‘By ‘eck. Did tha si news that them wiyan accent are missin’ tha chance wi top jobs? Dunt semuch f’me prospects int’ City.’
Not quite my softened Yorkshire accent, but one that is certainly familiar to me. News that those with accents and deemed to be from less desirable schools are missing out on the most prestigious jobs in the top law firms shouldn’t surprise us, but the scale of the so-called ‘class ceiling’ has caused widespread national concern. How fleeting the consternation is will depend on the news cycle, but as a profession it seems we are still not doing enough to break down the barriers of social immobility, and this affects us all.
An off-the-record ‘poshness test’ has been described as taking place in firms, which, in effect, acts as a bar to working-class people accessing opportunities generally available to the more ‘well-bred’ among us.
Unfortunately, for the brightest stars who don’t speak the Queen’s English or do a season at Klosters, no amount of revision will help them reach a pass mark, let alone win a commendation.
This news doesn’t come from a PR firm looking to get their client in the national press, but from the Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission established by the government to promote social mobility and led by Alan Milburn.
The research shows that last year more than two-thirds of job vacancies in 13 legal and City firms were filled by graduates who have been through private or grammar schools. To put that in context, only 7 per cent of schoolchildren attend fee-paying schools and an additional 4 per cent attend selective grammar schools. In crude terms, this means that 70 per cent of ‘elite’ roles are going to only 11 per cent of the population. Milburn suggests this shows that those from working-class backgrounds are being ‘locked out of top jobs’.
As well as judgement calls based on accent and education, the report suggested that how well travelled an applicant was could also determine their social status. This didn’t stop at entry level, however. On promotion, the research found that there was still a tendency for partners to recruit in their own image.
Singling out lawyers, Milburn added: ‘In some top law firms, trainees are more than five times more likely to have attended a fee-paying school than the population as a whole. They are denying themselves talent, stymieing young people’s social mobility and fuelling the social divide that bedevils Britain.’
This is surprising, given the efforts reported by many top firms to break down barriers into the profession, whether they be perceived or, seemingly, very real. Much has been said about the blind CV process and any number of initiatives by charities – and firms themselves – to create a fair, open, and transparent recruitment process have been applauded. But still, more must be done.
I am grateful for the opportunities that I have been given and I know that I am not a special case. The ‘poshness’ test may be headline grabbing, but it is also misleading. What we are talking about is bias, plain and simple. Unless that is recognised and outlawed by firms, we will be here again in another 12 months, five years, or two decades. Only then, we will have no excuses left to make.
This article first appeared in the Solicitors Journal and is reproduced with kind permission
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