Why hiring based on merit won't help workplace equality

Recruitment specialist recommends HR focus on 'transferable skills, potential'

Why hiring based on merit won't help workplace equality

For decades, there has been a push to see women better represented in higher-level roles.

Women hold less than 30 per cent of company directorships, while 35 per cent of boards and governing bodies have no female directors, and only 17.1 per cent of CEOs and 30 per cent of key management position holders are female, according to Bernadette Uzelac, fellow of the Institute of Managers and Leaders.

Despite the low numbers, many say hiring should be based solely based on merit and “the best person for the job,” not quotas.

But that’s misguided, according to Uzelac in a recent article, as people who lack the right socio-economic background, race, religious belief, gender, sexual orientation, age group or “have a disability or needs that challenge an organisation’s cultural ‘fit’” may not always be welcomed,

‘Broken rung’ in career progression

Then there are the inequalities in access to opportunities. A recent McKinsey report highlighted there is a “broken rung” on the career progression ladder that remains unfixed.

Their data shows for every 100 men who are promoted from entry-level roles to manager positions, only 87 women are promoted. As a result, men significantly outnumber women at the manager level, putting women in a position where they can never catch up – or get the opportunity to become “the best candidate for the job.”

McKinsey’s Women in Workplace 2022 also notes women who are in leadership positions are also leaving in record numbers. One of these reasons being the difficultly in advancement.

We also evidence of this in the number of women leaving traditional work to run their own businesses, says Uzelac, who is also a board recruitment specialist at Envisage HR Solutions.

“Women are just as ambitious, but when the path to advancement is made difficult by bias, or the time out means they have less years of experience to show on their resumes, then entrepreneurship could seem a more productive use of their skills and talents.”  

Bias begins at recruitment

Uzelac tells HRD that bias is present right back at the first stage of the job application process – in how job advertisements are written.

“They typically spell out the minimum years of experience in a particular field that they require from applicants. An issue with this is it equates experience with skills, which is not necessarily the case.

“A person who has had 10 years’ experience in an industry may well have had the opportunity to pick up fewer skills than someone much newer to the field who has had more demanding or diverse roles within that job title or industry area, for example. It may also preclude someone with better skills or ability at key responsibilities within the job who has been in the field for less time,” she says.

Instead of years of experience, Uzelac suggesting that focusing on behavioural attributes instead of experience opens the door for a broader, more diverse group of people.

“Look for people that have transferable skills, learn to assess an applicant’s potential by asking the right questions – for example, how do they problem solve? How do they go about learning new skills or filling knowledge gaps?”

Then there are the workplace norms that create disadvantage. The notion of being available to the business 24-7 making you a more valuable asset to the company is not possible for those with outside responsibilities, nor accurate, she says.

In fact, two HR trends predicted for 2023 are the likelihood burnout will be on the rise and businesses will need to strategize to manage this, as is the need to look more laterally to find talent given skills shortages.    

“There is no simple answer or strategy, but it comes from the top – the C-Suite and HR professionals need to walk the talk when it comes to creating flexible workplaces that a wider range of people and backgrounds can work within,” Uzelac says.

Unconscious bias training

Noting the issues of equality between genders are deep and complex, Uzelac tells HRD the change is grounded in education and awareness.

Unconscious bias training is one avenue for addressing issues in the workplace, though caution should be applied as poorly delivered training can disempower employees. Diversity Australia provides a range of strategies required to deliver successful workplace unconscious bias training. Their tips?

  • Empower staff, focussing on the message that staff have the ability to identify and adjust mindsets and beliefs and their potential for growth, while and provide examples of how to change behaviour.
  • Overcome denial. Training needs to focus on common scenarios where leaders and employees subtly exclude others or downplay their contributions rather than zooming in on examples of uncommon extremes.  
  • Break stereotypes, encourage interactions among people from different groups and expand inner circles.
  • Create empathy and nurture curiosity.
  • Urge employees to track their interactions and encourage good practices and continued learning.


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