When discussions around diversity fire up, it doesn’t usually take long for the word “merit” to be uttered, Kate Kearins writes in an article for Management magazine.

Merit discourse not always helpful

When discussions around diversity fire up, particularly diversity at senior leadership levels, it doesn’t usually take long for the word “merit” to be uttered.

“We appoint on merit”, “we promote on merit” are the phrases trotted out. Gone are the days when your family ties, race, religion or wealth could open up opportunities unavailable to others. Merit is seen as an objective measure where everyone has a chance of getting to the role they aspire to as long as they put in the work. If there’s a lack of diversity then it’s because there aren’t the candidates with the skills for the job.

It’s something I’ve talked about in my role as Dean of the AUT Business School. My faculty executive team has flipped the gender balance, but I’m quick to point out that every one of them deserves their spot at the table and got there on merit. However, I must admit, I’ve never thought to say that about the male appointments to my disproportionately male team of departmental heads.

The “merit” argument has the effect of masking the lack of equal opportunity.

A report by McKinsey released late last year says that despite earning more college degrees than men for at least 30 years, women were underrepresented at every level in corporate America.

Highlights from the Women in the Workplace 2017 report show women were less optimistic than men about their prospects of promotion. Breaking down the genders further, 59% of white women thought they had an equal opportunity for growth as their peers, 41% agreed that promotions were based on fair and objective criteria, and 40% thought that the best opportunities went to the most deserving employees. For black women those stats were at least 10 percentage points lower, with only 29% of black women agreeing that the most deserving employees got the best opportunities.

As researchers Ruth Simpson and Savita Kumra point out in their article “The Teflon effect: when the glass slipper meets merit”, when organisations have a hierarchy dominated by men the benchmark for the “best person for the job” is often based on a masculine model of success.

“This bias is largely hidden by the desire to see merit in fixed, universal terms, where it can assuage concerns about unequal allocations of power and authority and provide a discursive mechanism by which inequality is justified.”

Like the ugly sisters, women and other minorities are trying to squeeze their feet into leadership “glass slippers”. They might have the right skills to be a “princess” but the shoe is not designed to fit. Like those other barriers to promotion – the glass ceiling stopping the advancement of women into senior roles, the glass cliff that sees women only appointed to risky or precarious roles with a high likelihood of leadership failure, or the glass wall that corrals women into jobs or functional areas with less opportunity of advancement – the glass slipper metaphor describes hidden but durable organisational processes that favour some groups at the expense of others, say Simpson and Kumra.

When the glass slipper meets merit you get the Teflon effect, say the pair. In some people merit “fails to stick”. Qualities that are seen as positives in a man, are dismissed in women. They say the Teflon effect explains how the glass ceiling persists even though we are supposedly appointing on merit.

McKinsey suggest that inequality starts at the very first appointment or promotion. Its examination of the corporate pipeline showed fewer women were hired at the start of the pipeline, with a drop-off at every promotional step. The narrowing of that pipeline was much more marked for women of colour.

Some of the solutions involve greater specification of gender representation in the candidate recruitment pool, having greater gender balance on appointments or promotions panels, and considering candidates achievements in a more contextualised and nuanced manner. Candidates who confidently express their own merit in an interview situation need to be carefully weighed up against those less confident. Development opportunities need to be considered for all, not just the supposedly more meritorious. Traditional models of success and defensive discourse – such as the singular emphasis often put on a loaded word like merit – are ripe for questioning.

Kate Kearins is Professor of Management and Dean of the AUT Business School and writes a regular article ''Managing for a Better World'' for Management magazine.