OPINION: Put equality over merit when hiring

Bernadette Uzelac

By Bernadette Uzelac

Last week I participated in The Great Debate in Melbourne organised by the Institute of Managers and Leaders – one of many events held throughout Australia to mark International Women’s Day.

The topic was “Her aspiration needs his cooperation.” I was on the affirmative team and our underlying position was that we need all people on the journey if we are to achieve equality. But ‘cooperation’ doesn’t mean women need the ‘permission’ of men in order to be successful. Rather, our team’s message was that we need to empower, educate and support men and boys to become agents of change – to challenge gender stereotypes and societal norms that typecast people from a very young age to conform to roles and styles of behaviour that ultimately set the scene for gender bias and discrimination – counter to the notion of equality.

Initiatives like Male Agents for Change and White Ribbon are great examples of men driving positive change and being part of the solution. The United Nations and the European Institute for Gender Equality both support and recommend education and awareness programs for men and boys to combat stereotypic attitudes relating to women’s and men’s roles and responsibilities within the family and society at large. They also agree that we can only succeed in achieving equality through the participation of both women and men.

Currently a central ideology in the conversation is around the issue of merit-based recruitment and career advancement. The proposition that decisions should be based on merit and the best person for the job, regardless of gender and other perceived barriers that might marginalise people, sounds fair and reasonable. Indeed, many fair-minded people have pushed for merit-based approaches for decades as a means to counter nepotism, prejudice and bias. Surely, if all organisations based their decisions on merit alone, then barriers based around gender and other biases will simply cease to exist? On the surface, the merit concept seems to be a far more equitable philosophy.

The facts, however, tell a different story.

Meritocracy has not proven to be successful in creating a diverse and culturally rich workforce. Women hold less than 30 per cent of company directorships and a staggering 35 per cent of boards and governing bodies have no female directors. In Australia today the C-Suite is a very male dominated environment. A mere 17.1 per cent of CEOs are female and only around 30 per cent of key management positions are held by women. Full time average weekly earnings of women are 14.1 per cent less than men, and women retire with around 42 per cent less superannuation than men.

The reason that merit-based approaches haven’t worked is because underlying barriers like bias, prejudice and discrimination still exist – they’re just not necessarily talked about openly. If you’re not from the right socio-economic background, race, religious belief, gender, sexual orientation, age group, you have disability or have needs that challenge an organisation’s cultural ‘fit’ you may struggle. And whilst merit-based appointments continue to equate merit with experience, the end goal of achieving gender balance and diversity in the workplace will remain elusive. People who are capable to do the job, but who may not have the preferred experience, may not always get to first base to even be considered due to barriers such as disadvantage or unconscious bias and prejudice. The notion of the ‘best person for the job’ will continue to be a myth whilst we have highly capable people on the margin who may not have had the same opportunity, luck or favourable networks of support as others may have had. Consideration needs to be given to building more equity into the process and encouraging greater self-awareness of deep-seated personal biases and prejudices that may be unconsciously influencing decision making.

A local expert in diversity and inclusion recently said that “change is grounded in education and awareness. The issues of equality between genders are deep and complex. We don’t know what we don’t know…it doesn’t matter which gender you are. We need to encourage curiosity so that people are encouraged to seek further understanding, increasing awareness so that we know why we need to continue to drive change!”

Women are successfully raising the bar and driving change, however, change won’t come quick enough unless everyone is on board and actively contributing. Whilst there is a strong argument for quotas in some circumstances to fast track change and bring greater balance to workplaces, we do still have a long way to go. When the term ‘gender equality’ is no longer a part of our daily lexicon we will know that we have arrived. The force for change is in us all.

Former Geelong Chamber of Commerce CEO Bernadette Uzelac is a fellow of the Institute of Managers and Leaders, a company director and a small business advocate.

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