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The myth of merit and unconscious bias

The presence of only one woman, albeit a high profile one, in Tony Abbott’s cabinet has prompted renewed calls for the introduction of quotas to ensure greater numbers of senior women in government. And…

With only one woman in Abbott’s cabinet, is it time to question the validity of the ‘merit’ argument? EPA Image/Justin Lane

The presence of only one woman, albeit a high profile one, in Tony Abbott’s cabinet has prompted renewed calls for the introduction of quotas to ensure greater numbers of senior women in government. And with the 2013 AGM season well underway, resolving issues surrounding gender inequality in leadership roles is a hot topic.

However, calls for quotas are usually instantly met with the claims that they are anti-meritocratic. Particularly in Australia, merit has become synonymous with fairness, equality, or objectivity. In fact, merit-based processes operate much differently.

Discrimination is actually integral to a meritocratic system. A merit-based system “discriminates” on the basis of how much “merit” a person has – assuming the pre-condition that everyone has equal opportunity to acquire it – and favours those who have more of it. Or more precisely, are perceived to have more of it. And this is where the trouble starts. How are perceptions of merit shaped and influenced?

There are two immediate problems with the merit argument. Firstly, everyone must have equal access to acquiring whatever quality is defined as “merit” – the so-called level playing field. Secondly, people must be assessed only on criteria that predict performance. Can we say that either of these conditions is ever truly met, particularly in organisational decision-making processes?

In terms of the first condition, while women are overrepresented in tertiary education, they still remain under-represented in senior roles in virtually every professional sphere. So while this playing field may start off level, it doesn’t stay that way for long. Equally qualified women are being denied the managerial exposure of their male counterparts.

Despite representing a greater proportion of the tertiary education sector, qualified women are still drastically underrepresented in managerial roles shutterstock.com

As for the second condition, the criteria that predict performance are difficult to quantify and assess. So, notions of “merit” are often defined and measured inaccurately. As well as this, it is impossible to insulate decision-makers from considering extraneous factors.

Recently though, research out of the US has emerged which suggests a more fundamental problem with merit. The “merit paradox” refers to the phenomenon whereby a focus on merit paradoxically results in more biased outcomes. Initial work on this phenomenon was prompted by the observation that many organisations have introduced performance pay and merit-based reward practices with the intention of making remuneration and advancement more objective, and minimising workplace inequity, but that these practices have not actually increased equality.

Studies established that in situations where merit was emphasised as a basis for selection and performance appraisal decisions, men were more likely to be selected, and more likely to be awarded higher salary increases, compared to equally rated women. This paradoxical effect only occurred where merit was espoused as an organisational value, and was observed in relation to both gender and race.

The most likely explanation for this paradoxical effect relates directly to gender stereotypes and unconscious bias. Merit can be interpreted as “competence” or “capability” in some domain relevant to the requirements of a role. We know from research that men and women are stereotypically perceived to differ on two dimensions – women are perceived as interpersonally warmer and less competent relative to men, and men are perceived as less interpersonally warm and more competent relative to women.

These perceptions form the basis of gender stereotypes and unconscious bias. Once activated, stereotypes and unconscious bias exert an irresistible influence on our decision-making, without our awareness. An emphasis on merit in decision-making simply activates the stereotype that men and women differ in their degree of competence or capability.

Once activated, the stereotype unconsciously influences decision making in the direction of favouring men on performance criteria that are loaded in favour of competence-related characteristics. The upshot is that an organisational process that may have been introduced to make decision-making more objective can actually have the reverse effect by activating more gender bias, and masquerading it as merit.

If done correctly, blind selection procedures can even up the gender balance of shortlists shutterstock.com

One of the only practical settings in which it has been proven possible to focus solely on the criterion that actually measures merit and merit alone, has been that of blind audition processes. Famously, 2001 research by Cecelia Rouse and Claudia Goldin found that from a base of 10%, women’s representation increased to 45% of new hires at the New York Philharmonic Orchestra after the adoption of a blind audition process.

This orchestral example is extremely enlightening. Selectors have long insisted that the lack of women musicians was not gender discrimination per se, but simply that the preferred playing style just so happened to predominate among male musicians. Of course, the introduction of blind auditions has put that defence to rest.

Why? Because the idea that men and women have different playing styles is a gender stereotype, and this stereotype exerts a largely unconscious effect on selection decisions. When the stereotype cannot be activated, it turns out that men and women are more or less indistinguishable in terms of their playing style. Or put another way, when you can’t take gender into account, women have just as much “merit” as men, at least when it comes to musicians.

My hunch is that blind selection procedures would put paid to the notion that men and women are distinguishable in terms of most leadership characteristics. The fact is that men and women do not differ significantly on the vast majority of personality and behavioural dimensions. Of course blind selection in organisations is impossible to achieve, and the insidious nature of unconscious bias and stereotypes means that most people are firmly convinced their decision-making is already merit-based.

Organisations can, and should, be made aware that a focus on merit does not inoculate decision-makers from bias and may even make them more susceptible to it. Organisations can develop their leaders’ awareness of bias and the contexts that activate it.

Organisations can make some aspects of their selection processes gender blind by removing gender-identifying information from resumes to even up the gender balance of short lists. And organisations can ensure that position descriptions are based only on criteria that actually predict performance, rather than on out-dated ideas of what the ideal occupant looks like.

They can do these things if they have the will to. Either way, clinging to the belief that meritocratic processes make them gender bias-free only serves to further entrench inequality and inaction.


This is the second piece in our series on the 2013 AGM season. Click the links below to read the others.

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