CEO Women In Negotiation
If true meritocracy existed, there wouldn’t be a glass ceiling or a gender pay gap
To me, meritocracy and its tenet of providing the same opportunity for all, is an ideal to work towards. The notion that you can achieve whatever you desire if you’re willing to put in the work, and thus putting YOU in charge of your life, rather than some subjective outside criterion, is a hopeful one. Meritocracy is an incredibly attractive idea for someone like myself who works with women who, without fail, face biases based on their gender, colour of their skin, age or any other factor inside and outside the workplace.
I say it’s an ideal, because the reality is of course a little different and the link between skill/effort and results is often indirect at best. If true meritocracy existed, there wouldn’t be a glass ceiling or a gender pay gap or a broken rung on the career ladder, as women and other minorities would be assessed equally to their white, male colleagues.
Why do we often define ourselves by performance – instead of our values?
This is an interesting question, and I suspect it has a lot to do with the simple fact that performance is seemingly easier to assess. As performance can be measured objectively (or at least more objectively than values), it prevents all kinds of potentially uncomfortable debates. Looking at performance is then simply used as a short-cut, preferable in some situations where looking at values would require more nuance and further discussion, in a world that often requires black and white, quick decisions and clarity.
There are two immediate issues with this way of decision-making.
One is: who defines “performance”, who defines the standard of assessment? Those that are in power decide what is and what isn’t considered “best performance” of course, whose assessment is coloured by their own background, viewpoint and ways of thinking, and therefore subjective.
The other way in which biases are still present in meritocratic decision-making based on performance, is that even if you find and use objective performance metrics, these are still interpreted by humans, and thus – again – inherently subjective. There is plenty of research out there proving time and time again that even when we think we are seeing the world through an objective lens, we really aren’t.
So we’re coming full circle here: meritocracy is a wonderful ideal to strive towards, and the reality is often quite different.
I don’t think that we are at the end of meritocracy at all. Whatever my doubts are about the existence of meritocracy in its purest form, I am still seeing around me that the focus on data, on performance, is well and truly alive. Most people want to believe that their assessment of others is an objective one, so we focus on performance, on skill and effort.
In the recruitment and career development world that I operate in, this shows up as attention on metrics such as grades at university, hours logged behind our computers and KPIs achieved (in my opinion, only the last metric should be used to decide on salary, but that is a different discussion).
However, what I am also seeing happening, is a – slow but steady – move towards hiring decisions and performance assessment to include a cultural or values fit, too.
One could argue that this is an example of that “end of meritocracy”, and I would disagree with that and rather call this an adjustment in the right direction.
The development of meritocracy should be sought in including other decision makers in the definition of performance. As mentioned before, currently the decision on what or what doesn’t constitute skill/effort/performance, is made by the “old” powers, which leaves out viewpoints that should be included if we want to evolve to a truly just and equitable society and embrace meritocracy in the truest sense of the word. So a greater diversity there would make for a more meritocratic world.
To address the other issue mentioned before, on the inherent subjectivity related to humans interpreting “performance” and thus creating biases in their decision-making, it’s interesting to look at one particular example of how this was achieved in the workplace.
A study in which the researchers had male and female musicians apply for a position in an orchestra saw the number of female musicians rise dramatically when they played behind a screen, i.e. anonymously. Therefore, if we are looking at reducing biases in the workplace and achieving a better level of meritocracy, one very practical improvement would be to introduce anonymity in a lot of the processes.
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