Despite the efforts of elite firms to diversify recruitment, their most senior jobs which attract the highest salaries are still dominated by white, male graduates who attended elite universities.

The study, published in British Journal of Sociology, and conducted by academics at the University of Bath and Durham University, drew on survey data from the ‘Destination of Leavers in Higher Education’ survey to map the trajectories of nearly 12,000 graduates working in accountancy, consulting and finance. It suggests these inequalities emerge right at the point of graduate entry, at the very outset of people’s careers.

The team behind the study were interested in understanding what factors predict graduates’ entry into top multinational firms; as well as which groups get paid most, and which get paid least.

Within these fields, 3,260 graduates recruited by 31 elite companies were examined, including those working for firms such as Goldman Sachs, Barclays Bank, HSBC and Pricewaterhousecoopers.

Their findings suggest a two-tiered process of graduate recruitment into elite multinational firms.

In terms of top multinational companies’ overall recruitment for all jobs, findings suggest:

  • Ethnic minority graduates are more likely to be recruited.
  • Broadly, women are just as likely to be recruited as men.
  • The arrival of newer universities is increasing access – for example, when it comes to overall recruitment, there were more graduates from Aston than from Oxford within elite firms.

Yet a very different story emerges when it comes to recruitment into top jobs for these firms, the ones attracting the highest starting salaries:

  • Compared to white graduates, most other ethnic groups are less likely to be earning the most upon entry to a top firm – especially Asian/Asian British - Bangladeshi (over 10 per cent less likely), Black/Back-British Caribbean (nearly 14 per cent less likely) and Chinese (over 7 per cent less likely).
  • Compared to those from London, graduates from other parts of the UK are less likely to have a higher starting salary upon entry: those from Northern Ireland (over 10 per cent less likely), North West and the South West (both nearly 7 per cent less likely).
  • Women are less likely to have a higher starting salary than men upon entry to a top multinational firm (4 per cent less likely).

Unlike recruitment more generally, those graduating from a core groups of elite universities are more likely to have a higher starting salary, in particular Oxford, Cambridge, LSE, Imperial and especially London Business School. A small group, including the universities of Bath, Warwick, and City provided a small challenge to this dominant group in terms of earnings upon entry.

Lead researcher and ESRC Fellow, Dr Michael Donnelly of Bath’s Department of Education explained: “To make sense of why inequalities persist in the board rooms of elite multinational companies we need to look at patterns in recruitment at the very earliest stages - especially the so-called ‘rising stars’ who secure places on their coveted graduate recruitment schemes.

“Inequalities at the earliest phases of recruitment are likely to cement more long-term patterns in career progression, resulting in the sorts of white, privileged corridors of power we see in the upper echelons of elite firms.

“The detail of what diversity means to these firms matters, and needs to be challenged if these companies are to go beyond paying lip service to ‘diversity’.”

Co-author, Dr Sol Gamsu of Durham University added: “The fact that universities such as Aston University, with an intake in 2016/17 that was 94.9% from state school, can compete with Oxford on initial entry to these firms suggests that something is fundamentally wrong in our assumptions about university hierarchies.

“Aston’s success suggests there is no reason why there should be an intrinsic connection between studying at an ‘elite’ university and entering well-paid, rewarding careers. Why should we assume that those who attend the wealthiest, most socially selective universities have the right to the best graduate opportunities?

“Pay inequalities amongst graduates within these firms suggests that the traditional hierarchies and snobbery continues to exist within the powerful financial companies that dominate the UK economy.”

The team suggest further work is needed to trace the nature of educational paths that lead to recruitment by elite employers within other professional fields, such as law, journalism, architecture.