Professions are in the discrimination business. They do this with the consent of society as a whole and in truth we all expect it. The problems start when they ignore technical expertise or individual potential and discriminate based on factors like ethnicity, gender or sexual orientation.
Growing up in a West African family it was instilled in me from a young age that that it was important to have a profession when I grew up. I should be a doctor, a lawyer or an accountant. I grew up hearing stories of how friends and relatives were discriminated against at work: training someone who later became their boss, accidentally hearing that colleagues were paid more than they were and being passed over for promotion repeatedly. My understanding was that if I had a profession I would be protected from some of these problems because the only thing that mattered would be my ability to do the job.
My Professional Plan
The plan was that as a professional, my job would be more secure than the average person, I would be paid more than the average person and as a result I could be happier than the average person. All I had to do was study and work hard. I didn’t have a better idea of what I wanted to do and I was pretty good with numbers so I was firmly nudged towards accountancy. I was told to go to university and then become a professional.
Becoming a Profession
According to Professor Alan J Richardson once an occupation successfully gains exclusive access to a particular set of market opportunities, for example preparing financial statements and performing audits. They are on their way to becoming a profession as long as they follow a number of strategies. One of these strategies is controlling who is able to become a member. If you can control who does the work, simple economics suggests that by restricting the supply, the price of the service will remain high. This is one way how these occupational groups translate their skills into rewards, e.g. high salaries, public recognition and improved social status. If they establish themselves as experts of this market for a long enough period of time, they are considered to be a profession.
I was being encouraged to study hard to join one of these groups but professions by their very nature are discriminatory institutions. The knowledge was hard to come and this is why professions like accountancy, law and medicine always have elaborate training systems. Entry examinations test technical knowledge but also function as a fence designed to keep out unwanted people. One of the reasons that people enter into a profession is the expectation that the institution has the power to ensure that as a member they are treated differently from those who don’t belong. That’s what discrimination is: the difference in treatment of an individual based on their membership of a particular group.
Doctors don’t want random members of the public practicing medicine and getting paid high salaries. As members of the public, we don’t want this either; we want to know that anyone who claims to be a doctor belongs to this group of experts that knows more about medicine than we do. We allow them to do it because it ensures that there is a motivated and competent supply of doctors who have the skills that we need to do the jobs that are important to us as a society. In a capitalist world, this all sounds reasonable, until professions start discriminating against people for reasons other than technical competence.
The Myth of Meritocracy
These professions characterise themselves as being objectively professional where knowledge, skills and intelligence are what matter in cultivating a professional career. The narrative is that if you can do the job, you’ll get the job. Well, the evidence from around the world clearly indicates that professions have taken their experience of restricting access and used it to exclude people based on irrelevant factors that suit them. I know from my research and my experience that the accounting profession actively cultivates an image that is white, middle class and male and in practice this means actively excluding people who don’t fit this description. Discrimination by all of the professions is such a problem in the UK that the government set up a task force to address the problem of access to the professions. The Milburn Report found that the UK professions had become more socially exclusive over the past thirty years because they were selecting members from wealthier backgrounds. The report didn’t say anything meaningful about the ethnic profile of the professions because ethnicity is ignored when talking about diversity in the UK. The professions are SO good at discriminating that it’s pretty hard to stop them doing it!
A Professional World
We are hurtling towards a knowledge-based economy. Manufacturing has been in a steady decline in the UK for the past forty years, rapidly replaced by a growing service sector. As the service sector has grown, so have the professions and the opportunities available to them. The number of accountants in the UK has increased by 50 per cent in the past 15 years according to the Financial Reporting Council. The Law Society shows that the number of solicitors on the Roll has increased by almost 60% since the year 2000. These figures are phenomenal. The increase in professionals shows that the size of the pie is increasing. The problem is that not everybody is invited to get a piece of the pie.
I still think joining a profession is a worthwhile pursuit. Many of the benefits I was promised as a kid are real. A lot of the opportunities that I have pursued over the past 10 years were as a result of me being a professional. Some people think of it as a safety net, but it’s even more effective when you use it as a launch pad. It gives you a skillset that allows you to engage problems that society seems to think are important. This is of value even if you have to fight harder than everyone else to get there.
Being from a minority ethnic group and a professional means that you’re already beating the odds, you have already resisted the powers that wanted you to be in low paying job. You already appreciate that you’re playing a different game; it’s a different experience that requires different strategies to succeed.
We need more role models like you to encourage other minority ethnic people to enter the professions; you are already doing your part. Understanding that the institutions are inherently discriminatory made it easier for me to realise that I needed to change my approach. I hope it does the same for you.
Have you experienced discrimination that was not based on your performance? You’re not alone. How did you deal with it?
What do you think about the growth in the number of professionals out there?
Let me know your thoughts