How do people and institutions get away with prejudice? Simple: they dress discrimination in the cloak of merit.
And we’ve had some object lessons in how this favourite from the discrimination playbook turns out. Here’s a choice selection.
A sitting female assistant minister gets rolled by the young guy she trained. Sorry Jane, we know that the Liberal party has deep conservative roots full of old white guys, and many of the members think women’s most pressing concern is the ironing, and are appalled by the idea of women holding a position of power and authority over them, but preselection is a merit-based system. You just didn’t earn it.
We are all Jane Prentice.
We are talked over in meetings by the guy who steals our ideas and then gets promoted, because he’s a Real Gun. Research shows that when men talk louder and more aggressively they get rewarded, when women display forms of aggression they are considered unstable and untrustworthy. But forget the research. Sorry lady, this is a meritocracy and you just didn’t speak up when it counted.
Men are encouraged to negotiate hard for pay rises. They may not get the increase, but neither are they penalised for it. When women negotiate for a pay rise, bosses don’t want to work with them anymore. Yes, we know there is a gender pay gap, but our hands are tied. Salaries are based on merit.
Our first female Prime Minister is sexualised and critiqued for the size of her breasts and legs, something male politicians don’t have deal with. Toughen up Julia, you special snowflake. Politics is all about merit. And Hilary, you’re just a sore loser. It’s merit, once again.
When Catherine Brenner resigned as AMP chair following revelations from the Banking Royal Commission we wondered out loud if perhaps women just can’t handle senior leadership positions. Perhaps this whole diversity thing was a bit of a mistake.
Yet Richard Fuld, the head of Lehman Brothers, can play a pivotal role in a global financial crisis without anyone casting aspersions on his gender’s capacity to lead. Hell, we barely cast aspersions on his capacity to lead. Every good bloke is allowed one mistake, right? Merit again.
Research shows that employers like smart men but discriminate against smart women. The higher a woman’s GPA the less likely she is to get a job interview. While male employees are valued for their ambition and loyalty, women must be, above all else, likeable.
But, settle down petals, employers make their hiring decisions based on merit. They’re just looking for the best person for the job. And by “person”, they mean “man”.
Mothers in the workplace are routinely relegated to the “mummy track” and asked who’s looking after their child, the assumption being that they should be. Even New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern has been dubbed unfit to lead because she’s going to have a baby.
This is despite having a partner who has publicly stated his willingness to fulfil the role of primary carer. When was the last time you heard speculation over a male politician’s capacity to lead because he is, or will soon become, a dad?
Still, we shouldn’t be surprised. The word “meritocracy” was originally coined as a satirical term to describe how powerful people used education to cement their privilege — and hand on those privileges to their children. We’re now at the stage where people don’t even bother with the fig leaf of education. Being a bloke is enough.
Merit is one of the biggest cons of our age. It’s a socially acceptable way to maintain prejudice and reinforce unconscious bias. Just as people recruit people who are like themselves, grass roots members of political preselect people who are like themselves. “Merit” is not the object measure we like to pretend it is, but code for white men reserving the political, economic and social power for white men.