achieved a first-class degree. This is telling of the myths of our meritocracy and the lies told to young children; it also highlights that top organisations aren’t rewarding the same things our education system is rewarding. Alas, it seems education is not the great equaliser after all.

The programme highlighted five ways to land a top City job.

Get on a grad scheme

Students pursuing careers such as law, consultancy or banking will need a place on a graduate scheme. This can be challenging because the competition is ferocious, but it will increase your chances of breaking into an elite occupation. Most companies use these schemes to develop their leaders of the future and are more likely to retain applicants who have been on their grad scheme.

Network

Ever heard the phrase, “It’s who you know, not what you know”? Well, this is certainly the case in the legal profession, where vacation schemes and mini-pupillages can be bagged through a mutual friend or mentors’ contacts. Maintaining a good relationship with important figures in your desired profession is crucial to getting your foot in the door of an elite occupation – sites such as LinkedIn have made this easier than ever. In non-law areas such as banking and finance, the mentality is the same, where students are introduced to job offers either through a mutual friend or through their parents’ contacts. For beginners, have a read of my article on how to network like a pro.

Learn the social codes

Mystifying cultural codes prove an obstacle to many candidates from disadvantaged backgrounds. The CEO of Channel 4 identified this as the main gateway into the media industry. She pointed to a set of middle-class social codes (just as prevalent in other elite industries) – for those who didn’t grow up with them, the people who did seem like they’re in a club already, even if they don’t know each other. And for the people who haven’t adopted certain ways of dressing and speaking, they find the leap almost impossible and struggle to break into the elite club. The rules of the game seem particularly opaque to people from working-class backgrounds, which explains why some people appear to fit and others don’t. This is quite powerful because graduate recruiters are on the hunt for applicants who are the ‘right fit’ for the firm – those who are in the know of social codes may appear to be more at ease in interviews than those from working-class backgrounds.

Ooze confidence

The only way for Britain to become a more meritocratic place – where it’s easier for people from working-class and lower-middle-class backgrounds to break into elite professions – is to instil in them some confidence. Research has shown that people from BAME backgrounds tend to lack ‘soft’ skills, which often results in a bad performance during interviews or assessment centres. Most firms and organisations prioritise soft skills alongside intellect and relevant experience. One way that individuals can gain confidence is through a culture of mentoring; it helps for an aspiring lawyer to have a mentor in a senior position who shows them the works. Working-class students need mentors because if they do not have other role models in their life, it can affect their confidence, the kinds of jobs that they apply for and, ultimately, career progression. 

Be polished

City recruiters are looking for candidates who are well polished in the way they present themselves. This includes things such as accent, mannerisms, behaviour and dress code – the things that can present or denote middle or upper-class status. For example, it was noted in the documentary that having an Essex accent can stand in the way of your dream job, even if you’ve got the relevant experience and are perfect for the job. The company may not want someone with an Essex accent speaking to their high-end clients because they don’t seem “polished enough” or don’t talk “in the right way”. Confidence is hard to find if society doesn’t validate the way you look and behave. This reality sounds familiar to the legal profession, where most lawyers have privileged backgrounds. According to a study published in the Law Gazette, more than 90% of the lawyers surveyed had fathers who had been managers or senior officials, while at two of the firms surveyed, more than 70% of lawyers were privately educated. By not taking well-qualified people with working-class accents and by overlooking candidates with good degrees from Russell Group universities, companies are arguably missing out on the skills and experience that a diverse range of people can bring. 

How is the City doing in terms of diversity when it comes to focusing on socioeconomic indicators? In the banking and finance sector as a whole, about 34% of new entrants were educated privately; in areas such as private equity, the statistic shoots up to 70%. This highlights an area that is predominantly composed of white privileged men and is harder for BAME individuals to break into than others. Client-facing and revenue-generating areas such as banking tend to be more exclusive based on socioeconomic background; this stems from a fear that if you allow people in who don’t look and sound reassuringly expensive, it will undermine the status and prestige of the occupation or perhaps the organisation as well.

Conclusion 

The stark reality is that education is not the great equaliser and all too often, who you know trumps what you know. Getting a 2:1 degree from a Russell Group university is no longer enough to break into the elite. Social class remains the irremovable barrier. One thing I learned from the programme is that we need to improve the confidence of both the people applying and those who do not apply because they are not confident enough. It is possible to break into those elite workplaces, whatever your background, through hunger for success. Have faith in your intellect and ambition – it helps to learn the codes (clothes, behaviours, mannerisms – and yes, even accents). You can get help with ‘polish’ and learn to overcome nerves and the anxiety that you don’t ‘fit’. Now, more than ever, making the legal profession more inclusive in terms of social class has become a priority for professional bodies, regulators and the government – perhaps even for firms and chambers themselves.