Merit: the next frontier for gender equity?

By Sue Williamson & Linda Colley

August 1, 2018

Managers want the best person for the job, but managers also rely on the belief their decisions are objective — when they are certainly not. This presents an opportunity to increase middle managers’ understanding of merit and how biases may shape their decisions.

Merit is a hot topic in the APS. With the recent appointments of three former political staffers to the highest echelons of the APS, questions have been raised about how these appointments were made, and whether they were made on the basis of merit. Conversations are also occurring on how to ensure recruitment and selection practices are merit-based, such as whether blind recruitment should be further trialled in the APS.

My colleagues and I have examined the operation of the merit principle, as discussed in this report released today. In all of the 40 focus groups we conducted, we heard that managers just want ‘the best person for the job’. Managers were less certain, however, of how to find that best person, and what constitutes being meritorious. For example, is potential or past performance a better indicator or merit? Or a combination of both?

“Managers in organisations which pride themselves on being meritorious are more likely to exhibit gender biases in favour of men over equally qualified women.”

The concept of merit is complex. We do know, however, that ‘merit’ is not objective. Recent academic research has shown that managers in organisations which pride themselves on being meritorious are more likely to exhibit gender biases in favour of men over equally qualified women. This occurs because managers rely on the belief that their decisions are objective, and consequently do not examine the role that biases may play in shaping their decisions.

The first step to address problems associated with the merit principle is to increase knowledge and understanding of merit. Agency leaders and senior executives are encouraged to lead a conversation challenging the presumed objectivity of the merit principle. They also need to encourage middle managers to see how recruiting for equity and diversity can improve agency performance.

All who participated in our study indicated a desire for equitable recruitment and selection processes. However, awareness of biases and other impediments to gender equity in recruitment and selection processes was variable. Managers not only need to be trained on how to eliminate unconscious biases, but this training needs to be ongoing and reinforced.

Complementary activities also need to be undertaken. Recruitment and selection training needs to be followed up, to ensure managers recognise unconscious biases, and are given opportunities to use ‘bias disruptors’, such as senior leaders reviewing applicant shortlists, and managers taking time out during the recruitment and selection processes to reflect on any biases that may have been unintentionally triggered.

Further misunderstandings in relation to merit emerged in discussions of gender targets, which were largely considered to be incompatible with the merit principle. Some participants expressed concern that recruiting to meet a formal or informal gender target could be construed as violating the merit principle. A smaller number of managers, however, recognised that recruiting for diversity or equity could contribute to broader organisational goals – such as expanding the creativity or decision-making power of teams, or making departments more representative of the constituents they serve – and was therefore consistent with merit.

While targets will always be controversial, informed conversations will increase understanding and inform human resource practices. This will ensure that public sectors continue to lead the way in being equitable, fair and meritorious.

Dr Sue Williamson, UNSW Canberra and Dr Linda Colley, CQUniversity

Researchers also included Dr Meraiah Foley, UNSW Canberra and Professor Rae Cooper, University of Sydney. Research partners were the New South Wales, Queensland, South Australian and Tasmanian governments. The main funder of the project was the Australia and New Zealand School of Government.

This article is based on the paper launched today titled ‘The Role of Middle Managers in Progressing Gender Equity in the Public Sector

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