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The problem with meritocracy – commentary from Diana Ryall

When I meet someone for the first time, like you, it takes only 10 seconds for us to evaluate them. Our first criteria is: “are they like us” or as Seth Godin says “are they part of our tribe”. In today’s business world, when we look for leaders, we expect them to be tall and male – because today that is what we see. When we read the business section, a picture of a woman takes our attention.

Malcolm Gladwell noted that in the U.S. population, about 15% of men are six feet or over. Among CEOs of Fortune 500 companies the number is 58%. Even more strikingly, in the same population, 3.9% of adult men are 6’2″ or taller. Among the CEO sample, 30% were 6’2″ or taller.

So many times when I ask organisations how they are proceeding with building gender diversity in their senior levels of management, the answer is that they have a meritocracy based system and over time they expect women to rise in greater numbers into the more senior roles. If they were not serious, I would be tempted to laugh outright. What makes these leaders so sure they make all their promotional decisions on merit?

Our brains are wired to help us quickly assess problems and provide solutions based on past experiences and beliefs. We like others to communicate “our way”. We like others to “look” as we expect. We like others to “share our values”. We like others to have common “areas of interest”.

All these factors make it simpler for us to build rapport and give confidence that we understand them, and that they understand us. This leads us to see and appreciate their strengths and successes. So often, senior management teams share too many commonalities; age bracket, schooling, sporting interests, background, ethnicity, etc.

However, for years now, women have been graduating from many faculties in larger numbers than men with better results and yet this is not being demonstrated in their rise to senior levels. For women, different leadership and communication styles don’t “fit” the culture at the top. The merit and strengths of the women are not appreciated in the team because they are different to the majority culture. The natural instinct of individuals makes it easier to see merit in others whose normal behaviours mirror their own. I would like to provide two examples on how I have observed this to occur in organisations.

Firstly, let’s look at the communication style that may be the norm in the organisation. If the style supports each member seeking to gain approval and respect by having their ideas accepted, then the style of senior leader meetings is likely to be fast paced, direct, loud and individually focused. This means that those who communicate more inclusively by making comments such as “another option we may want to consider” will often either be drowned by the noise, their idea may be totally lost or if taken up may not be attributed to them. Women comment that their ideas are often restated by a man at the table and then heard.

Secondly, let’s look at the decision making style that may be the norm in the organisation. If the majority style is to quickly assess a problem, agree a solution and move to implementation then this is how they are likely to assess those who report to them or are seeking employment with them. This characteristic has historically been seen as a key positive attribute for leaders with words such as strong, decisive, assertive and results-driven often used. Such a spontaneous decisive style is often accompanied by very direct communications.

These are just two behaviours that affect others views of the merit of individuals. I would suggest that the acceptance of these behaviours as important leadership traits impacts not only the rise of women but also many of our global problems today. Perhaps the choice of an impulsive, decisive senior leader is not the most effective style to choose. We need leaders who take more time to consider the ramifications of their decisions. In fact, leaders who have a positive long-term affect on the global stage are often more inclusive leaders, and the very impulsive, decisive and dominant leaders leave a long-term negative effect both in results and the workplace culture.

I question those characteristics that support long-term success in organisations and I challenge organisations to reach out to those that have different backgrounds, interests and styles. If we do this, we will become more accepting that the real desired attributes of leaders are integrity, inclusiveness, collaboration and cooperation. These are the skills that will open doors and support diversity, not only for women.

Xplore is a gender equality consultancy working with leaders to overcome their biases and develop strategies to make a difference. We offer a Gender Diagnostic to organisations seeking to understand their dynamics to increase engagement and build an inclusive culture. Contact us today to find out more.

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Diana Ryall

Diana is a leading voice and advocate for Gender Equality in Australia and Founder of Xplore.
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