Busting the Merit Myth

Tuesday, 27 February 2018


    Selection by merit is not a fixed concept, writes Catherine Fox.

    Claiming that merit will be compromised by diversity measures such as targets for women is a well-worn objection to taking action. But this argument assumes every board and workplace is already a smoothly oiled meritocracy where only the truly talented get ahead.

    In practice, many studies have found, promotions and appointments are often based on subjective considerations as well as skills and experience. This includes favouritism, bias towards someone who looks like you, and group think.

    Another barrier to a pure meritocracy is that everyone must have the same definition of and ability to gain merit — experience, assignments and so on. But research has revealed that women are less likely to have these opportunities, particularly after becoming parents.

    What adds up to merit for some is invisible or detrimental to others and allows bias to cloud judgement on key decisions, according to In the eye of the beholder: Avoiding the merit trap, a 2016 report by Chief Executive Women (CEW) and Male Champions of Change (MCC). The report points out that clarifying what merit means and reframing job criteria to reflect this is a first step in helping organisations remove bias and access the entire talent pool.

    Other levers to avoid the merit trap include recognition that simply branding your workplace a meritocracy doesn’t make it one; then educating top teams on the way systemic bias operates and how it affects decision-making.

    “You have to redefine meritocracy in order for progress to be made and progressive companies have done that,” says Woolworths chair and Male Champion of Change Gordon Cairns.

    “The most important insight [in the report] was that the people who are resisting say, ‘we have a meritocracy’. But they are defining it only under their lens”.

    Some organisations (Australia Post, Westpac, KPMG) have also tried using blind recruitment, which blacks out candidates’ names from applications to avoid triggering stereotypes. Others ensure there is gender balance on selection panels and shortlists. And as the CEW/MCC report points out, rewriting job descriptions to both avoid bias in criteria for roles, and reflect future requirements rather than reflecting previous incumbents, can also help.

    Boards for Balance

    Your leadership shadow, a 2017 report by Chief Executive Women and the AICD, identified tips for boards to change the game:

    1. Be a role model for an inclusive culture: The board embraces different views and seeks feedback on its performance; rewards CEO/executives for inclusive leadership; and challenges gaps in performance.
    2. Build a gender-balanced board and top team: The board sets a defined time frame; demands gender balance in appointments and promotions at executive level; and expects the executive team to develop strategies to become an employer of choice for women.
    3. Call out behaviours that are inconsistent with an inclusive culture: The board expects the organisation to address processes and behaviours that are getting in the way of an inclusive culture.

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