Why merit based selection can sabotage your diversity strategy 

We hear from many employers that they hire or promote people based on merit. Presumably this means the best person gets the job. Really? Then why are women consistently overlooked for top leadership positions in organisations that claim they appoint only on merit?

The difficulty with appointing on merit is that it assumes a level playing field. If you only appoint on years experience, many women will miss out because they just haven’t made it to the senior ranks at the same pace as men due to factors such as gender discrimination and taking career breaks to have children. In other words, if you continue to fish in the same pond, you’ll get the same fish. Suddenly a well-intentioned strategy can inadvertently exclude women.

I had my own moment of truth recently when I attended an event at a top university with a large group of alumni. At the welcoming lecture, the Dean proudly outlined the history of the school, including the first woman graduate in 1966 (or thereabouts). He then identified all the previous Deans – all men. But wait a minute, what about the female Dean appointed in 2009 – she was off the radar and off the presentation!

He then introduced his handpicked leadership team. One after the other was a man. We finally got to the only woman in his executive team – she must be feeling very lonely, I thought to myself.

By this stage I was getting rather exasperated and raised my hand to ask the obvious question. What, as a leader, was he was doing about addressing the lack of gender diversity in his leadership team? He became rather flustered and defensive, and unbelievably trotted out the same old tired excuses women have heard for decades, like:

  • We want to appoint more women but there aren’t any
  • We had three women on the leadership team but they left (yes, he really did admit to that!)
  • And the last, and most infuriating excuse – we only appoint on merit!

He quickly added that women hold 60 percent of all roles in this School – at lower levels, of course.

You must be kidding, I thought. There’s a world of wrong in all these statements. Naturally you could have heard a pin drop in the room.

No women in the candidate pool? Women make up 42% of senior lecturing staff and 27% of staff above senior lecturer in Australia. The Dean is unable to find more than one woman amongst the 60% of his staff with the potential to step up, or identify any other women in other Schools and Universities in Australia?

We appoint only on merit? The Dean proudly introduced the men he had handpicked onto his leadership team, all from eminent overseas universities and all with extensive experience. I’m sure they are competent men, but you can hardly call that appointing on merit. Sounds more like a boys club, confirming the status quo.

What should be done? There are four approaches the Dean could have taken to turn this question into an opportunity to demonstrate leadership. First, he could have simply acknowledged the fact that he doesn’t have sufficient gender diversity on his leadership team. This acknowledgement would have demonstrated some humility and garnered a lot more respect from the audience.

Secondly, he could have made a firm and public commitment to appoint more women leaders and actively seek them out. If he doesn’t know how to identify them there are many executive search firms who can provide him with a shortlist of capable women.

Thirdly, be could have been more aware of his own subjectivity and unconscious bias when identifying a candidate pool and making senior appointments. This school would have formal merit-based recruitment policies and practices in place already. That’s all well and good, but those practices tend to be overlooked when a new Dean is making personal decisions about his own senior executive team.

Fourthly, he could consider appointing on potential, not just experience. Appointing a man who is 100% right for a role doesn’t give that person much scope to grow and develop. Alternatively, appointing a woman who may be 70% or 80% right for the role, hungry to learn and determined to prove herself may just provide opportunities to the many capable women in his school, and may attract more female staff from the broader academic sector to this school.

Time to step up “Mr. Dean” and become a true global leader.