Industries traditionally dominated by white males have woken up to the fact that recruiting a diverse selection of graduates makes business sense

When occupational psychologist Binna Kandola set out to discover why graduates from ethnic minorities don't apply to certain firms and industries, he found the answer much quicker than he'd expected. "One of the companies, which had originally been highly rated by all graduates, hit the headlines with a story about how they treated ethnic minorities. The firm immediately fell to rock bottom in terms of ratings - and that went for all graduates, regardless of their ethnicity," he says.

What it showed, says Kandola, who works with organisations to implement diversity programmes, is that a company can have all the diversity policies and recruitment schemes in the world, but if its culture isn't genuinely inclusive, graduates will find them out and they simply won't apply. "What we found was that stories will either come out in the press, as in that case, or graduates will hear it from friends' and relations' accounts of working somewhere."

Ultimately, he says, they'll take a lot more notice of this than any glossy brochure or a dedicated web page on diversity.

The good news is that a growing number of graduate employers in traditionally white professions are recognising the business case for an ethnically diverse workforce and are working hard on improving their workplace culture.

"For most companies, it comes down to the war for talent," says Dianah Worman, diversity adviser for the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development. "Employers are realising that to ignore the issue, when they are desperate for bright people, makes no sense whatsoever.

There is also a growing body of evidence to suggest that the vast majority of young applicants now have high expectations around employers' ethics and values."

As the marketplace becomes increasingly global, employing people with an insight into how other cultures work is an advantage. "I have language skills and a knowledge about the Indian culture, which I'm putting to pretty good use in our business dealings with India," says Dhruv Patel, 23, an assistant tax consultant at PricewaterhouseCoopers (PWC), who joined the company two years ago as a graduate.

PWC, he says, is very flexible about allowing employees to take time off for religious festivals, and there are plenty of networks for groups such as Muslims or Hindus - both demonstrating a forward-thinking culture. "I've never seen any evidence of the old boy's network that people talk about," he says.

Given that 22 per cent of students joining PWC this year are from ethnic minorities - and that 10 per cent of the firm overall comes from ethnic minorities - it would indeed appear that the stereotype of people working in finance and financial services as all male and pale is a misconception.

Sarah Churchman, PWC's director of diversity and student recruitment, admits that the firm has challenges. "We still have what Trevor Phillips calls 'the snowy peaks' of the organisation. But that said, we do have a growing number of ethnic minority partners, who show that you don't have to be white to get to the top."

Like many graduate employers, PWC is acutely aware of the need to focus on its recruitment methods alongside any work on the organisational culture. Churchman explains how, this year, they are trying something completely new. "Last year, we ran some targeted events for ethnic minority students, but people can confuse this with positive discrimination, which is of course illegal. So this year, we've ditched that idea and instead we are targeting institutions and faculties where we know there are lots of ethnic minority students that meet our academic criteria. I think it's a cleverer way of making ourselves more attractive to as wide an audience as possible."

Meanwhile, Accenture is also experimenting with new methods of widening participation. One of its latest efforts includes placing greater emphasis on breaking down ethnic diversity. "If you look at the detail, the vast majority of our ethnic minorities are from the Asian sub-continent, with much fewer from the African Caribbean and the British-born Chinese communities - so addressing that is a big area for us at the moment," explains Sam Clark, US head of inclusion and diversity.

She adds that Accenture has also made the decision to talk more to its own ethnic minority employees to help them to understand how to attract and retain others. "One of the things that's come out of this is making sure buddies are available from the same communities, if that's what applicants want," says Clark.

"Our head of our Muslim network explained that when he was hooked up with someone who was also from the Muslim community, it had really allowed him to explore things, such as where he could pray on Accenture premises and what the organisation does to support Muslims."

Not everyone agrees with such methods, however. Olivia McKendrick, graduate recruitment partner for the London office of the law firm Linklaters, says, "We take the view that once people are here, everyone is the same, so it would feel weird to split people up because they're of the same religion or same gender. That surely creates barriers rather than removes them."

Linklaters takes the issue of ethnic diversity very seriously. Indeed, 31 per cent of its most recent graduate intake is from ethnic minorities. Among the efforts that the firm has made to reach this impressive statistic is collaborating with other law firms to get the message across at university level that law doesn't have to be white and male.

Legal Chances, for instance, is an event involving 20 leading law firms inviting ethnic minority students in either their first year studying law or in their second year of a non-law degree to get inside the firms and see how they really work, as well as meeting recent trainees, networking with senior lawyers and generally improving their training contract prospects.

Mark Blythe of the graduate publishing firm GTI, which hosts the event, says, "It's been going three years and we're now oversubscribed four times over by students wanting a place. Many who do get a place get internships as a result."

Although less high profile than law and finance, publishing is another example of a graduate industry that has accepted its need to become more ethnically diverse. Gina Antchandie, diversity in publishing coordinator for the Arts Council, explains that in response to a 2004 survey that revealed the publishing industry as "overwhelmingly white", they launched the Positive Action Traineeships with publishers and literary agents for graduates from ethnically diverse backgrounds.

"So far, traineeships have been placed at Faber & Faber, Random House, Saqi Books, Bloomsbury, Hodder Headline and HarperCollins, and all 2005 trainees have subsequently found full-time positions at various publishers," she says.

Meanwhile, other traditionally white industries which require vocational degrees, such as engineering, are attempting to widen participation by starting further back. "We need to get to younger people so that we can persuade them to study engineering at degree level," explains Andrew Cave, chief executive of the Smallpeice Trust, an independent charity that aims to publicise engineering as a dynamic career choice.

"To that end, we've been giving some hands-on exposure to some of the exciting things that are going on in engineering to people still at school. We've also been looking at restructuring the engineering degree courses themselves to make them more accessible - for example, via a modular approach, or earn-while-you-learn set-up."

Sandra Kerr, director of Race for Opportunity, the organisation that helps companies benchmark ethnic diversity, points to some other popular ways of improving the ethnic mix of organisations. "Employers that use recruitment agencies are increasingly insisting on diverse short lists, while many companies are closely monitoring the entire recruitment stage to look at where, if anywhere, ethnic minorities fall down.

"If it's at the stage of replying to adverts, why? If it's at the interview stage, why? This level of work is about pinpointing how they can improve their processes.

For graduates wanting to identify employers who are truly committed to ethnic diversity, both in their recruitment methods and their workplace cultures, diversity careers fairs are a good start, according to Patrick Johnson, head of diversity of the careers service at Manchester University. "They give employers an opportunity to engage with particular students and they give students an opportunity to really delve into the diversity policies of the companies," he says. "They're an ideal forum in which to ask all those questions around diversity that will help you work out just how serious they are about the issue."

'Things have changed a lot in the legal profession'

Noreen Ahmed, 25, is a trainee solicitor at the law firm Linklaters

I don't ever think about my ethnicity at work and I think that's the way it should be. Maybe law was a white male profession in the past, but I think things have changed a lot and that's certainly the case at Linklaters.

My interest in law started when I was a teenager. What particularly appealed to me was the fact that it's such a dynamic environment and that you get to help shape society and the way the world of business works. I also liked the idea of testing new boundaries, and the intellectual side. The team-work appealed too.

I worked hard at school and university and was quite active in terms of going to events. I decided to apply to Linklaters because it is so prestigious and I really liked the atmosphere at the open day. There is a real mix of different kinds of people from all over the world, and the different skills sets and personalities made me really want to work here.

Having joined Linklaters in March, I'm now on my second of four six-month seats, working in corporate law. The first was in banking. The experience has surpassed my expectations in every way.

'I'm able to offer a different view and champion different kinds of authors'

Danielle Weeks, 25, is assistant to the publishing director at Transworld Publishers

I did a degree in English literature and a masters in journalism, but after working in journalism for three years, I decided I wanted a change. I love reading and spotted an opportunity for a traineeship aimed at ethnic minorities in the publishing world, so I thought I'd apply.

The traineeship gave me time in departments including sales, marketing, production, editorial and publicity, and it was very hands-on. I loved it and was fortunate enough to get a position at the end. Now, I get the chance to read and talk about books all the time without people thinking I'm mad!

Although I am in a minority because of my ethnicity, I've never faced any discrimination of any sort. In fact, because of my ethnicity, I'm able to offer a different view on things and champion different kinds of literature and authors.

I think it's a case of ethnic minorities not knowing about the industry more than the industry doing anything wrong. My advice to others would therefore be: don't be put off if you have a real passion for books and you're prepared to work hard.