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How investment banks accidentally screen for the middle class student

Banks Middle Classes

It’s no secret that investment banks have a tendency to hire students from a middle class or even upper middle class background. For all Goldman Sachs’ insistence that it doesn’t hire ‘entitled kids,’ the firm has some pretty well-connected people on its staff, and J.P. Morgan’s 2015 UK analyst class is a study in the benefits of an expensive education.  

A new study by academics at the Kellogg School of Management helps explain why this might be. The academics suggest that language used on investment banks’ recruitment websites and by investment banks’ recruiters is subtly directed towards students raised in middle class homes.

For example, they note that an employee on Goldman Sachs’ recruiting website says managers at the bank, “pride themselves on empowering their employees to be creative and to develop solutions to problems at any level.” He adds: “This is a place where I can select the opportunities I’m interested in, instead of waiting for the organization to decide for me.”  Similarly, they cite an employee at Morgan Stanley, who says: “This is a great environment for the self-starter, someone who relishes a lot of autonomy, and seeks to do things the way they think is best. If you have initiative, you can take it and run. The firm will support that and reward that quality.”

Is this such a bad thing? Yes, if you want to attract students who weren’t raised in ‘professional’ families. The academics claim that middle class and working class students are brought up to think differently about themselves and what constitutes ‘competence,’ and that banks’ hiring messages are mostly angled to appeal to students in the first cohort.

In middle class households, they say that children are brought up to have an ‘independent’ sense of self. In working class households, they argue that children are brought up to have an ‘interdependent’ sense of self. The differences between the two are shown in graphic below.

How social class shapes models of self and competence: 

Models of competence

Source: Kellogg School of Management 

While banks might not dispute the analysis of social traits, they could easily claim that they’re not simply targeting confident students who take charge and express themselves. After all, most banks are explicit about wanting to hire team- players who are responsive to clients’ needs. Equally, banks can be incredibly hierarchical and far from hiring people who’ll take charge, they like juniors who’ll do as they’re told – even if they’re told to work all weekend at 8pm on a Friday night. 

If banks want to attract working class students into the industry, the academics suggest they start using language that will appeal to students in the top left box above. Talking about what it’s really like to work in the industry might do the job just as well….

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