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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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38 Comments sorted by

Comments on this article are now closed.

  1. John Crest

    logged in via email @live.com.au

    I don't understand this point:

    "... Firstly, everyone must have equal access to acquiring whatever quality is defined as “merit”".

    Why "must" they? Merit based selection makes a judgement that merit (howsoever defined) is evident at a particular point in time, with no consideration as to how it's been achieved. And why should it?

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    1. Jennifer Whelan

      Research Fellow at Melbourne Business School

      In reply to John Crest

      John, the "must" refers to the technical nature of how a meritocratic system operates in theory - it isn't my point, its the sociological literature's definition. my point is that it doesn't work that way in practice...

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    2. John Crest

      logged in via email @live.com.au

      In reply to Jennifer Whelan

      Maybe I'm not seeing something that's obvious, but I can't see that that makes any sense.

      We can't all be President of the US or win a gold medal at the Olympic games, two obvious examples of where "merit" is strictly applied to select a winner.

      Does "sociological literature" suggest we should allow every person in the world to run the 100m final at the Olympics? Or that the US should put the name of every person in the country on a ballot paper to see who becomes Prez?

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    3. Jarrod Chestney-Law

      logged in via Facebook

      In reply to John Crest

      "Maybe I'm not seeing something that's obvious, but I can't see that that makes any sense."

      My interpretation was that people should have an equal access to that which goes toward building merit (presumably if they so choose, which is something this article alludes to but doesn't address) but not guaranteed access to the end goal of said merit. Just equal opportunity. Apologies to the author if I have misrepresented.

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    4. Jennifer Whelan

      Research Fellow at Melbourne Business School

      In reply to John Crest

      John, no i don't think everyone gets a prize, and i'm not arguing for quotas, nor am i arguing against merit, but just pointing out that the perception that merit=unbiased (as many people in organisations seem to have convinced themselves) is a furphy, because what people think is a meritocratic system is actually not, technically...

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    5. Forth Sadler

      logged in via Facebook

      In reply to John Crest

      "Merit" is that which is valued. One issue is whether the criteria being selected against are considered desirable because they are pointer to performance or because they're pointers to gender. Companies which actually have a respectable quotient of women in high ranking position are demonstrating that this isn't a handicap so it's not as if women are inherently a liability in the boardroom. This suggests that the criteria defined as having "merit" are poorly chosen unless the intention is deliberately to exclude women. In short, if someone in your organisation identifies a need for a gender based quota, the first question should be why it's needed in the first place.

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    6. Dennis Alexander

      logged in via LinkedIn

      In reply to John Crest

      John, Nobody acquires merit spontaneously at some point in time and any evidence of merit is necessarily, in part, historical - demonstrations of what they have done as indicators of what they can do - unless you accept personality and IQ tests as adequate arbiters of merit at a point in time and even these measures have social and temporal antecedents. Your argument is illogical and anachronistic.

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    7. John Crest

      logged in via email @live.com.au

      In reply to Dennis Alexander

      What argument?

      I was using two extreme examples to try and clarify the author's point.

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    8. Stephen McDonough

      Business Process Analyst

      In reply to John Crest

      If we take the president example, it's not about getting everyone on the ballot. It's about asking why, in a diverse population, the president of the united states of America (and the generally accepted preceding roles that lead to that role) have an ever narrower representation of the population.
      Statistically, if you have 100 candidates who have enough merit to compete and who reasonably represent the diversity of the wider population, and you wind up with the same result over and over, it indicates…

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    9. John Crest

      logged in via email @live.com.au

      In reply to Stephen McDonough

      Thank you Stephen. That both makes sense AND actually addresses the question I asked.

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    10. Michael Sheehan

      Geographer at Analyst

      In reply to Jennifer Whelan

      "the technical nature of how a meritocratic system operates in theory"
      There is no such theory, let alone its "technical nature".

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    11. Michael Sheehan

      Geographer at Analyst

      In reply to Jennifer Whelan

      "because what people think is a meritocratic system is actually not, technically"
      So we have the views of "people" versus what/who exactly. Who/what privileges this "technically" and on what basis?

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    12. Michael Sheehan

      Geographer at Analyst

      In reply to Dennis Alexander

      "Unless you accept personality and IQ tests as adequate arbiters of merit at a point in time"
      Actually, we have been using precisely these metrics for a few years now, and nothing comes close to matching them as predictors of employee success/performance, even after five years.

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    13. Garry Baker

      researcher

      In reply to Jennifer Whelan

      One might add, that merit can be a highly subjective thing to weigh, so maybe its definitions first need to be spelled out by the handful of subjective Svengalis running the show. .

      Then later when a new management broom sweeps the corridors, those definitions of supposed merit, can change.

      Say architectural meritocracy in Nazi Germany, would have been viewed differently than that of ancient Rome.

      Anyway - the best man for the job - I say. Her name is Linda

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    14. Peter Redshaw

      Retired

      In reply to Jennifer Whelan

      Jennifer, an interesting debate, but by it very nature a flawed debate. Merit, by its very nature is a concept. Even if you attach principles and criteria to the concept to try and give it some substance and or status it will fail because of the criteria of equal. There is no such thing as equal per say let alone within such selection processes.

      You can only ever have various degrees of difference and the broader the criteria attached to that selection process the more complex those degrees…

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  2. Jarrod Chestney-Law

    logged in via Facebook

    So the issue isn't with "merit" as such (and therefore with a meritocratic selection process), but with a level of unconscious bias applied to the selection process that is inherited from cultural bias. The blind selection process is simply evaluating based off merit (unless they happily selected the pianist that sounded like they were strangling a cat as readily as the one who played flawlessly).

    The argument shouldn't be against a meritocracy, the argument should be against cultural influences that actively damage the meritocratic process. It certainly shouldn't be used as a justification for a quota system.

    Every time an argument is put against a meritocratic system and for a quota system, it sounds as pleasant to many peoples ears as arguing that democracy is a failure and that nepotism and a ruling elite are the way to go...replacing that which is, if even poorly based on skill, with that which is chosen simply because of inherent characteristics (genes or gender).

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    1. Stephen McDonough

      Business Process Analyst

      In reply to Jarrod Chestney-Law

      I don't know that you can eliminate cultural bias entirely though. I don't even think that's a good goal to shoot for.
      Arguably, quota systems are about fighting nepotism, not encouraging it. When you have a merit based assessment and a number of candidates meet the criteria, the hiring party will always go with a "gut feel" on one person or another. It's very easy to argue someone is better suited for the role because they will "integrate better with the team" or "share the values of the organisation" - this is the kind of unconscious bias that works in everybody. It's why you're rarely ever friends with people you are always in disagreement with or who don't share your interests.

      Quotas aren't about having people get the job despite being unqualified. It's about addressing situations where qualified people appear to always lose out due to unconscious bias.

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    2. Alice Kelly
      Alice Kelly is a Friend of The Conversation.

      sole parent

      In reply to Stephen McDonough

      I hate this term "team player" Kevin excluded, the strange genius in the corner should be utilised more. Also it's strange that boards full of competent men oversee worse performing businesses, than those with more women. I wonder how this new competent government will "perform"

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  3. Haydon Dennison

    Student

    I have no doubt such organisational biases do exist, and indeed are relatively commonplace, but beyond the "blind audition" process, which is obviously not practicable in all situations, what is there that can be done without compromising the ideals which "meritorious" selection processes seek to achieve (namely, as in the article, "fairness, equality and objectivity")? The "blind audition" process succeeds, at least in part, because it removes the gender element on which the subconscious discrimination is based. Measures such as quotas, if anything, do the opposite - they draw attention to the gender of the candidate, which could potentially reinforce those stereotypes as much as the "merit" system does (so, for example, selecting women for their supposedly greater "interpersonal warmth" characteristics and men for their supposedly greater "competence"). Obviously, leaving the system in the state it is in will not resolve the inherent subconscious biases, but what will?

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  4. Dennis Alexander

    logged in via LinkedIn

    I'm not convinced that "merit" in relation to selection processes of organisations has not been leached of all semantic content beyond "someone thinks there is something good about this person." Homosociability (the 'birds of a feather' principle) has been shown by various studies to be a strong recruitment and selection tendency in a number of settings. There is, as some have argued, a seeming jar to arguing against "merit" as a principle in organisational decision making, especially recruitment and promotion decisions. However, if as I have indicated the meaning of "merit" boils down to an idiosyncratic judgement of 'goodness of fit' (with all the semantic looseness that can be accorded that phrase), then purportedly "meritocratic" systems aren't. Which, in the end, is demonstrated by the blind audition example when read to include the reported judgement that mainly male violinists learnt to play (note, a process occurring over time) with the particular desirable style.

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  5. Thomas Fields

    "progressive" watcher

    For the sake of "equality", we now need an article and research papers examining the "unconscious biases" in women.

    Of course, this won't happen, and will be deemed a priori as sexist.

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    1. Lucy

      logged in via Twitter

      In reply to Thomas Fields

      The article talks about unconscious biases that both women and men have about women and men - I didn't see any mention of the sex of the selection committees. Women are susceptible to the same unconscious biases based on sexual stereotypes.

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  6. Dale Bloom

    Analyst

    For any bias shown against women, there are 10 probable biases shown for women.

    I see one everyday where a group of labourers were hired including one female. This group has been made permanent, and are being trained up to higher levels.

    The female employee does a fraction of the work carried out by the men, she can hardly operate any equipment, she knows virtually nothing about anything mechanical or electrical, she rarely does any manual labour and rarely picks up a tool, and she gravitates to an air conditioned room whenever possible.

    If she were male, the company would have sacked her long ago, but they keep her on to fill some type of quota.

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    1. Alice Kelly
      Alice Kelly is a Friend of The Conversation.

      sole parent

      In reply to Dale Bloom

      as a trainee horticulturalist I encountered this dumb reasoning over thirty five years ago when asking to move to a botanic gardens where building it, was the work, rather than raking leaves and pretending to weed. There weren't toilets for us, we couldn't handle it , weren't strong enough etc.
      Bull shit all of it. We were all tested physically before and after. Guess who were the ones who could work continuously at very hard work, (mattocking out clay fake creek beds, carrying 60 k rocks, large…

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    2. In reply to Alice Kelly

      Comment removed by moderator.

    3. Dale Bloom

      Analyst

      In reply to Alice Kelly

      There was no "stereotypical patronising statement"

      Very little is learnt by women when they want to be employed in such narrow fields of employment.

      I also think the concept that women know a lot about human communications and emotions is just a myth.

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    4. Alice Kelly
      Alice Kelly is a Friend of The Conversation.

      sole parent

      In reply to Dale Bloom

      your bias is clearly a more conscious form of chauvinism. there is little point in drawing attention to it any longer.
      "very little is learned by women when they want to be employed in such narrow fields of employment" your third stereotypical patronising statement. I'm done.

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    5. In reply to Alice Kelly

      Comment removed by moderator.

  7. John Rutherford

    Worker

    Merit is B/S.. Have a look at what Rwanda did in their recent election and why. The biggest cause of their years of atrocities against each other was because of the Masochistic nature of the males who ruled their society. Their conclusion not mine!
    We have a society that also predominately espouses masochism as being truly male.Our society also has a wide variety of religious systems and other beliefs in which women are regarded as being second to males and bound to certain duties.Until we are able to acknowledge , treat and teach to all that men and women are equal we will be waiting till the second coming of jesus till we find that "merit " they all keep looking for
    It is changing....
    Males that find it necessary to treat women as inferior are simply acting from a point of insecurity based on a fear of not being as good or good enough

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  8. Rene Oldenburger

    Haven't got one

    "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"

    And they are well and truly over represented in professional social research, child protection, especially at universities.

    What actually is the real reason for this obsession about everything women and gender in this country.

    Of course people need to be chosen on merit, to argue any different is just ludicrous. Filling quota's, where do you stop.

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  9. Himanschu David

    Project Manager

    Picking the New York Philharmonic example to support your argument of persistent gender discrimination in the workplace is intellectually dishonest. There are plenty of much more recent peer reviewed studies which document gender discrimination against men in both mixed and female-dominated work environments.

    In a London-based field experiment, Riach and Rich (2006) found statistically significant discrimination against men in ‘mixed’ occupations (trainee accountants, 31 percent female; and computer…

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  10. Randy Rose

    logged in via Twitter

    The term 'Discriminate' has a generally negative meaning but to be 'discriminating' should be a positive?

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  11. Evelyn Haskins

    retired

    Actually I cannot see WHY women want to get involved in Politics -- leave that sort of ******* to the men.

    Women should just get busy with keeping the country running smoothly, and be thankful that the men are out there showing off their big yams to each other instead of getting in the way.

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  12. Keith Lewis

    Student

    Surely it's mostly about internal party politics rather than "merit" or even sexism. Abbott will have made promises to a lot of people in exchange for their support when he challenged Turnbull. I don't think anyone can say that Cabinet portfolios are based on merit with a straight face while Pyne is Minister for Education. There shouldn't be legislated quotas, but the Coalition should really aim to have a lot more than just one woman in Cabinet. Perhaps they should have pre-selection quotas to increase the pool of women.

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  13. Colin MacGillivray

    Architect, retired, Sarawak

    Affirmative action is really bad for those who would have achieved without it.
    Perhaps "blind interviews" could be achieved by doing them on a lousy Skype connection with the voice of the interviewees adjusted to be the same pitch.
    The first time I heard Helen Clark ex PM of NZ interviewed on the radio I thought "This bloke knows his stuff"!
    On a Fletchers building site in Kuala Lumpur in 1983 all the steel tiers (who wire on stirrups to reinforcing steel bars) were women- faster and better than men.

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  14. Anna Zamecznik

    Broadcaster

    Considering that IQ Tests also have inherent biases inbuilt into the way they are structured - they can discriminate against those with autism or dyslexia or colour blindness or lack of english or even pertain social knowledge exclusive to particular cliques - Merit Systems also presuppose lack of bias and are often written by those who are already on top, and since they consider themselves Meritorious, having a particular world view, they entrench their view as meritorious, thus keeping their peers on top.

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  15. Lucy

    logged in via Twitter

    Personally I find it annoying that "merit" is used as a reason for having a disproportionately male cabinet, because I thought the role of parliamentarians and the cabinet as well was to represent the people. However meritorious these men are, I don't think they can represent our diverse populace as effectively as a diverse group of people would. I want the voices of a variety of people to be heard in parliament and valued by the members of cabinet.

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