All merit is equal – but some merit is more equal

February 17, 2010

Savita_Kumra- Dr. Savita Kumra is a senior lecturer at Brunel Business School. The opinions expressed are her own. Reuters will host a “follow-the-sun” live blog on Monday, March 8, 2010, International Women’s Day. Please tune in.-

As we approach International Women’s Day, the usual excitement is in the air. A time when the contributions, progress and outstanding impact that women make to everyday society is celebrated is surely a time for some pride amongst us as women, but perhaps also a pause for some reflection.

While the great strides women have made in every aspect of public and private life cannot be denied, what can also not be denied is that there is some way to go in many walks of public life.

In 2008, 14.3 million women were in the UK workforce, compared with 16.9 million men (ONS, 2008). In the 2008 ‘Sex and Power Report’ published by the Equality and Human Rights Commission, we see that in the UK women comprise 19.3 percent of members of parliament in 2008 compared with 18.1 percent in 2003. In business, 11 percent of directors (executive and non-executive) in FTSE 100 companies were women, up from 8.6 percent in 2003. Progress has also been made in public appointments, with women comprising 26.6 percent of civil service top management in 2008, compared with 22.9 percent in 2003, and 9.6 percent of Senior judiciary (high court judge and above) in 2008, rising from 6.8 percent in 2003.

“The Sex and Power Report” indicates that though progress has been made, the rate of progress is cause for some concern. When assessed against these measures, we see that it will take 73 years to gain gender equality in FTSE 100 companies at board level; 27 years to achieve equality in top management in the Civil Service and perhaps most worryingly of all, 200 years to achieve an equal number of women in parliament (EHRC, 2008).

The report notes that it is important to understand these findings in the context of the impact they have on women, but also in the broader context of what effects this failure to tap into the talent of women will have on the economy and the country overall.

Old fashioned and inflexible ways of working are preventing us from identifying and tapping into talent which comes in a variety of forms and can be found in a number of places. The nature of the world is changing and so is the nature of our economy and the way in which work is done; it is time for employers to catch up.

One of the ways in which employers may be challenged to reconsider tried and trusted methods of working, may be to consider the way in which ‘merit’ is defined and conceptualised within the organisation.

As Alison Maitland pointed out in a recent online debate in the Economist; ‘old-fashioned meritocracy cannot be relied upon to put the finishing touches to this revolution. As one perceptive chairman put it, we need to question our current definition of merit. It is clearly not allowing half of the cream to rise to the top’.

When organisations begin to challenge the assumptions upon which fundamental issues like, what does merit look like? What does a leader look like? How do we know merit when we see it? Perhaps we will see a rethinking and repositioning of the paucity of women in senior positions.

So, what do we know about how ‘merit’ is judged and evaluated in organisatons. The first thing we know is that when we look for the meritorious, we look at what has worked in the past. This is, in all but the rarest organisations, represented by a model of ‘male merit’ because those in senior positions in such organisations are likely to be overwhelmingly male.

Key processes come into play here. The first identified by Rosabeth Moss Kanter in her seminal work ‘Women and Men of the Corporation’, is that of homosocial reproduction.

We are attracted by and identify with those who are like us. Therefore, in looking for the meritorious in junior ranks; it is likely decision makers (generally male) will look for those who perform merit as they did; those contributing in other ways, will be valued but not necessarily seen as meritorious.

A confirmation of this process is observed in work on the glass ceiling, which has shown that decision-makers are reluctant to take decisions about advancement which can in any way be seen as overly ‘risky’.

Thus to champion a candidate who looks, acts, and contributes in ways that we are not used to seeing poses challenges. As an interviewee in a study I undertook in an international management consulting firm which looked at the gendered nature of the promotion to partner process observed:

“People within the firm need a reference point by which they can evaluate you, especially given that there are so few women in the senior ranks of the firm I think there’s a certain anxiety among partners about their judgement. This person doesn’t manage her career in quite the same way as perhaps we are used to seeing, is this valid?”

International Women’s Day is thus a good time for us to take stock; reflect on our successes but emphasise where more remains to be done.

Challenging organisational practices that appear gender neutral; but which may mask assumptions which by their nature advantage one sex over the other need to be surfaced and dealt with.

Merit is something that should be celebrated and valued; any organisation who in today’s challenging environment feels it can continue to retain a blinkered and partial view of this highly valued resource does so at its peril; and had better hope its competitors are similarly short-sighted.


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