A range of bankers were quick to dismiss the findings of the publication of the Social Mobility Commission’s report on September 1, which suggested that most investment banking divisions look for markers of middle or upper-class status when hiring and promoting staff, with an emphasis on confidence, speech patterns, behaviour and dress code.
Samir Assaf, chief executive for global banking and markets at HSBC, said the bank had a “very varied” workforce “from all walks of life” inside and outside the UK, adding: “Success is based on ability, not a school tie.”
Assaf added HSBC had introduced several programmes and initiatives to attract “under-represented students”. He said: “CV screening is now very limited so there can be a better emphasis on ability over background.”
Ann Doherty, JP Morgan’s co-head of Emea investor services sales and a trustee of the Social Mobility Foundation charity, said of the report’s suggestion that wearing brown shoes was “unacceptable” for a male banker: “Do we pick somebody because of their shoes? I would like to think we have much more of an enlightened view of the world.”
However, Doherty said the issue of social mobility in banking could not be entirely ignored, adding that as a farmer’s daughter and the first person in her family to go to university, she wanted to ensure the bank was “opening up a bright young person’s eyes to understanding what their options are and to give them some guidance”.
To that end, JP Morgan, for example, runs work experience placements for students through the Social Mobility Foundation. Doherty said the bank had this year made job offers to graduates who had joined the programme five years ago and stayed in touch with mentors from JP Morgan afterwards.
Some bankers were surprised that their industry – along with life sciences – had been singled out for criticism. One London-based global divisional head at an international investment bank said: “I’d say banks have much more diversity than the media or the arts, based on my exposure to those industries.”
A UK-born debt capital markets chief added: “This issue of social mobility – I think it’s overplayed. If you’re bright enough, smart enough and have the grades, I don’t see the block. The problem is the competitiveness of who’s applying for these positions is global. You have smart kids from all over the world looking to get onto these graduate programmes.”
A London-based headhunter who said he didn’t have time to read the report said he expected it to be “130 pages of hogwash”.
The commission’s report cited an earlier study by The Sutton Trust, published in 2014, which calculated that at least 34% of people joining the banking sector were educated privately, compared with 7% of the UK population. When it came to leadership at banks, the percentage with a private education rose to over half.
But an Oxford-educated associate who went to a state school and now works at a large US investment bank told FN that “there is not a point to be made” because the country’s highest-paid jobs would naturally be filled with applicants from elite universities.
He said: “The challenge is to get more working-class kids into good universities – you’re basically trying to re-engineer the symptom of the problem if you’re targeting investment banks.”
Elite universities have been working to tackle this issue for a number of years, with Oxford’s proportion of state school pupils in this year’s intake of almost 60% reaching its highest level in at least 40 years.
Richard Hoar, a headhunter at Goodman Masson, said: “It’s not an issue, as the sector is quite diverse – 20 years ago it was probably a very different place. More candidates from private schools might apply for these jobs because they’re better attuned in how to get them, and they might be more familiar with the sector because their parents are more likely to work in the City.”
That point was made clear in the report, which said young people from more affluent or professional backgrounds are at an advantage because they have access to the relevant information and knowledge about entry routes to investment banking.
Samik Chandarana, JP Morgan’s head of global credit indices and global credit e-trading, who has been supporting the Social Mobility Foundation programme at the bank for the past five years, told FN in August that one of the issues is that students “may not even realise the options that exist”.