It’s not about the shoes

Last week the Social Mobility Commission released a report looking at socio-economic diversity in life sciences and investment banking. You might be forgiven for thinking that the story was all about the danger of wearing brown shoes with a blue suit if you’re looking for a job in the City, judging by the media coverage, but it’s a bit more complicated than that.

Turns out, people in investment banking tend to hire people who are like themselves. Now there’s a surprise (not). Then again, equally startlingly,  people in life sciences organisations end up hiring people who’ve gone to the most well-known or prestigious universities. And, guess what, students from non-privileged backgrounds tend not to go to the elite universities from which employers prefer to select candidates – and even when they do, those students self-select out of the recruitment process if they feel they won’t fit in or that employers aren’t seeking diversity in their organisation.

None of this is particularly new, in fact it’s depressingly familiar.  Regardless of whether you have a degree or not, for many people who don’t display the same speech patterns, accent, behaviour and dress sense as their interviewers, the path to a job offer is that much harder.

That’s not all. According to the Social Mobility Commission’s 2015 research, a degree doesn’t have the same value for all graduates. Even when you account for differences in institution and subject, students from higher income families earn around 10% more. And Black African degree-holders are 14% less likely than their white peers to be in professional work 6 months after graduation. So, even if you’ve made it to university, coming from non-privileged backgrounds means you remain at a disadvantage as you enter the world of work.

How can we change this? Well, there continue to be important and influential drives within the creative and communications industries to increase the diversity of our workforce to ensure equal access to opportunity based on talent alone – there are great organisations like The Ideas Foundation and Creative Access that make a huge difference in encouraging young people from all backgrounds to break into our field.  The innovative Publicis Lab for Bright Sparks scheme is now in its third year (disclaimer: I was involved in its initial development some years ago), with applications closing 9 September 2016 and is a great example of how to attract a different kind of talent into the workplace.

There’s more to be done though, and one of the most important things we can do to drive and support diversity in our industry is to break the code. By that I mean helping interviewers and candidates at all levels to understand some of the unwritten rules that influence the way they assess and are assessed.  We need a level of self-knowledge as interviewers that helps us to challenge our unconscious preconceptions and prejudices so that we are able to see more clearly what someone has to offer rather than perhaps being put off by the fact they speak differently or don’t present themselves in a way that makes you feel comfortable in putting them in front of a client. It’s especially important when it comes to entry level roles to hire for talent, not for polish, because whilst you can help people to bring a bit of shine to the way they operate, it’s nothing without the spark inside.

As senior leaders and practitioners, the advice above probably reads a bit “grandmother: eggs” but let’s not forget that for many new graduates and entry level candidates, their first interview almost certainly won’t be with you – it’ll probably be with a mid-manager, someone unlikely to have the same level of training and interview experience that you have built up over the years. As we develop new managers and coach them through the best ways to identify talent, let’s not forget to teach them how to identify and eliminate their own unconscious biases, so that those uniquely diverse individuals we’re looking for don’t get weeded out during the first round before you even get to meet them.

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