The merit myth

A friend of mine, who I will call Sam, used to work in a department with a very low proportion of women. The department deemed this an “issue”, and undertook a cultural audit, which found that the workplace culture was unwelcoming for women - young women in particular. The department Director called a meeting about the audit, and during the discussion, Sam suggested that one way to improve the culture for women might be to hire more women. 

Here were some of the responses:

  • “We have to hire the best person for the job”
  • “Are you saying that the men don’t deserve to be here? Who would you fire to make room for more women?”
  • “We shouldn’t discriminate against men”
  • “Most people are happy here - it’s just a few disgruntled people”
  • “All of our hiring processes are very rigorous, and we always offer jobs based on merit”

This is - perhaps - quite a familiar scenario. And it’s very difficult to argue against any of the responses above. Sam certainly found it difficult to counteract these arguments. If you want a high performing workplace then you do have to hire the best person for the job, and we shouldn’t be discriminating against anyone, and thank goodness that there are opportunities to secure employment based on merit over nepotism. 

But if we dig a little deeper, these responses are, at best, problematic. In a workplace dominated by men, who are certain that their processes ensure they recruit the cream of the crop for the organisation (because that’s why they were recruited!) are perhaps missing a crucial point: that “merit” is defined by the dominant culture, values, and expectations in an organisation.

Sometimes those values are visible, transparent, and numerically measured. In the academic world we can think about publication records and teaching evaluation scores. These seem to be concrete numbers that give an indication of the productivity and quality of scholarship and teaching. Except for that sexism and racism are rife in student evaluations, and existing gender bias in publication practices mean that even these numeric scores are subject to underlying bias and can’t be considered as true reflections of “merit” as an objective set of standards or expectations. 

The influence of culture on interpretations of merit can be very difficult to see for people who tend to benefit from it. This is completely understandable. I like to think that I’ve been hired into positions because of my experience, my skills, and my ideas. That is - I like to think that I’ve been hired based on merit. And I have - but only some parts of my “merit” are to do with my hard work or my training.

I’m a white, middle class, well-educated woman working in higher education in Australia. My skin is the same colour as the majority of people who have hired me (in fact, I think every single person who has hired me has been white), I speak the same language (English is my first language, and I’m a second-generation PhD graduate, so I know enough academic lingo to talk the talk), I do not have any disabilities, and I have accumulated a lot of cultural capital over my lifetime (largely thanks to my well-educated parents), which enables me to fit relatively comfortably into the professional world. 

I’m not saying that I have been offered jobs because of these factors (I’ve got some job interview game), but I do think it’s likely that this has significantly boosted my appeal - I’m someone who is an obvious ‘cultural fit’. This is uncomfortable for me to acknowledge, but it’s a whole lot less comfortable for people who are passed over time and again because they do not possess the attributes that selection committees associate (consciously or otherwise), with “merit”. 

This is perhaps one of the most significant barriers in trying to build a diverse workforce - that we all want to believe we were hired based on merit, that the attributes we possess and value are therefore unequivocally meritorious, and are the attributes we should look for when we recruit. 

So when we think about hiring the cream of the crop, and they keep looking much the same as people already in the organisation, it’s not so much that we set and maintain a “high bar”, it’s that the bar we have set is poorly designed to recognise the quality and potential of people who do not look like us, sound like us, think like us, or work like us. This is to our detriment - it means we miss out on amazing potential because we are looking in the wrong places to find it. 

So what do we do? How do we redesign our bar (our expectations) to look for attributes that are hard for us to see? This is a huge and complicated problem, but here are some “red flags” to look out for in selection processes, adapted from Karen Catlin’s book “Better Allies”. These “red flags” might indicate that we are losing sight of skills and experience, and slipping into replicating our own attributes. If you hear any of these, take a second to interrogate what they mean. 

  • “I don’t think they would be a good cultural fit"
  • “They don’t have an [insert qualification that was not included in selection criteria]"
  • “They wouldn’t want to [insert possible employment or promotion opportunity] because of their family responsibilities”
  • “We can’t lower the bar”
  • “I’m not racist/sexist, but [comment about lower quality of work]”
  • “[Applicant] is a strong candidate, but I’m not sure they would fit in with the rest of the group”

​Remember also, that the subjectivity of the person who raises issues also impacts how we receive and interpret them. The messenger matters.

Do you think my friend Sam is a man or a woman? White, or of colour? Senior or junior? Do you think these factors may have shaped the responses to Sam’s ideas? 



Updated:  1 June 2019/Responsible Officer:  Dean, CECS/Page Contact:  CECS Marketing