Recruiting from a broader range of social backgrounds is good for business as well as societyby Hashi Mohamed / April 8, 2017 / Leave a comment
In the summer of 2007, I had an idea that changed my life. I had just left university and was unsure what my future would look like—but I had an inkling. It could either be a safe job in the civil service, legal profession or even journalism.
Whatever it was, it was going to be very different to my past. I came to this country as a nine-year-old child refugee originally from Somalia and grew up in a disadvantaged area of north west London. My academic marks were not the greatest. I had no connection whatsoever to any of the professions I aspired to join. The odds were against me and I knew I had to be creative. I had little to lose and much to gain.
So I wrote a speculative letter to Peter Barron, then editor of Newsnight, asking to learn more about the inner workings of the programme. I told him a little about my background and cheekily added that two years earlier I had swapped watching MTV for Newsnight and had never looked back. Amazingly, Peter invited me in to spend some time with the programme. Though I didn’t end up going into full-time journalism (I am currently a barrister), the chance that Peter took on me was the moment my horizons were opened to a professional world I had known little about.
As I argue in a Radio 4 documentary to be broadcast this Tuesday evening, the kind of social mobility that got me where I am today is sadly atypical. For me luck mattered as much as talent. Peter decided to take a chance on me. Yet still there is a pervasive narrative in Britain that “if you work hard and do the right thing, you will get on.” This simply isn’t true. When it comes to the economically disadvantaged, working hard barely gets you to the starting line.
The challenge we face is immense. According to the Social Mobility Foundation, just 11 per cent of journalists and 4 per cent of doctors come from working-class backgrounds. The figure for barristers is 6 per cent. We should all be concerned with this—not only for the sake of fairness, but also because the brightest and the best are clearly not being recruited into the top professions.
So what can we do? I have three thoughts on the way forward.
First, bold ideas are required. It is not enough to say that education is the start and end to social mobility. Schemes to improve diversity and equality in the workplace—while noble and necessary—cannot be mere tick box exercise. Quotas for women or ethnic minorities may be instantly attractive, but they are not a real answer. They can diminish people’s worth before they’ve even had a chance to prove their abilities. (A different face can swiftly be labelled the one who got an unfair leg-up.) It can even foster a resentful work environment. And they will not change a culture that judges people, say, on their accents. Class is also a major issue. You could be a black guy and flourish at the Bar, but that’s probably because you’re a black Old Etonian who knows the tricks to succeed.
Ideally, people from different backgrounds bring different experiences and potentially new and bold ideas to tackle difficult problems. However if the environment in which they are expected to function is relatively sterile, one-dimensional and non-welcoming, they are unlikely to want to pursue that avenue. Hence, better than official quotas, the professions and businesses need to foster an open-minded environment, and to be unafraid to try new ways of working. Sometimes that means being culturally accommodating: a judge may take account of Ramadan, for example, in the case of the lawyers in court being Muslim. Sometimes it means not expecting your employee to look, sound and attend the same club as you—if you have a club at all.
Employers should think about a “wild card” option—choosing someone who on paper or in person might not seem to fit the bill. This is not meant to be “positive discrimination.” The idea is to find a way of giving employers the chance to exercise discretion, which allows them to bring in people not normally attracted by that institution. To give potential a chance rather than be duped by polish. Wild cards may not be able to instantly gel; they may take more work than the public-school-Oxbridge types. But with time and guidance they will flourish. Wild cards have been known to win Wimbledon.
Finally, it requires a change of mind set—making a work environment and profession more inclusive is not a bad thing; nor should we shame people into doing it. It should be a positive choice made by the professions—they have plenty to gain.
Hashi Mohamed is a Barrister at No5 Chambers. He presents “Adventures in Social Mobility,” to be broadcast on BBC Radio 4 at 8pm on 11th April 2017.