Other barriers to equality

The myth of merit

by Ruth McGowan

Other barriers to equality

The myth of merit

by Ruth McGowan

by Ruth McGowan

Australians. We like to think we’re a nation of decent people, ready to give someone a fair go as long as they are prepared to ‘have a crack’. We also like to think we have good ‘bullshit radars’ meaning we are not afraid to call it out when someone is not being ‘fair dinkum’.

I’m having a go. It’s time to call out the term ‘merit’ as bullshit.

I’m fired up after attending the Equal Future forum this week, run by the Municipal Association of Victoria. Coincidentally, the same day the Workplace Gender Equality Agency (WGEA) reported that the gender pay gap for women continues to sit at 79% of men’s salary.

Speaking at the MAV Forum, Catherine Fox, Walkley-Award winning author of  Stop Fixing Women spoke about the way ‘Merit’ is a term that unleashes our cognitive biases such as unconscious bias and affinity bias.

The Myth of Merit

This is what’s wrong with the notion of ‘Merit’. It might sound like an objective filter for sifting out those who deserve a promotion, reward, accolades. But, as Fox argues, it’s time we scrutinised the term and better understood how it is an insidious barrier to gender equality.

According to Fox, merit an elusive, subjective term that is really just ‘smoke and mirrors. The danger of this concept she says is that

merit is a self-reinforcing concept for those in charge (Fox)

When this happens, like-employs-like. The ‘mini-me’ in corporate Australia results in scenarios such as men apparently being ‘nine times more meritorious than females as CEOs in the ASX 200’. In other professions, such as Law, women make up to two-thirds of graduates yet fill only one-in-10 senior counsel and Queen’s counsel positions according to the Law Council of Australia.

We often hear that ‘he got it on merit’ whether it’s a job or an award. Fox says the perpetuation of this term is handy as ‘it doesn’t rock the boat … and perpetuates inertia’. In short, the term is an excuse used not to take action to address inequality.

If you still think the predominance of men in most spheres of leadership, corporate Australia, politics and holders of Australian Honours is as a result of merit, then what you are actually saying is that men are inherently more capable, deserving, skilled and talented than women in those same professions and industries. Really?

Personally, I don’t think so. Taking a small step to address inequality, last year I co-founded a movement Honour A Woman to address inequality in the Australian Honours where men consistently receive 70% of the awards. After 43 years on inequality in this area, we are finally making some progress.

The Gender Equality Paradox

Turns out that in addition to the Myth of Merit, there is also the Gender Equality Paradox.

Remember last time you heard someone rave about how great their organisation is at gender equality? Turns out that when the evidence is analysed, they’re probably not.

For example, your organisations may have employed a Gender Equality Officer. So far so good. But look closer. Is the position well resourced or is it merely a box-ticking exercise? She (and it nearly always is a woman) may not have much of a budget and probably works flexible hours with limited resources and lack of management support. (She’s probably also expected to organise the International Women’s Day breakfast and other tokenistic tasks such as sourcing a few ‘ethnic-looking’ stock photos for the annual report).

The irony is that while employers may think they deserve praise for their Gender Equality Plan the reality is there is rarely an associated action plan that makes management accountable for delivery.

There’s a level of complacency that ‘the job’s sorted’ which leads to an action gap between the rhetoric and the behaviour. That is the paradox.

This Action Gap has been highlighted by WGEA as a serious issue in Australian workplaces. In November 2018 they reported that more than half of employers (58.4%) don’t even bother to scrutinise the basic data (such as pay data) for gender pay gaps. And of the 70% of employers who say they have a policy or strategy to support gender equality, most of them didn’t back the plans up with action. For instance, only 30% of employers with plans, made managers accountable for delivery with relevant KPIs. And of those employers that had conducted a pay gap analysis, only around 18% actually reported the results upwards to their Board for action. Even when gaps were identified, only a bit over a half of employers took any action to address the gaps identified (58%).

It’s a lot of talk without real action and its time it was challenged.

We’ve stalled

Here in Australia, WGEA reports women still face considerable barriers in the workplace and that ‘we still have a long way to go’. After five years of data, the trends show ‘virtually no movement in gender segregation across Australian industries and little improvement in either access to paid parental leave or the representation of women at CEO level or on boards.

This comes on top of the 2017 WEF Global Gender Gap Report estimates that it will be another 217 years before we achieve gender parity. ARGHHHH!

Anyone else yelling with me? Or are you still asking, ‘Why does it matter’? If you need to ask why it is worth getting cross about this lack of action, I suggest you check out WGEA’s updated guide on the business case for gender equality that demonstrates the benefits to people, workforces and our country. Equality is not only the right thing to pursue, but it also makes good economic sense.

Next time you hear someone from HR boasting about their ‘fantastic Gender Equality program’ dig deeper. Ask about the data they collect that demonstrates if it’s actually making any difference.

If you are interested in practical actions you can take to address the insidious barrier of merit, check out Avoiding the merit trap, a report by Chief Executive Women and Male Champions of Change.

And while we are at it, let’s ban the word MERIT, which Catherine Fox jokingly said stands for

M.E.R.I.T = Mates Elevated Regardless of Intellect or Talent

Let’s talk about suitability, capability and potential for exceptional performance. Let’s challenge the paradoxes and myths and reap the benefits of a fair and equitable workplace for women, men and our country. It’s time for the talk to reflect the walk and everyone to be given a fair go.

Ruth McGowan OAM is a gender equity advocate and champion for women in local government through her work as a consultant and coach. 

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