Finance focus part 1: improving diversity at the entry point into a finance career

In June 2019 Flexology hosted a roundtable session for finance leaders in the South West to discuss the issues faced in attraction, recruitment and retention of a diverse workforce into the finance profession, and how these challenges can be overcome.

It is clear to us that the business world is starting to see the commercial advantages of a diverse workforce and its impact on financial performance, through improved talent attraction to having happier, more productive staff, better decision making and better alignment with customers.

However, things aren’t changing as quickly as we’d like them to. Evidence shows that the gender pay gap is widening, that only six per cent of those with revenue responsibility at FTSE 300 companies are women, and that none of them come from black or ethnic minority groups. A number of businesses have initiatives underway to change things, while some are working, others clearly aren’t or not fast enough.

17 September 2019

The first discussion was on the barriers preventing diverse entry into finance as graduates or school leavers, and how these could be removed.

At entry level into finance, our panel felt that the diversity issue is not so much about gender but more about social and cultural diversity and ultimately diversity of thought.

There were three key areas we identified where this could be improved:

1./ How the finance profession is represented and how we manage talent attraction

The image of finance as a whole was considered to be a barrier to entry, with school leavers and graduates thinking finance is solely about numbers and a bit dull, not realising the breadth of career a finance qualification can lead to.

The image of finance can be a barrier to entry

We felt it important that schools and universities are clear on what a finance career involves and the opportunities within it and that senior finance professionals take the time to work with schools and universities on this. For example, the ICAEW run a National business and accounting competition each year for students in school or college aged 16-17. The students are able to engage in business challenges that enable them to develop key employability skills and understand what it’s like to be working in finance. Each student group is allocated a mentor, a qualified accountant working in industry or practice, who volunteers their time to work with their school and group on the project. Schemes like this help students and their schools to understand a career in finance.

When considering the approach by businesses to promoting diversity at the entry point, some methods that had worked for our panel or that they are exploring include:

  • reviewing the wording on role descriptions, ensuring that “required skills” really represent those required for the role;
  • using different candidate sourcing to reach out beyond the usual attraction pool, for example using a different agency with a different focus that may generate a more diverse talent pool;
  • using a different approach, for example Apprenticeship schemes for school leavers to start their finance careers by studying AAT rather than solely graduate recruitment or partnering directly with an organisation such as Babassa, that supports aspiring young people (16 – 25), often disadvantaged by their background, location or lack of affluent networks, to pursue their professional ambitions.
Finance needs to be represented as fairer and more inclusive

2./ Question what we are looking for in an individual

We considered that a change in mindset was required so that businesses do not look for the same experience or skills that they always have, instead looking for the right behaviours in an individual and then thinking about whether they can then train them. Behaviours such as an ability to challenge, an appetite to learn and an interest in what is going on around them and interest in the business and its development should potentially make someone a more attractive candidate than someone with a lot of experience and not much interest. We can then consider how we could help these individuals to develop a career in our organisation.

Look for behaviours rather than skills

This is particularly important at this entry level, where individuals expect to train and learn in order to develop their career in finance. Training can be in softer skills as well as qualifications, such as communicating with colleagues, and approach to work, for example time management.

Show people a development path

Often, people hire a candidate that interviews in the best way but this may not be the best candidate for the role. The interview process can be flawed in that people can be trained to interview well through direct training or life experience and this may not be inclusive for those disadvantaged by background. It is very easy when busy and someone comes in for interview who is not polished or doesn’t present well to overlook them. Some of this can be resolved by the structure of the interview process (see point 3) but often we need to change the way we approach an interview and question our own decision making, perhaps asking others from the organisation with a different approach or background to sit in.  

“What is really important and we tend not to talk about when we talk about diversity is social mobility, finding people that have all the talent but perhaps none of the polish.” Anne Obey, Director of Financial Reporting & Diversity and Inclusion lead for finance 

All businesses, but especially large businesses where volumes are higher and there is less visibility, need to be much more rigorous on their data monitoring and management information and make sure they are collecting the right data and analysing it so they can see where diversity is falling down – at the attraction point, interview point or shortly after hire – the results may be different than they think! Where possible this should go further than gender and ethnicity and include information on background such as school or university attended.

“People look at it skin deep, so they look just at colour. Diversity of thought is more important. My mum’s Polish and my dad’s Ghanaian, I think very differently from someone who is my colour and British. I’ve managed people who have behaved differently because of where they’re from. Actually it’s harder to manage diversity of ideas, culturally.” Angela Appiah Shippey, Client Director at FD Works 

3./ Try to ensure the recruitment process is as structured as possible

In order to remove unconscious bias the recruitment process needs to be more structured, for example using question sets and testing for required skills, eg Excel. This helps to ensure that candidates can be fairly reviewed and helps to reduce grey areas such as “cultural fit”.