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Former General Electric CEO Jack Welch (ELISE AMENDOLA/AP)
Former General Electric CEO Jack Welch (ELISE AMENDOLA/AP)

Leah Eichler

You can't get ahead on merit alone Add to ...

Imagine a business environment where the best performers garner the highest wages and receive the most appropriate promotions. Sounds like your average, everyday workplace, right? Think again.

The idea that compensation, job allocation and even career opportunities correspond with merit seems almost ubiquitous in the workplace, and in an ideal world, it would prevent discriminatory practices.

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In fact, some well-known business leaders tout meritocracy as the de-facto reality and any discrepancy between men’s and women’s roles and salaries can be explained according to those principles.

For example, Jack Welch, the former head of General Electric, told a group of female executives at an event sponsored by The Wall Street Journal last month that the key to getting ahead is outperformance – end of story. More recently, at a TechCrunch Disrupt Conference in New York, Greg McAdoo, a partner at Sequoia Capital, called the venture capital business a meritocracy, while acknowledging that pockets of sexism likely exist.

Although the idea of a meritocracy sounds logical – even reasonable – it unfortunately doesn’t correspond with the realities of the business world. And the notion that women would get further ahead if only they tried harder, as I interpret Mr. Welch’s comments to mean, ignores plenty of research and evidence indicating otherwise.

“The idea that, if women are underrepresented at the high echelons of corporations, it must be because they are less qualified, ignores one of the basic facts of life: gender stereotyping,” said Leonard Mlodinow, a physicist at the California Institute of Technology (Caltech) and the author of Subliminal: How Your Unconscious Mind Rules your Behavior.

Unconscious prejudices remain so powerful that one study found people apply gender stereotypes even to a computer, judging those with a female voice to be less competent in explaining technological issues than a male one, he explained.

Dr. Mlodinow cites another study in which physics students, after being given a lecture, were asked to judge their professor’s competence. Half saw a man deliver the lecture, while the other half saw a woman do so. Both were actors delivering the identical script, yet the students judged the man as being significantly more qualified.

Companies that actively promote a meritocracy may be at risk of introducing greater bias than those that don’t, according to a 2010 study titled the “ The Paradox of Meritocracy in Organizations” published by the U.S.-based Administrative Science Quarterly. In this experimental study, professors Emilio Castilla, of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and Stephen Benard, at Indiana University, asked male and female participants with managerial experience to evaluate small groups of employees based on their performance at a fictitious company.

The results showed that men in the merit-based organization – which stressed fairness in how it promotes and compensates its employees – received larger bonuses than women, despite identical job performance evaluations. This bias did not surface when the experiment was repeated in a company that did not emphasize merit and fairness in its core values.

The finding that managers in organizations that promote meritocracy show a greater bias in favour of men, while it may seem counterintuitive, remains consistent with broader scholarship on the topic, Dr. Castilla explained.

“For example, studies on cognitive bias have found that in contexts where individuals are lead to feel unbiased, fair, or objective, they are more likely to then behave in biased ways,” he said, adding that “organizations promoting meritocracy as a cultural value can yield unintended behaviours, in part by leading managers to feel unbiased, fair, or objective, and as a result to become more likely to express individual bias toward women and racial minorities when making employment decisions.”

To counterbalance the “paradox of meritocracy” effect, Dr. Castilla suggests that companies focus on introducing organizational practices and structures aimed at increasing transparency and accountability, and also limiting discretion for managers to exert strong influences in determining bonuses.

Although a true meritocracy could only exist in a utopian business environment, free of any inkling of bias or prejudice, those who disagree with the concept risk going against a very strong tide.

“It’s like disagreeing with ‘motherhood and apple pie’ and the ‘American way’ of rugged individualism and self achievement,” said Atlanta-based Frank McCloskey, who served as the first vice-president of diversity for U.S. energy company Georgia Power.

Despite this, Mr. McCloskey, who now blogs for the site Marc (Men Advocating Real Change), believes that many men and women don’t believe that a meritocracy is possible; employee surveys often show that mistrust in management remains one of the greatest barriers to achieving it.

He noted that the perception of unfairness in corporate work environments predates the diversity issue. Back then, if “Joe” received a promotion “Frank” felt he deserved, the perception was that Joe knew someone Frank didn’t, he said.

As workplace demographics evolved, some white men might argue they didn’t get a job they thought they deserved because of “diversity” policies. Alternatively, if a white man secures a promotion, it appears to suggest that the old boys network remains alive and well.

“The root cause of this workplace challenge is that managers generally have not developed competencies to give individual employees meaningful, ongoing job performance and career feedback,” Mr. McCloskey said. As a result, “employees are putting their own answer into the vacuum created.”

Leah Eichler is founder of Femme-o-Nomics, a networking and content portal for professional women. E-mail: leah.eichler@rogers.com

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