Creating more gender equitable and inclusive cultures is high on the agenda for many organisations. However there is often a disconnect between existing staff development activities and efforts to create the desired cultures. More explicitly linking individual development to organisational change can make a big difference to the return on investment when developing staff. The ‘bifocal approach’ translates this ideal into reality through clear principles and program design.

We need to interrogate merit

Merit, and the idea that we can accurately assess merit, is located at the heart of academia. In presentations of interventions being undertaken by successful UK Athena SWAN institutions, reassurances are given. ‘We have not and will not compromise on merit’. The need to preserve merit and a presumed meritocracy is one of the first arguments to be put forward to counter more ambitious gender change initiatives. But what does merit mean? (see Merit: A trump card or card trick?) What is being protected? Can we assume that the current system is meritocratic and therefore worth protecting? And can we achieve the desired transformation of institutional culture without a frank re-assessment of merit? I know gender scholars who, located within the academy themselves, roll their eyes and put challenging merit in the too hard basket.

However, there are two reasons why it might be timely to slip the re-examination of merit back onto the table. Firstly, as Australian higher education and research institutes engage with Athena SWAN, the goodwill and determination to create change is at an unprecedented high. Secondly the scholarship on bias has grown enormously in recent years. Acknowledging the existence and extent of bias undermines any surety we might be holding onto about institutions as meritocracies, A good starting point is to increase people’s awareness and understanding of this work (see Gender Equality in Australian Higher Education: A Frame for Athena SWAN).

I draw on the work of Claartje Vinkenburg (Department of Management & Organization, VU University Amsterdam), who provides an excellent introduction and overview of merit and bias. She in turn draws on the work, amongst others, of Emilio Castilla and Stephen Benard, who alarmingly found that the more strongly an organization believes in and promotes meritocracy the more biased the decision-making. They call this the ‘paradox of meritocracy’.

Claartje Vinkenburg, in her article Engaging Gatekeepers, Optimizing Decision Making, and Mitigating Bias: Design Specifications for Systemic Diversity Interventions not only provides an excellent review of the literature on merit (which I draw on here) but also provides a thoughtful and evidence based approach to the analysis and design of interventions designed to mitigate bias.

The following extract outlines merit and meritocracy. (p. 212, 213)

Meritocracy is a principle or ideal that prescribes that only the most deserving individuals are rewarded. As such, meritocracy can operate accurately only in an unbiased system.
—Son Hing, Bobocel, and Zanna (2002, p. 494).
A strong belief in meritocracy underlies the way we perceive success in society, in organizations, and in individual careers. We like to believe that those who make it to the top do so because they have more merit (i.e., worth, superior quality) than those who do not. Put differently, “in true meritocratic systems everyone has an equal chance to advance and obtain rewards based on their individual merits and efforts, regardless of their gender, race, class, or other non-merit factors” (Castilla & Benard, 2010, p. 543). In many organizations, and especially in those that are characterized by a pyramid structure and matching notions of careers success in terms of climbing the ladder, organizational members tend to think this is not only how the career system should operate but also how it does operate. As a consequence, the distribution of success (e.g., rewards, promotions) across members from different societal groups, especially when looking at the top of the pyramid, is generally perceived to reflect the true distribution of merit between group members (Block, 2016).
However, reward allocation and performance evaluation practices that appear to be meritocratic (Joshi, Son, & Roh, 2015) can result in an unequal distribution of success in favor of some compared with others, regardless of the actual distribution of merit. This means that the way we typically assess merit is biased in favor of dominant group members in terms of the criteria, the tests, and/or the evaluation process (Son Hing et al., 2002). The biased assessment of merit, through which superior qualities are ascribed to dominant group members, is thus rather a sign of bias for (or favoritism) instead of bias against (or discrimination; DiTomaso, 2015).

If, as Professor Tom Welton noted, we believe that talent is distributed equally across the population regardless of gender, race and other characteristics, when we look at our universities and the preponderance of white men, we must question our meritocracy.

Vinkenburg then draws on the work of Castilla and Barnard to illustrate the dangers of an unthinking belief in meritocracy. (p.213)

The paradox of meritocracy holds that when an organizational culture actively promotes meritocracy, decision makers in that organization may ironically show greater bias in favor of the dominant group (Castilla & Benard, 2010). In other words, if managers believe that the way people in the organization are selected and promoted is meritocratic, their decisions about the careers of others are more biased and less based on merit (Castilla, 2016). Efforts to increase diversity in terms of the representation and advancement of nondominant group members at higher hierarchical levels, such as diversity training, networking, mentoring, and introducing work–family policies, may not address the decision processes behind performance evaluation and reward allocation (Joshi et al., 2015; Morse, 2016). Such diversity efforts thus do not expose the paradox of meritocracy nor the biased assessment of merit. Indeed, diversity interventions that do try to challenge and change reward allocation and performance evaluation practices are often met with considerable resistance, even from nondominant group members.

I commend the rest of the article, available in open publishing to you.

As I’ve said previously, the merit argument is often used to close down discussion. Let’s do the opposite and use the concept of merit to open up discussions, questioning what we mean, and exploring how we might mitigate bias that undermines fairness and our capacity to deliver a meritocracy.