GUEST COMMENT: Why do so many ethnic minorities in financial services end up in IT, or the back office?

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Having broken away from working in our parent's corner shops and restaurants, second generation Asians like myself are now often stereotyped for following professions such as medicine, law or dentistry.

But you only have to walk through the office of any major bank in the Square Mile or Canary Wharf to see that blacks and Asians make up a sizeable number of the total employees. Gender diversity seems to receive a lot of attention in the media, but racial diversity less so.

During my ten-year career in the City I worked at both investment banks and vendors consulting across pretty much every major trading floor in London and New York. It became apparent to me that the majority of black, Asian and other ethnic minorities are well represented (or perhaps over-represented) in certain areas such as technology, operations and at junior to mid-level management positions.

However, it's also quite clear that this diversity does not necessarily extend to front office and more senior positions in many firms. Given the large numbers of ethnic minorities that have entered the industry over the years, why is diversity not extending to senior level and client facing roles?

There's no clear answer to this. An article in the Harvard Business Review blog recently stated that although Asians in the US make up 5% of the total workforce, they only account for 1.8% of Fortune 500 CEOs and barely 2% of board members.

Some argue minorities come from less privileged educational and social backgrounds and therefore struggle to reach the upper echelons at blue-blooded institutions. Others (controversially in this article) state that some ethnic minorities tend to have less aggressive personalities due to their cultural or religious backgrounds.

In fairness, a lot of the larger banks have been investing in diversity initiatives for many years now. I would argue that some bulge bracket US investment banks, and I've worked in many, have done very well to ensure the workforce is racially diverse from the CEO downwards.

However, there's still a big disparity within many European, small and mid-cap banks, as well as buy-side firms, where you would have to be blind not notice that there is a distinct lack of diversity at senior level.

But on the flip side, consider that many of the major Indian consulting firms now expanding in the West also lack white and European nationalities in their senior ranks. The importance for diversity in Eastern firms is just as important for their business in the West and globally.

It's human nature, at a subconscious level, to like people that are similar to us. There's also pressure to follow what is seen as commercially viable to keep a team or organisation's demographic the same.

However, a diverse workforce benefits business by utilising people with distinctly different backgrounds and upbringings to solve problems in uniquely different ways increase creativity and innovation. In addition, due to the huge growth in China and India and an increasingly global marketplace, diversity of senior staff in financial services firms is already gaining rapid attention for the right reasons.

Finally, it's important to realise the importance that head-hunters and recruiters play in the process of diversity. It is recruiters that shortlist the candidates that are put forward to hiring managers, so it's just as important that the recruitment industry educates itself around diversity and takes the subject seriously rather than just a check box exercise or marketing ploy.

Whether considering ethnicity, gender, age, culture, sexual orientation, disability or religious belief, diversity will play an increasingly important topic in our careers.

Diversity does not have to be about controversial quota systems or arguing about 'glass ceilings', but when focused on the business case for diversity, understanding how we behave, how we can change this and in light of the rapidly transforming global market place, diversity can be considered from a more positive and thought-provoking perspective.

Kuljeet Chahal is managing director of Vivacity Executive Search & Selection: a niche recruitment company specialising in project, programme, and change management professionals to the financial services and consulting industries. Vivacity organises regular networking events around gender and race diversity to raise awareness of issues and assist organisations in recruiting from diverse talent pools.

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