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Why our ‘meritocracy’ fails women

We are all aware of the underrepresentation of women in leadership positions, on boards and in politics.  Further, we are all aware that where they are represented, they are underpaid compared to their male counterparts.  You could fill whole libraries with the evidence.

There are few people who would embark on a line of argument to refute the clear outcomes of ‘underrepresentation’ and ‘under remuneration’. Rather, many hours and many pages are devoted to justifying why the data is ‘understandable’ and why the issue is not one that requires urgent attention. Although I would note, that these lines of argument seem to weaken when those who put them forward are the ones to benefit from the current state of play.

This short article seeks to address two points:

  1. Do we really have a meritocracy in the Western world?
  2. Why should we see it as our role to be the agent of change?

Do we really have a meritocracy in the western world?

There would be many people who argue that we do have a meritocracy.  Seeking hard evidence is always a challenge because the nature of “social experimentation” is that it is highly subjective and this leaves us all open to point at the flaws in the experiment, particularly when we do not like the outcome.

One area where there has been an objective assessment of the existence of a meritocracy is the study of the New York Philharmonic.  I think most would agree there is not significant gender advantage either way in being a world class musician and that it is likely that elite musicians are equally represented by gender. However, at the New York Philharmonic, the ratio was approximately 90% male and 10% female.

To test whether or not the orchestra was indeed selected on the basis of merit they conducted blind auditions – where the judges could not see the musicians as they auditioned one by one but rather only hear how well they played the music – a rather important skill in the selection of a member of the orchestra.  At the blind auditions, the gender mix of those selected to be in the orchestra jumped from the pre-existing 90:10 male: female mix to 55:45.

The orchestra now continues to select participants on the basis of ability without bias.

I think it is fair to assume that the orchestra had always felt it was choosing the most talented musicians to represent the New York Philharmonic, and hence it appears clear that there was a strong bias present; not a bias they were conscious of, rather, an unconscious bias.

There would appear to be a case that could easily be made showing how the unconscious bias at the New York Philharmonic extends beyond the confines of the orchestra.

Why Should Any of Us See It as Our Role to Be the Change Agent?

I think there is some concept of ‘social justice’ in us all that would suggest that the rules of any game should be fair to all participants. However, the case for change goes beyond “equity”;  it goes to the heart of why we group in organisations in the first place – ‘performance’.

The vast majority of activity conducted by an organisation is conducted in teams, and we seek the team members to collaborate in a manner so as to deliver the overall outcome of the team’s efforts at a level that would be greater than the sum of the parts of effort that contributed to the result.  This elusive synergy seems to be the goal of leaders, and it does appear that the most effective leaders are actually capable of achieving this time and time again.

If we seek to organise people into homogenous groups, we get teams with common points of strength and common points of weakness. These teams tend to make FAST decisions as they all see the problem in the same way.

If we seek to organise people into heterogeneous groups, we get GOOD decisions as the teams have a balance of strengths and they see the problem through a variety of lenses.  In my experience, the decisions can be a little SLOWER, but they generally do not need to be revisited.

My final argument for why we should see these issues as ours to solve revolves around what we should expect of our generation, and what we would like to pass to our children’s generation.  If I look at my generation and the two that have existed before me I would note:

  1. My grandparents’ generation built Australia as a young nation (young in the Western world sense and no other sense) after the tragedy of two world wars. They made a strong a proud country.
  2. My parents’ generation guided Australia into the information revolution and managed to introduce computing power into their workplaces at the very end of their careers and at a time when the technology was daunting to even the younger generation.
  3. My generation has introduced casual dress Friday …. And it is just not enough of a legacy to pass to our children. Surely equality in all its forms is ours to own and deliver.
Posted by David Wakeley - Autopia CEO and Male Champion

As a senior executive for over 20 years and CEO of the Australian Institute of Management (AIM), Virgin Money Australia and now Autopia, David is highly engaged in the area of workplace diversity.

At AIM he published ‘Gender Diversity in Management: Targeting untapped talent’ (February 2012) and he has been supporting UN Women in a personal capacity as a volunteer advisor for many years now.

He has maintained a ‘results focused team approach’ to business throughout his career, achieving satisfaction in seeing the growth of the businesses that he leads, and also the growth of the people within the businesses – regardless of gender.

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