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Naseema Sparks in Company Director Magazine

By Naseema Sparks | May 15th, 2017

Sectors: Business

Don’t blame “merit” for lack of executive diversity

By Ann Sherry AO | December 13th, 2015

If merit is the solution to building diversity in the workplace then something is wrong. As we end the year it is time to reflect on whether the “merit” selection process in our organisations is delivering.

A commonly used defence when questions are asked about diversity in companies is that “we select on merit”. It is a defence that assumes that “merit” ensures all candidates are assessed equally, that no bias exists in the selection process, and that the jobs are described in a way that attracts a diverse candidate pool.

As Diane Smith-Gander said recently, women are being held back by preconceived ideas of female skills and leadership style as well as gender-based interpretations of how they should behave. While in that example Diane was speaking specifically about the advancement of women, the truth is that preconceived attitudes can stymie broad diversity in a workplace.

What is “merit” really? It is the idea of selecting somebody who is considered worthy of a position. Inside organisations it is a process that describes best endeavours to make selection processes fair. In reality it is a blind spot, a word to make the process feel fair even when the outcomes of selection processes clearly result in something else.

Merit-based processes should have outcome measures, which are the real test of the application of a fair process. Outcomes such as the diversity of the candidate pool, the diversity of a short list of potential candidates, and ultimately the diversity of the employee mix by level that is the result of the application of real “merit”.

Look around us. The lack of a pipeline of graduates from universities and career options were once put forward as the reason for there being so few senior women in senior positions. That excuse, however, disappeared many years ago as women filled the ranks, not just of university enrolments, but also attained superior results from universities.

The same can now be said of the pipeline within organisations where a significant number of middle management roles are filled by women.  In Australia, the Workplace Gender Equality Agency data shows that across all industries and companies, women hold 15 per cent of CEO positions and 27 per cent of general management.  In the ASX 200 companies, 5.75 per cent of CEOs are women. More men named Peter are CEOs than women. So what has happened? It appears the barrier to entry hasn’t disappeared. It has merely shifted. It is no longer a pipeline problem but is more an experience/style/commitment/suitability problem. And that is where the “myth of merit” is exposed.

None of those statements or convenient rationales is actually about a person’s competence, capability or effectiveness in a role. They are simply subjective views and a form of screening.

It means we are not as successful as we could be, given our collective investment in people development and our shared challenge to drive national productivity and organisational capacity.

The nation’s prosperity requires all of us who run businesses, select people or sit on boards to ask hard questions when we see candidate pools that are all of one gender, reflect a monoculture, are age specific or just happen to look like the recruiter or recruiting manager. That is when it is time to ask, where is the talent? Why are we choosing from such a narrow group? Is this the future of the business? Does this match our customer profile?

The world around us is changing fast. Customer habits and preferences are shifting. Technology has created whole classes of business types that were once unimaginable and new ways of doing business that only a decade ago were not considered possible.

How do we face these challenges with the same mindset, talent base and prevailing attitudes? We can’t. We need to open our business and processes to new ways of thinking, new talent pools and new ways of measuring outcomes in our businesses.

It must also be remembered that the community and our workplace teams are watching very closely. Australians have become accustomed to living in a wonderfully multicultural society. For the most part they understand and embrace diversity.

Given that life experience, employees will be the first to notice if their workplace fails to reflect the interestingly diverse community in which they live. Organisations that fail the diversity test might not just get probing questions from their boards. The questions might be posed in a different way from the shop floor but employees will increasingly want to know why their workplace appears to be a cultural island — or a throwback to another era.

The “myth of merit” needs to be challenged and thinking shifted so we are measuring what we do in our people management as we already do in all other parts of our business operation. Then we will be able to capitalise on the talent pools we have at our fingertips and currently not using as well as we could.  We will be able to drive innovation and prosperity for another generation.

This article was published at the AFR.

Sectors: Business