Growing up, I never dreamed my pedigree could grant me access to the networks and spaces that I have now. My parents met in the U.S. Navy as teenagers, neither one of them having the opportunity to go to college directly after high school. My mother immigrated to New York from Jamaica at fourteen, and my father grew up on the South Side of Chicago before moving to a small town in Michigan for high school. As a military family, we planted roots in Maryland to give me the best chance at a stable education and weathered my father’s deployments as a family.
Unfortunately, my college application process coincided with my parent’s separation and I found myself suddenly lost. Without access to adequate college counseling, I was left to my own devices to devise my college application list. Despite my lack of guidance, I became one of the first students from my high school to matriculate to an Ivy League university; Princeton changed my life in more ways than I can count. Gaining admission to Princeton and later Harvard Law School ended up being the ticket to an entire professional and social network that not only afforded me greater opportunities but also allowed me to understand the silent rules that lead to gatekeeping of other talented underrepresented minorities. I realized, however, that there was so much misinformation about the higher education admissions process and not enough resources to help students find their best-fit institutions.
Year after year, I would help students navigate the admissions process while listening to their hopes and dreams and helping them determine their values. Eventually this grew into a full scale consultancy firm and this year we are launching an AI-powered web application that helps students learn how to strengthen and structure their essays to increase their ability to get into top schools, further expanding our reach. Helping students of color achieve upward mobility is crucial as statistics show that students of color increase their earning potential by 21% when they attend selective institutions. This is in large part due to the fact that access to high-earning career opportunities is often dependent on pedigree.
Too often in the law, as in business, top firms tend to hire from the same institutions of higher learning without appreciation for the systemic barriers that make those same institutions unobtainable to the majority of aspiring minority and women talent. Overall in the U.K. only 17% of lawyers are Black, Asian or Minority Ethnic (BAME). Worse yet, only 2% of lawyers are Black according to the 2021 data.
Part of my work and life’s mission has been to dismantle some of those systemic barriers to entry, but if we are to truly create a more diverse and cosmopolitan workplace that can serve the needs of future generations it is crucial that we diversify our hiring practices and understand how we as corporations can choose to push back against the silent gatekeeping that has gone on for decades.
Here are some tangible ways that hiring managers can make small but meaningful changes to disrupt the oftentimes elitist status quo:
1. Look Outside the Usual Schools for Hiring
Those that come from elite institutions tend to have been given other access to privileged spaces. According to the Guardian, in 2019, Britain’s top jobs in politics, the judiciary, and business were disproportionately comprised of individuals who were privately educated in elite schools. 39% of the more than 5,000 leading individuals “including politicians, tech bosses, journalists, judges and FTSE 350 chief executives” were privately educated. The article further went on to say that “the most advantaged are nearly 10 times more likely to attend elite universities than the most disadvantaged.”
With the understanding of the socioeconomics and systemic barriers at play in who gets access to elite universities, it becomes continually unethical for hiring managers to only look toward those same elite universities when filling their positions. To continue to use elite universities as a proxy and short-cut for finding educated and high-quality candidates perpetuates the myth that those who attend institutions are in some way de facto superior to those who have not had the privilege to do so. This is especially dangerous when studies show that 29% of Black students report experiencing racial harassment at university, a statistic that no doubt contributes to the fact that Black students are 50% more likely to drop out of university.
Hiring managers must resist the urge to take the “easy way out” and instead diversify their talent pool, looking toward schools that have a high percentage of Black and PoC undergraduate students. This is crucial, even if it means looking toward perhaps lesser-known or not as prestigious universities that may have talent that is just as, if not better, than talent at more well-known or elitist institutions.
2. Diversify the Hiring Committee
Confirmation bias occurs when we expect a person’s language or actions to match our preconceived ideas or beliefs on how we would have acted in that situation. With hiring, it is possible for the hiring manager to unconsciously be biased against a candidate because they act in a way that is culturally different from that of the hiring manager. For this reason, it is imperative that the hiring committee be culturally and socioeconomically diverse. This will ensure that multiple viewpoints and cultural backgrounds are represented leading to a smaller chance of actional bias in the hiring process.
In the same vein, it is also important to examine bias during the interview process. Not only will it signal to potential employees that the workplace actually values diversity more than just lip service, but having a diverse hiring committee will ensure that diverse voices are heard even within the hiring committee. Implicit bias can lead to unfavorable hiring outcomes or judgment about a candidate’s background without ever really getting to know who a candidate is and objectively assessing whether they would be a good fit for the position.
3. Assess Skills Not Pedigree
One way that hiring managers can try to reduce pedigree or racial bias is by having candidates complete a standardized skills test. Such skills tests would allow each candidate to be on a more level playing field and allow the merits of the candidate’s application to shine through brighter than their pedigree or connections.
While these suggestions help on the hiring front, it’s also nice to remember that there are business owners who choose to build their businesses with purpose. When I started growing my own business, it was so important to me to bring people onto my team that were driven towards the same purpose as me: dismantling some of the systemic barriers to entry into higher education and the law. I utilized the same suggestions that I mentioned above and am proud to say that my team is 75% people of color, 50% of our team is part of the LGBTQ+ community, and several were the first in their own families to go to college. On the client side, I’ve intentionally created ways for a broader population to access the services my company provides. I believe that everyone, regardless of their background, can benefit from additional help and support. And I’m happy to report that I’ve accomplished this without sacrificing profit. Successful businesses can absolutely be purpose driven.