But times have changed, particularly in Europe, where the raging war for talent, and a rapidly changing and mobile workforce, has made banks realise that diversity makes good business sense.
For one thing, roughly 60% of the graduate population coming out of university these days is either female or non-white, according to a senior recruitment adviser at a leading investment bank.
Not only are banks aware that they need to attract the right sort of skills, she says, but amid rapid technological change, these may now be different skills. Diversity in graduate recruitment is an increasingly important issue facing investment banking.
In Europe, at least, the goal seems to be a new open-mindedness in recruitment. Some headhunters working in financial services search in the US and Europe are cynical, however, about what diversity means in the US.
'US firms are looking very hard at diversity. If you want to get business in the US you have to show that you can get blacks and women there at the pitch,' says the global head of financial services at a large search firm.
Nonetheless, it is the US-owned firms that are at the forefront. For example, JPMorgan, along with Goldman Sachs, has been one of the pioneers in paying attention to the changing faces and mores of its workforce and their work/life balance.
Goldman Sachs was the first leading investment bank to align itself with the gay community by sponsoring the annual fund-raising dinner last year for Stonewall, the campaigning group for gay rights, at the Savoy Hotel in London.
At JPMorgan Chase, the newly re-vamped website opens with a quote from chairman Sandy Warner: 'Diversity is a business imperative, not an option. It has to be an integral part of our thinking in order for us to deliver knowledge, experience, teamwork, and the best solutions to clients.'
JPMorgan first launched a diversity training course three years ago in the US, and in 1999 tailored the same course for Europe and Asia.
Goldman Sachs has also recently been looking at ways to recruit more people from African and Asian backgrounds for its London investment banking operations. The US bank is working closely with ethnic communities in London through its human resources department and its diversity strategist, Pamela Elms.
At Citigroup, which has long had an international and diversified senior team in the US, a line function in diversity has now been created in Europe reporting in to senior management.
Lynne Fisher has recently been appointed as head of diversity for Citigroup as a whole from her base at Schroder Salomon Smith Barney in London.
Fisher says: 'Diversity is part of our wider 'employer of choice' initiative. Increasing competition and globalisation makes it harder these days for firms to differentiate themselves. We need to be able to attract the best and the brightest.'
It makes good business sense, she adds, because getting diverse groups and teams together is about bringing different perspectives to the organisation.
In Europe, Deutsche Bank is described by one headhunter as one of the most diverse financial institutions around. Certainly Deutsche is taking the issue of diversity very seriously, with a team of three dedicated individuals in the UK and about 13 globally - in Frankfurt and New York.
Sharon Harris heads the UK part of the global team and Abi Amosu is the most recent recruit, dedicated to looking at all the implications of diversity for graduate recruitment.
Nadia Capy, marketing manager for graduate recruitment at Deutsche Bank, has worked closely with Sharon Harris on diversity issues.
Capy says: 'We need to ensure that cloning does not happen in the hiring process. We equip our hiring managers with the tools to help them to recognise the range of skills and attributes they may encounter in a diverse group.'
Deutsche has used Towers Perrin to help develop a diversity recruitment workshop for senior managers who recruit graduates from around the world. It aims to train them to broaden the bank's pool of talent for the future.
Sally-Anne Hart, the senior diversity consultant at Towers Perrin who designed the two-hour briefing session for Deutsche Bank, says it has two main objectives: 'The first is to heighten awareness of the filters that could stop the graduate seeing the potential of what Deutsche Bank has to offer.
'The second objective is to raise awareness at the bank's end and make sure they see the candidate clearly.'
Towers Perrin has about 25 to 30 diversity consultants globally and also uses affiliates in the field. Hart has worked with other financial institutions in a similar vein and calls diversity 'a mainstream change issue'.
She adds: 'As banks become more global and their customer base becomes more diverse, they need to be able to reach out and attract a diverse working population.'
But other diversity consultants point out that this process of change is not an easy one.
As one diversity consultant remarks: 'Financial institutions can be very arrogant, and if they have had a comfortable time getting staff in the past, they're not used to having to compete. You have to tell them: 'Well, this is what it says in your marketing bumpf, but do you know what you are looking for and how to recognise it when you see it?'
In Europe, the issue of diversity can be complicated by the existence of stereotypes and preconceptions when so many different cultures are involved. Alongside geographic and regional differences, class is seen as a much bigger issue here as well, those working in diversity claim.
Towers Perrin's Hart says: 'The US has forged ahead in many ways, but the way we handle diversity in Europe is very relevant.
'If you ask [candidates] to leave their creativity or their ethnic origin at the door, you end up with a cloned version of existing bankers.'
At executive search firm Norman Broadbent, director Elisabeth Marx works both as a psychologist and a search consultant with top management teams. Her research a few years ago into boardroom trends at Britain's top 100 companies broadly found that the ones at the top displayed a wider, more international background and employed more women.
'You have to look at diversity as something that actually needs to work for the company. You may want to recruit international teams, but do you have the leaders who can cope with them?
'The issue of diversity challenges all our ideas about recruitment,' says Marx.