Avoiding the ‘merit trap’
Male Champions of Change and Chief Executive Women say it’s time to face up to the gender ‘merit trap’.When we use merit as shorthand for a package of admirable qualities that we innately recognise, we devalue ‘merit’. Many studies confirm that we are drawn to those who think, look and act like us. This is a problem for women working in male dominated environments where there are deeply held beliefs and norms about who is suitable for leadership. Research has found that gender bias persists in many organisations, and even more so in self-labelled ‘meritocracies’:
- One study found that the more organisations promoted themselves as meritocracies, the more their managers showed greater bias towards men over equally qualified women. Managers in these organisations tend to believe they are objective and don’t examine their biases, resulting in a paradox of meritocracy.
- Senior men in Australian business were twice as likely to rank other men over women as effective problem solvers, despite believing that women were as capable as men in delivering outcomes.
- A recent study of 200 performance reviews in a US high tech company found women were more than three times more likely to receive feedback about having a negative (aggressive) communication style than men, with women often criticised for behaviour that may be considered leadership credential if shown by a man.
COMMON BIASES THAT IMPACT DECISION MAKING
- Affinity bias is a tendency to favour people who are like us, resulting in homogenous teams and group think
- Confirmation bias happens when we seek to confirm our beliefs, preferences or judgements, ignoring contradictory evidence
- Halo effect occurs when we like someone and therefore are biased to think everything about that person is good
- Social and group think bias is the propensity to agree with the majority or someone more senior to us to maintain harmony
AN UNCHALLENGED BELIEF IN MERIT:
- Serves to hide gender biases and protect the status quo;
- Acts as a shield allowing us to assume that our systems and processes are objective, preventing more diverse outcomes.
CONFRONTING THE MERIT TRAP HELPS BUSINESSES TO:
- Access the full talent pool;
- Identify the best candidate for a particular role; and
- Expand business opportunities by taking advantage of diverse thinking, perspectives and experiences