How Meritocracy Failed Me and How You Can Outsmart it!

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When I first embarked on my career path, I whole-heartedly believed that the only obstacles in my path would be my own capabilities and efforts.   And for a while, that is how it was.  My career progressed steadily and predictably, navigated solely by my own will.  Until about 15, 16 years into it, when I reached and got stuck in what is endearingly referred to as the ‘marzipan layer’ – that sweet, sticky time in your career life when you feel you’ve achieved a respectable level of seniority and find it quite difficult to progress beyond it.

Having worked in more or less the same environment my entire life, all of a sudden, I realised that I didn’t appear to fit the mould of those in the layers above me and that they – the most senior management team - didn’t fully appreciate all I had to contribute.  And then I noticed one other phenomenon:  other senior women  have started leaving the organisation.

In an attempt to understand what was going on, I embarked on self-awareness and self-development training, naturally assuming there was something wrong with me.  I read, researched, and spoke to other women.  Once I was satisfied that my experience was not unique to me, I came to the conclusion that I was in a meritocratic system that was biased against me, a senior woman.

In my research, I learned that, when selecting between men and women with the same qualifications, companies that adhere to a ‘meritocracy’ were more likely to select and progress men over women.

I was startled.   My entire career was based on the premise that I could achieve as much as wanted.   In fact, the whole point of merit-based systems is that they are based on the assumption that merit can be achieved equally by men and women.

That’s where I was wrong.

The premise of a meritocracy is that men and women share the same attributes, and that assessment criteria apply equally to men and women.

But what about that unconscious gender bias?

Consider the following research published by the Harvard Business Review in 2010* regarding gender bias in the workplace:

  • Married women with children are perceived as less flexible, less available, less committed and, hence, not leadership material.
  • Senior unmarried women are seen as “different” or even threatening and are, therefore, less likely to be supported.
  • Pregnant women are perceived as less authoritative and more irrational, irrespective of how they actually perform.

These biases skew the perception of competence towards those candidates who display the same attributes as those in similar positions, and 'merit' goes out the window.

A useful illustration of this is the story of the New York Philharmonic.  This orchestra (not unlike many others) was plagued by a low representation of female musicians within its orchestra body.  The management of the Philharmonic believed that the reason for this was the fact that male musicians preferred the style of music that the NY Philharmonic was known for.  Nonetheless, the orchestra decided to to put its theory to the test by holding blind auditions, i.e. auditions where the gender of the musician was unknown to the recruitment panel.

Will it surprise you to hear that, based on blind auditions alone, the number of female new hires in the orchestra body went from 10% to 45%?

The blind auditions showed that, in fact, it was a hidden bias towards male musicians that influenced the auditions.  Once the bias was “turned off” by not seeing the musician, gender was discounted as part of the equation and women joined the ranks with just as much “merit” as men.

What is the point I’m trying to make? Simply: women cannot rely on ‘merit’ to do them justice when it comes to career progression.

So what should we do?   I'm a big advocate of embracing the differences that we bring to our organisations and marketing ourselves on the basis of those differences.

Easier said than done, you say?  Consider the following:

Recent studies show that employees and stakeholders across the world prefer leaders that showcase the following traits: trustworthy, adaptable, supportive, selfless, empathetic, conscientious, intuitive, and social.

Research also shows that:

'the historical "great leader" that is macho, infallible, omnipotent, know-­it­all leader has been replaced by a new type of leader, a servant leader who exists to make others a lot better.'**

So, ask yourself:  what can I do for my organisation that is not already being done at the top?  Do I have any of those other people skills that the current management team doesn't?

And if the answer to this question includes a number of feminine attributes that aren’t represented in the existing decision making bodies, then by all means DO use them as the added qualifier for that next career step!

So to summarise:

DON’T

  • rely on merit;
  • compare yourself to those currently ahead of you; and
  • hide the experiences/qualities that make you different from them.

DO

  • point out the differences that you will bring to decision making bodies;
  • talk about how leadership is changing and how you have the necessary skills for future challenges and opportunities; and
  • promote yourself on potential to take your company into the future.

 

* What holds back women? by Charu Sabnavis, LiveMINT, 30 August 2015

** Why Organizations Thrive With Feminine Leadership, Huff Post The Third Metric, 17 September 2015

Asking for help – do we really have to?

prickly pear flowerThe first time I realised that I rarely reached out to anyone to help me progress my career ambitions was  when I heard a speaker at a conference say that women like to be supported in their endeavours.   I realised then that the reason that some of my own initiatives never took off was because I didn’t have the support – and therefore lacked the confidence – to execute them.

The second time was a more potent lesson.  When I received some unpleasant feedback from my line manager, which I found unfair and unsubstantiated, I was lucky to have been offered support.  I was on a management course, a part of which entailed receiving feedback from colleagues and supervisors.  Although my boss’ comments were entirely out of sync with the rest of the feedback, I took them to heart and felt completely defeated.  But when an executive coach (who was privy to the comments) asked me whether I wanted to talk to her about it, it changed my professional path.  Hearing another person’s objective perspective on my judgmental perception of the comments made me see them in a more neutral – fair – light.  Moreover, while I was busy feeling sorry for myself, I failed to see the opportunities this situation would present, if only I could “remove” my personal feelings and insecurities from the situation and approach it in a pragmatic and professional manner.  And that was the gift that the leadership coach gave me on that fateful seminar.

And that was also when I realised that many of the most successful people in the world have relied on the support and assistance of a coach, a mentor, or a sponsor.   Once I became more sensitive to the subject, I started listening out for it and realised that it is now widely recognised that many of today’s most successful and resourceful people acknowledge the fact that they cannot manage the pressures of today’s demands on their own and use the services of a coach to take their lives, careers, or businesses to the next level, to improve and to grow.

Here are some famous examples:

Warren Buffet was mentored by Ben Graham, his teacher at Columbia University.  Ben Graham went on to own the big insurance company Geico, which Warren Buffet later acquired.

Warren Buffet also mentored Bill Gates.

Other famous mentoring examples (as a quick Google search reveals) include:

  • Vivek Paul (President and CEO, Wipro Technologies) mentored by John Donahoe (President of eBay);
  • Edward Ettin (Federal Reserve Board) mentor to Sherry Cooper (Bank of Montreal Economist);
  • Jimmy Ferraro (found of Supervalu) mentor to William McEwan (supermarket guru);
  • Gerald Levin (former CEO AOL Time-Warner) mentor to Richard Parsons (CEO AOL Time-Warner);
  • David Shaw (Chairman, DE Shaw Co) mentor to Jeff Bezos (CEO Amazon.com);

and the list goes on and on.  So one of the secrets of successful people who seems to have it all is that they don’t do it on their own.

This is also true for women.  Suzanne  Doyle-Morris author of  “Beyond the Boys’ Club, says "I do not know a successful woman who has not had some type of mentoring relationship in her past."   Suzanne describes a mentor as “someone more senior than them [the mentee] professionally, who can help guide the way and give career advice”.

Leah Williams, head of communications for the Women’s Resource Centre says “There are so many wise and successful women out there and it’s vital that we make the most of their expertise. That one-on-one attention can help women so much, particularly if they lack confidence to take on leadership roles or have faced discouragement from other colleagues or society at large.”

These women recognise that successful women have relied on the benefits of a mentor or a coach.   And although we all know what the benefits of mentoring and coaching could be, they warrant repeating.  So here’s a list of some of them:

  •  Help us past a cross-roads – coaching often comes in handiest when we are “stuck”; when we can no longer identify what our next steps should be.  Our coach or mentor is then able to focus our thoughts and guide us towards the next step.
  • Increased self-confidence – as part of the growing process to achieving goals, we learn to tune into who we are, what we wish for and the qualities and strengths we have that will help us achieve our goals. This builds confidence in ourselves and in our ability to succeed.
  • Increased emotional intelligence – the coaching/mentoring process makes us look at and assess our lives and innermost thoughts, feelings and beliefs. This builds emotional intelligence, contributing towards success in life generally. By objectively understanding, assessing and mastering our emotions we are able to create success in our life.
  • Energised to do more – when coached or mentored, we tend to gain a beneficial perspective or new direction, empowering us to take action, often beyond what we might have considered possible.  Being continuously focused on and guided towards a goal creates a stronger desire to get there.
  • Enhanced creativity and resourcefulness –  coaching/mentoring enhances our field of vision, inspiring creativity and resourcefulness. We are be stretched to make better use of resources available that may currently only be marginally used or ignored all together.
  • Develop communications skills - Aside from developing communication skills, mentoring also helps to develop the obvious questioning and listening skills. Communication skills are vital as they will assist people interact better with their own immediate and future colleagues.
  • Focused mission, vision and strategic plan - when we receive support and encouragement, we come up with new ideas, and are able to focus on the bigger picture.  Our mentor or coach usually challenges us to utilise our talents and to focus on our the long-term aim.

So the answer to the question “Asking for help - do we really have to?” is  “Yes, we really do!”  The longer we procrastinate or give in to  pressures to keep on top daily chores at the cost of a longer term career, the further away we remain from setting/achieving our goals.  Equally, the sooner we give ourselves some space to reflect and be guided by another, the sooner we can embark on a journey where the finish line is visibly  ahead.

For all these reason, no matter what form of support works best for you, be it coaching, mentoring or sponsorship, the important point is to recognise that (1) you can be more successful with the help of another and (2) the time to ask for the assistance is NOW.