Originally published in Women's Agenda August 20, 2015
Merit is one of those words that gets bandied about a lot in regard to gender equity. Opponents of targets and quotas often use it as the final trump card in their argument – ‘we wouldn’t want to compromise merit’. ‘Appointments must be made on the basis of merit’. ‘Women don’t want to get there just because they are women, they want to be selected on merit’.
We’ve heard these arguments a lot lately – particularly in regard to the under-representation of women in politics. As Tony Abbott reportedly commented on the weekend, “… merit should be all that matters…’.
But what does merit mean? And is it really a trump card or a troublesome concept that is past its use by date? Can our thinking about merit contribute to the debate about strategies to achieve gender equality?
Have you noticed merit is never defined in these arguments? Merit is apparently self evident, a standard for entry or advancement that we all subscribe to without needing to articulate it or investigate what it actually encapsulates in any particular context.
What do we mean by merit when we are talking about pre-selection of political candidates for example? And who decides what merit is? Merit appears to be a backward looking concept, an absolute standard, frozen in time. Calls for merit-based appointments appear to be based on historical and outmoded standards, rather than a future focused investigation of what is required in a rapidly changing and dynamic world.
Let’s have a future focused discussion, for example, about the politicians of the future, and the diverse skill sets and perspectives we would like them to bring to our democracy.
And who defines merit? It is often current incumbents who decide what merit looks like, using themselves as benchmarks, thereby replicating themselves and maintaining the status quo. Acknowledging that merit is ill-defined, highly subjective, dependent on the point of view of the speaker and often based on the typical incumbent rather than linked to the demands of the role or in response to future needs would be a step in the right direction.
When people argue for merit-based appointment, there is an unspoken assumption that the current system is already meritocratic. If this is the case, women are not present in equitable numbers because they have failed to meet the merit standard and men are present in larger numbers because more men have met the standard. This assumption requires further exploration.
Arguments about merit and the need to uphold merit require a very firm foundation; an assurance that the system has in the past and is currently able to articulate, define, measure, judge, select, sponsor, promote and reward people entirely based upon their merit and with no other factors coming into play.
If we are to support the merit argument we need to be sure the merit system works, free of discrimination and bias. If we can’t be sure the current system is meritocratic and that everyone currently in positions of power and influence is there because of merit, then the whole merit argument begins to fall over, like a pack of cards.
At this point all of us should stop and ask ourselves: am I part of a meritocracy where I am sure everyone, and particularly those in positions of power and influence, has got to be there entirely as a result of merit-based decisions? How many of us could answer yes to that question?
It all starts to sound rather implausible. We all know that networks are important, ‘who you know, not what you know’, the critical role that mentors and sponsors play in getting people ahead, the influence of the ‘old boys network’, and the ‘old school tie’ and so on.
Even putting aside overt discrimination and bias, unconscious bias research throws a huge spanner in the works when it comes to the concept of a meritocracy. None of us quite know how unconscious bias affects our decision-making, even despite our good intent. Every step along the ‘merit’ pathway might be paved with good intentions but nonetheless fraught with unconscious bias.
Perhaps we need to be more realistic about how decisions are made and careers are forged. Maybe we already are more realistic about this, but somehow the rhetoric of ‘merit’ is still used to trump the argument. We could all contribute to making sure the concept of merit loses its trump card status, by asking a few pertinent questions.
If you have been convinced by, or even used the merit trump card argument yourself, stop and ask yourself and those around you a few questions;
- How do we define merit here?
- Who is it that has the most say about how merit is defined?
- Does merit favour men or a particular subgroup of people?
- Is our idea of merit historically based and fixed, or is it forward looking, responsive and dynamic?
- Can we claim that we have a meritocracy?
- How have we ensured that the system to date has been ‘merit based’ and free of bias?
The more questions we ask, the more troublesome the concept becomes.
An argument based on the rhetoric of ‘merit’, once examined and queried looks more like a card trick, than a trump card. Let’s get on with a future focused approach to increased gender equality in all arenas, rather than continue to replicate more of the same old status quo.