Women in leadership: The myth of merit
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Women in leadership: The myth of merit

Keeping in mind that the year is 2015, allow me to present some outrageously underwhelming figures for your weekend perusal:

Women make up 20 per cent of ASX200 board directors, 5 per cent of the CEOs of said boards, about 30 per cent of top-level federal public servants and just 10 per cent of the federal cabinet.

<i>Illustration: Michael Mucci</i>

Illustration: Michael Mucci

Now, you can bet your favourite string of pearls that all upstanding, taxpaying citizens will mutter that this is nowhere near cool enough and that improvements must be made.

But when it comes to talk about the lack of women in positions of power and influence, the infamous m-word is never far away.

As Prime Minister Tony Abbott observed last year when he doubled the number of women in cabinet from one to two: "in the end, all our appointments are on merit".

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This week, when attention yet again turned to the lack of ladies in the Coalition line-up, Foreign Minister Julie Bishop argued against quotas with an emphatic, "I believe people should be elected on merit."

Other frontbenchers, from Josh Frydenberg to Christopher Pyne, also insisted that the good gigs in the Coalition were – and need to continue to be – made on merit.

Is there a more patronising or misleading word in gender equality debates than "merit?"

On the face of it, who could argue against the idea that people – whatever their gender – are appointed, promoted and remunerated on the basic of merit? It is not only code for ability and qualifications, but the fact that a recipient inherently, indisputably deserves the job.

But putting aside the assumption that all men are promoted purely on merit (I invite you to look at the Coalition frontbench and make your own mind up on that one), the truly offensive thing about merit-based manoeuvrings is the idea that merit is impartial.

That it can be taken, measured and defined like the temperature or the sugar content of a chia pudding.

Even though study after study has proven that the meritocracy is as mythical as that committee contact Bronwyn Bishop was supposed to meet in Albury on the weekend of Sophie Mirabella's wedding.

Is there a more patronising or misleading word in gender equality debates than "merit?"

In May, the UN Women National Committee Australia released a paper on the need to rethink merit.

"We all hide behind this idea that we have this objective process called 'merit' that makes decisions for us," executive director Julie McKay explains.

"But who defines merit, who decides?"

Merit is warped by our ideas about both the physical and behavioural.

For example, studies in Australia and overseas show there is a relationship between height and leadership positions. A 2012 survey of ASX top 50 companies found that the average height of CEOs is about seven centimetres taller than the average Australian man.

As business professor Richard Hall noted of the results, we expect leaders to be big and dominant, "there is an unconscious bias operating".

In the much-cited "Heidi versus Howard study," US students rated the CV of Silicon Valley executive Heidi Roizen much less favourably than they did the exact same CV of Howard Roizen.

"Although they think she's just as competent and effective as Howard, they don't like her, they wouldn't hire her, and they wouldn't want to work with her."

(They thought she was too aggressive.)

A similar study published in the thrillingly titled Administrative Science Quarterly asked 445 managers to make bonus, promotion and termination recommendations for employee profiles. It found that when an organisation was presented as "meritocratic," mangers favoured a "male employee over an equally qualified female employee by awarding him a larger monetary reward".

"People preference the gender, the decision-making style, the type of look they are most comfortable with," McKay notes.

It's something that Julia Gillard saw up close and all too personally during her time in Canberra.

As the former Prime Minister told the launch of an ANZ women's initiative this week, despite all the progress, women still have to battle "cultural stereotypes that live so deep in our brain that we are not really conscious of them".

It's a feeling that is not restricted to one side of the political jungle.

First term Liberal senator Linda Reynolds is the first Australian woman to reach the rank of Brigadier in the Army Reserve. Earlier on in her career, she believed that if women simply worked hard and did the job, then good old "merit" would take its natural course and they would rise accordingly.

But decades in politics and the ADF have shown her that progress is not something that "just happens".

"I think we've got to make a huge societal shift," Reynolds says.

"We have educated women for the workforce. But have we made the workforce ready for women?"

The WA senator says readying the workforce will involve more than making structural changes like easier access to childcare and part-time work. It will also require valuing the different decision-making and work styles women bring to the office.

Reynolds, an advocate for non-binding targets for female Liberal MPs, adds that often when we thinking about "leadership" we think about it in male terms.

"We haven't got a language yet for female leadership."

Developing that language while navigating those tricksy unseen biases is not going to be easy. But banning the m-word would make a great start.

Judith Ireland is a special writer, weekends, for the Sydney Morning Herald and The Age, based at Parliament House