How meritocracies can promote gender-based biases

While appointing on merit is certainly fair, one report says it can destroy gender equality in the workplace if performed incorrectly

Senior business leaders have been called upon to avoid the ‘merit trap’ when appointing or promoting staff.
A new report by Chief Executive Women and Male Champions of Change, In the Eye of the Beholder: Avoiding the Merit Trap, delves into why appointing by merit can be used to mask a slew of unconscious biases that hinder the progress of women within organisations.
Major issues stem from the fact that evaluating potential is highly subjective, the report said. This means that those making recruitment and promotion decisions can have their judgment clouded by bias on what equates to merit and what does not.
The report highlighted four key biases that impact decision-making with evaluating someone’s merit:

  1. Affinity bias: the tendency for people to favour those who are like them
  2. Confirmation bias: actively seeking to confirm our beliefs and preferences
  3. Halo effect: thinking everything about a person is good because we like them
  4. Social and group think bias: agreeing with the majority or those senior to us

“When we use merit as shorthand for a package of admirable qualities that we innately recognise – that’s devaluing merit. Merit is hard. It needs to be assessed for each and every appointment,” said Diane Smith-Gander, President of Chief Executive Women.
In order to challenge the ‘merit trap’, it is necessary to look out for the warning signs in what you say about the appointment or promotion process, the report stated.
For instance, saying “He’s a great cultural fit for the team” may reflect affinity bias and the tendency to select those most similar to us.
Likewise, “I don’t know her. I haven’t spent any time with her” reveals that only high visibility candidates are being considered – a trend which can overlook certain candidates with potential.
“Too often decision-makers think they’re selecting the best person for the job on the basis of merit, but in fact they’re favouring people who look like them or think like them and ignoring the organisation’s future needs. When this happens, they’ve fallen into the merit trap,” Smith-Gander said.
Checking your assumptions is key to evaluating merit in an unbiased way, the paper explained. This means considering factors such as the qualities of the individual you are assessing, your personal ideas about the best candidate, and the specific details of the job role.


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