Avoiding the Merit Trap

Merit is a combination of past performance and future potential. Merit is also thought of as an objective way to recruit the ‘best person for the job’ however, under the surface, it is a largely subjective measure. Hiring the ‘best person for the job’ based on merit can and does have a large impact on advancing gender equality.

Many organisations cite merit as the reason for not having promoted more women into senior leadership roles. Merit though, does introduce bias to the hiring process.

Many studies have shown that promotions and appointments are often based on subjective considerations as well as skill and experience. Unconscious bias comes into play across a variety of ways including affinity bias (someone like you or who you can relate to) as well as groupthink (desire for harmony and conformity).

According to Global Women New Zealand, there are two key problems with the concept of meritocracy in the world of work.

“The first is that bias exists at each stage of the employment process. The second is that women and men do not start from an even playing field.”

Merit is a topic that has been widely discussed and debated and there are many examples which demonstrate the ‘merit myth’ including Heidi vs Howard study, which has now been replicated across organisations.

The study saw participants ranking the same CV more favourably when Howard Roizen was the candidate rather than when Heidi Roizen was the name on the CV. Participants acknowledged that Heidi was obviously well-accomplished and highly competent but were less likely to want to work with her or for her.

In another example of the merit myth, a major symphony orchestra in the US introduced blind auditions where the player is hidden from the judges by a screen. When introduced, this increased a woman’s chance of advancing through preliminary rounds by 50 percent. The New York Philharmonic, for example, saw the proportion of women rise from 10 percent to 45 percent of new hires once blind auditions were implemented, ensuring judgment was based on sound, not gender.

Diversity Council Australia dedicated one of their annual debates to exploring ‘the merit of merit’ and whether it gives everyone a ‘fair go’. The outcome found that promotion on merit did not give everyone a fair go. In this debate, both sides agreed that promotion on merit is the ideal outcome, however they also pointed to problems of how merit is defined, the way merit is applied in the workplace and the pathways for promotion. For these reasons, promotion based on ‘merit’ is subjective and problematic.

During the debate, Lieutenant General David Morrison, former Chief of Army and speaker for the negative team said ‘merit’ should be questioned. Echoing sentiment shared by many, Morrison said “Because men are more likely to be promoted on potential, and women more likely to be promoted on proven performance, there is no level playing field. ‘Merit’ becomes subjective not objective.”

So, what can organisations do to avoid falling into the merit trap?

  • Set Targets

  • Redefine Merit

  • Make Leaders Responsible for Gender Diversity

Set Targets

  • Set targets for women at all levels of your organisation, share them publicly and develop strategies to meet them. This includes tying executive remuneration to the organisation’s success in achieving its targets.
  • Women in Gaming & Hospitality believe that gender diversity targets should be set for all management levels of 40:40:20 gender representation (40% female, 40% male and 20% discretionary). We believe the board of the organisation should oversee the monitoring and progress of these targets.

Re-define What Merit Means[1]

  • Re frame the employment conversation from seeking and developing the ‘best candidates’ to seeking and developing the best teams.
  • Open your mind to non-traditional career trajectories and broaden the success profiles you use to consider candidates.

 Make Leaders Responsible for Diversity

Leaders need to be equipped to:

  • Bring attention to unconscious bias
  • Explain the myth of merit
  • Explain the business case for gender diversity.

Buy-in will be driven by the tone at the top and needs to be supported by effective training and support.

Organisations need to act on the above to avoid the merit trap. They also need to promote and provide pathways to increase the number of women in management and leadership roles through targeted development and talent identification programs.

[1] Global Women New Zealand