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Why posh white men get more second chances

One of the salient features of Boris Johnson’s career is just how many second chances he’s been given over the years.

He fabricated a quote when he worked at The Times, a mortal sin for a journalist. He was fired, but rapidly popped up at The Telegraph as if nothing had happened.

As an MP, he later brazenly lied to his party leader over an affair, got fired as a shadow minister, but was later selected as the Conservative candidate for London mayor. As foreign secretary he endangered a British citizen imprisoned in Iran through sheer incompetence. He wasn’t fired.

The list goes on and on. Perhaps it’s a class thing.

The former Test Match Special cricket commentator Henry Blofeld, an Old Etonian like Johnson, was much loved. But he often made basic mistakes, including misidentifying players.

As my colleague Jonathan Liew pointed out in a memorable article, it’s hard to imagine that someone younger, someone without Blower’s grand social background, would have lasted so long.

Or is it a gender thing? Charlotte Hogg felt she had to resign last year from a senior role at the Bank of England after failing to follow the code of conduct she had set, as its chief operating officer, for declaring interests, specifically failing to record that her brother worked for Barclays.

By coincidence, around the same time, it emerged that Barclays’ chief executive, Jes Staley, had been trying to root out a whistleblower, disregarding the rules of the bank. But Staley wasn’t required to resign.

The outcome was a fine, a bonus cancellation and a slap on the wrist from the regulator.

Or perhaps such double standards are a race thing? As Ta-Nehisi Coates has written of Donald Trump: “The mind seizes trying to imagine a black man extolling the virtues of sexual assault on tape, fending off multiple accusations of such assaults, immersed in multiple lawsuits for allegedly fraudulent business dealings, exhorting his followers to violence, and then strolling into the White House.”

It certainly feels that some people have more leeway than others; that there’s more indulgence when they break the rules; that different standards apply.

A new study by Mark Egan, Gregor Matvos and Amit Seru – which looks at how women working in US financial advisory services are treated relative to men when they break the rules – backs up this intuition.

The researchers found that women face a harsher punishment for similar misconduct. Men also get a second chance in the industry much more than women. The paper’s authors call it a “gender punishment gap”.

But they found a similar effect for ethnic minority workers. African and Hispanic workers tend to get more severely punished for similar misdemeanours to white financial advisors.

Every large organisation nowadays proclaims its commitment to non-discrimination. Are they lying? Is it cynical public relations flannel? Perhaps in some cases. But not necessarily. The bias may be unconscious.

We’ve all seen how women can be somehow valued less than men, even when doing the same job.

Superiors seem to have trouble envisioning ethnic minorities as managers, despite their ambition. And when those workers err, they don’t get the benefit of the doubt. Interestingly, the researchers found more evidence of double standards in companies with fewer female and ethnic minority managers.

This is one of the reasons ethnic, gender and social class diversity in management is beneficial. It can short circuit the programme of unconscious bias of a management “in-group” when it comes to treatment of staff, whether it’s in relation to punishment, pay or promotion.

But this is a tough nut to crack. Like tends to hire and promote like. As most of us probably know, office politics often dominate merit when it comes to elevation. That cements a management’s composition and also its biases.

In the end, it’s about power. Inequalities of treatment stem from inequalities of power within an organisation. You’ll know when an institution is serious about tackling the former when it takes serious steps to rectify the latter.


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