Merit is Biased

wooden cartHow many times have you heard women say that they don’t want to be promoted based on “targets” or “quotas” because that undermines their meritorious credentials as a candidate? Well, guess what:  merit-based processes are in fact biased in favour of men!  Despite the fact that we try to level the playing field in the work place by introducing processes to make promotions and other work-related decisions more objective, they can, in fact, have the reverse effect by activating more gender bias.

I’ll explain.

Given that a merit-based system prefers candidates with more “merit” for the job, there is a latent layer of discrimination embedded in this system.  Merit-based systems are based on the assumption that merit can be achieved equally by men and women – a preconceived notion that is unlikely to be true.

The assumption is based on (1) the belief that men and women have the same attributes and are therefore starting from the same base line – not the case, and (2) the assessment criteria that is set to judge a person on merit applies equally to men and women – again, not the case.    After all, if these assumptions are true, and considering the high levels of achievement by women at universities and professional schools, why are women still underrepresented at senior levels of organisations?

Research from the US suggest that focusing on merit leads to biased outcomes.  This research was prompted by the observation that, despite having introduced performance pay and merit-based reward practices (with the aim of making advancement and remuneration opportunities more objective), companies continued to experience the same levels of inequality in personnel-related decisions as before the introduction of these measures.  The research found 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.

What we can glean from this study is that, although organisations strive to make unbiased decisions, meritorious processes do not appear to have successfully stripped out gender stereotypes and unconscious bias.

If merit is to be interpreted as “competence” or “capability” specific to the requirements of a particular role, and if we also agree (on the basis of research and evidence) that women are perceived as interpersonally warmer and less competent than men, and men are perceived as less interpersonally warm and more competent than women, then we might start to understand how meritocracy might work against equality and impartiality.   When a person is asked to make a merit-based decision, these sub-conscious perceptions (warm vs competent) are activated and men and women are perceived to differ in their degree of competence or capability by the decision maker. Once activated, the stereotype unconsciously influences the decision in favour of men based on performance criteria that are packed with competence-related characteristics.

There is a study that backed up this thinking and found a way to overcome this unconscious process:  A research conducted with the New York Philharmonic Orchestra involving blind auditions.  Based on audible auditions only, the percentage of women represented in the concert body went from 10% to 45% of new hires.

This orchestral example is extremely enlightening. Selectors had long insisted that the lack of women musicians in the orchestra was not based on discrimination but on the fact that the preferred playing style was more predominant among male musicians. Blind auditions have refuted this line of argument quite clearly.  Hopefully, it is now clear that the different playing styles argument was based on a gender stereotype, a stereotype that was “turned off” through the simple process of not being able to see the musician.  In other words, if we discount gender as part of the equation, women appear to have just as much “merit” as men.

It would be great if we could try this “blind audition” approach in organisations, but, unfortunately, this might be an unrealistic and impractical aim.  What we can take away from this, however, is that people – men and women alike – are overestimating the egalitarian nature of merit-based systems and do women a disservice by discounting other equalising systems – like targets, for example – on the basis of merit.  We should all keep in mind that a focus on merit does not protect decision-makers from bias and may even make them more susceptible to it.  Otherwise, we will simply continue to proliferate the status quo.