A qualitative evaluation of non-educational barriers to the elite professions

Louise Ashley, Joanne Duberley, Hilary Sommerlad, Dora Scholarios

Research output: Book/ReportCommissioned report


This report sets out the findings from a qualitative study, focusing on two main areas. The first (Study A) examines the barriers to entry for people from less privileged socioeconomic backgrounds to elite law and accountancy firms, with a particular focus on London. The second (Study B) examines the barriers to entry for people from similar backgrounds to elite financial service firms (including accountancy) located in Scotland.
The study finds that despite their efforts to improve social inclusion over the past ten to fifteen years, these elite firms continue to be heavily dominated at entry level by people from more privileged socioeconomic backgrounds. This can be attributed primarily to a tendency to recruit the majority of new entrants from a narrow group of elite universities, where students are more likely to have attended selective or feepaying schools, and/or come from relatively affluent backgrounds. In addition, elite firms define ‘talent’ according to a number of factors such as drive, resilience, strong communication skills and above all confidence and ‘polish’, which participants in the research acknowledged can be mapped on to middle-class status and socialisation.
Against this backdrop, the key purpose of the study is to explore what more can be done to open access to elite professions. More generally, the study responds to evidence that the dominance of people from more privileged socioeconomic
backgrounds within elite professions has become more pronounced over the past thirty years. For example, research from the Cabinet Office shows that recent generations of lawyers and accountants are more likely to come from families with significantly above-average incomes. There is also some evidence that where diverse individuals gain access to the elite professions, their subsequent career progression is affected by social background, though the extent and cause of this challenge has been under-researched to date. As we shall demonstrate, these issues seem particularly acute in the UK’s largest and most prestigious law, accountancy and financial service firms, on which this study is focused.
A key focus of the current study is on talent. Whilst talent is sometimes presented by firms as though it is an unproblematic concept, it is in fact highly ambiguous. Previous research suggests that this ambiguity is a key factor encouraging firms to rely on proxy measures of potential associated with middle-class status, thus accentuating rather than reducing, non-educational barriers to entry and, possibly, career progression. In order to explore this issue, we look here at how talent is identified and defined at entry level by organisations within the elite professions.
In addition, we also address three specific gaps in current knowledge of graduate hiring processes and practices and career progression.
 First, we address a lack of transparency about the precise mechanics of the
recruitment and selection process, and subsequent promotion decisions. In
particular, we ask what non-educational barriers to entry and progression do elite organisations construct? Who are these barriers constructed by? And at what points in the hiring process do these barriers come into play?
 Second, we examine the organisational dynamics behind a lack of diversity on the basis of social background, including factors in support of change, and in favour of the status quo. As part of this, we explore the role played by the business and moral cases for change, and discuss current best practice with respect to social inclusion initiatives.
 Third, we ask what role clients of leading firms may play in building a better case for change? Whilst elite organisations regularly claim that client expectations of their professional advisors are a barrier to diversity, there has been no independent study of the client perspective on social background to date. This is important because in other diversity strands, including gender, the client voice has arguably been important in driving forward at least some progressive change.
Original languageEnglish
PublisherSocial Mobility and Child Poverty Commission
Commissioning bodySocial Mobility and Child Poverty Commission
Number of pages112
Publication statusPublished - Jun 2015


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