Affirmative action measures such as quotas and targets are seen to be problematic for many reasons, and perhaps the biggest concern is that women will be selected for roles based on their gender alone. This leads to a perception that merit is eroded causing a performance deficit as women selected under these conditions are not deemed suitably capable. @Alan Kohler has today added more fuel to the flames, just with the title of his article “Women and merit – mutually exclusive?”
Is merit eroded: what’s the evidence?
Merit is often discussed as if it were an absolute, and as if there were perfect standards and assessment tools that allow raters to make unequivocal judgments about individuals. There is however clear evidence that measures of merit include subjective elements and are influenced by stereotypes.
The testing community willingly admits to the challenges of making fair assessments of individuals. Test construction and conditions remain open to bias, and plenty of research supports this. Given that implicit beliefs that associate men with leadership and women with support roles are held at least slightly by the greater majority of the population, it is clear that even those of us with good intentions may not be able to suppress these when we are defining and assessing capability.
And according to Crosby, most people just don’t notice persistent inequities unless they have access to systematic comparative data. At individual decision level, and even within departments, and even by those attuned to such discrepancies, discrimination between different demographic groups isn’t discerned. It is only when reviewing large amounts of aggregated data that compares smaller groupings across a larger collection, eg departments within a large organization, that people are able to detect different patterns in hiring women and men.
Crosby and her colleagues put this down to a fundamentally human need to believe that we live in a just world. When we perceive difference, we would rather put it down to a random quirk than to intention, that is, to discrimination, and so we remain blind to the pattern.
Because observers are not always able to detect unfairness in processes, valid assessment of the merits of women are harder to achieve than valid assessment of the merits of men.
In Crosby’s words, “the main reason to endorse affirmative action … is to reward merit. Without the systematic monitoring of affirmative action, one can maintain the fiction of a meritocracy but will have difficulty establishing and sustaining a true meritocracy”.
In other research, Castilla and Benard found a ‘paradox of meritocracy’. Over a series of experiments, they found that when an organization promoted itself as a meritocracy, managers awarded male employees larger monetary rewards than they did female employees with identical performance ratings.
In organizations where merit is promoted as a cultural value, managers appear to become more confident that their decisions are impartial and so they invest less effort in avoiding the application of stereotypes, creating the paradox. Managers’ unconscious stereotypes are more likely to be triggered, and their pay decisions become less fair.
However, when managers know that their decisions are open to scrutiny and they will be held accountable for making fair decisions, they do. Organizations are more likely to live up to their claims of meritocracy where organizational accountability and transparency measures are in place, that is where:
- There are process accountabilities that clarify responsibilities and criteria for people decisions,
- Managers are accountable for the fairness of their decisions and results, and
- There are designated forums in which people management processes, decisions and criteria are visible and reviewed.
Kohler ends his article by suggesting that a positive decision by the Parliamentary Committee to support legislation for a 40% target of women on Australian government boards is more likely because that committee is 62.5% women. Decisions made by committees comprising 62.5% (or more) men are not derogated in such a way, confirming the stereotypes that underlie discussion in this area.
Gender targets require people to notice demographic features, and white men may feel uneasy with such attention, in Branscombe’s words “perhaps because such attention erodes the comfortable assumption that they have earned their privilege entirely through dedication and talent”.