How confident are you in that perfect workplace meritocracy?

By The Mandarin

Tuesday June 27, 2017

Political parties, businesses and universities are all grappling with a question that would have been impossible to imagine not that long ago: to quota or not to quota.

“I mean, it’s easy to forget how recent all this is,” says Professor Cordelia Fine on the latest episode of The Policy Shop. “It was only in 1984 that we had the Sex Discrimination Act … now here we are talking about gender quotas and it’s a heated debate, but it’s a debate that we wouldn’t have dreamed of 40-odd years ago.

“When I look at the scientific literature, a hundred-odd years ago the neuroscientists were arguing about whether women’s nervous systems were suited — suitable to voting, and now we’re talking about women’s participation — equal participation — in politics, so it’s a big shift and I think we should hold on to that.”

Fine, a researcher in gender psychology, joined RBA board member Carol Shwartz, ANZ chairman David Gonski on the podcast hosted by University of Melbourne’s mandarin-turned-VC Professor Glyn Davis.

In the first six months of 2017, the percentage of women appointed to the boards of ASX 200 companies has fallen, with just 17 appointments, compared to 40 male appointments, the report reveals. In Australia today 13 of the largest companies have no women at all on their board, as the target due to be met by the end of next year falters.

With the captains of industry failing to appoint women to the top table – The Policy Shop asks – should gender quotas in the workforce be mandatory?

Despite the significant progress, the conversation around gender quotas keeps coming back to the question of merit.

That perfect meritocracy?

How we think about merit is “completely mythical”, says Schwartz.

“I find this really frustrating, to think that quotas and merit are mutually exclusive concepts. I mean, the fact is that merit is determined by the group that’s dominant at any particular time. So the concept of merit being some generic, objective standard of what’s appropriate and what’s qualified is absolutely not correct.”

Gonski added that the value of experience is never black and white, and in his job as a chairman has “never had a situation where there wasn’t ample talent who were female to fill the slots”.

“I don’t actually buy the argument at all that there is not a good and potential candidate who’s female for pretty well any job that I can think of … everybody has different experiences. Everybody has pluses and minuses. When you get an old fellow like me, they have the experience of many years in business, but a young person has the benefit of looking at the business and knowing and having experiences that are completely different to mine, because of time and indeed their freshness and energy and so on.”

Fine says there isn’t a lot of reason to think quotas will undermine merit.

“What quotas do is they force a re-examination of to what extent criteria are being fulfilled in selection processes.”

“I think one thing to bear in mind when thinking about this concern about compromising merit is thinking about what you need for a perfect meritocracy. So you need to be very confident that your selection processes are completely unbiased by arbitrary or irrelevant factors, like what ethnicity someone is, or what sex they are. You have to be quite sure that the criteria that you’re using for selection are valid, that you have good ways of measuring them, and that they actually predict performance. So, for example, particular forms of prior experience may be over-used as a criterion for who’s suitable for a job.

“Then in a sort of broader sense you have to have a confidence that people are actually being given equal opportunities to be considered in the first place, through ending up in the recruitment pool, having had the development opportunities and the particular experiences that they need to be considered on the table. I think what quotas do is they force a re-examination of to what extent those criteria are being fulfilled in particular selection processes. I think we have very good data to not be confident that all those criteria are necessarily in place. I think everyone should feel positive about looking closely at those criteria that you need for true meritocracy.

“But it is actually an empirical question as to whether quotas would compromise merit and it’s hard to get good data on that. But certainly the reviews of the effects of electoral quotas have on the whole tended to point to the opposite, so that you tend to actually have very well qualified women coming who are replacing perhaps less qualified men. So, I mean, clearly data are never clear-cut, but I don’t think the evidence that we have at the moment is cause for concern.”

Listen to full episode

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