Brown Study

Brown study

29 July 2017

9:00 AM

29 July 2017

9:00 AM

I am indebted to the public-spirited citizen who sent me the charter drawn up by Male Champions of Change and Chief Executive Women to promote the cause of gender equality and diversity and increase the number of women in executive roles. The document is entitled ‘In the Eye of the Beholder. Avoiding the Merit Trap’. It came with a thinly veiled innuendo that it was being sent to me because I needed it, in the same way that I was recently warned against manspreading. But given the subject, I assumed it would be a worthy reminder that we should avoid falling for the trap of being influenced by bias and prejudice against women and minorities in employment and that we should apply one guiding principle, namely merit, which is blind to gender. In fact, I was rather pleased to see this case being advanced by Alan Joyce and his Champions, as I have always prided myself on being at the forefront of employing people on merit and eschewing bias and prejudice in all aspects of my life. (Well, up to a point).

But I can see now that I was a babe in arms on this significant issue and entirely ignorant of the basic principles that should be applied. According to the charter, it is merit itself that is the real culprit and ‘Avoiding The Merit Trap’ actually means avoiding the trap of appointing someone to a job on the basis of merit. Contrary to what I had believed, merit is really an ‘obstacle’ to diversity, it can be ‘detrimental’ and it must be ‘confronted’. So, if you appoint a woman because she is the best qualified and experienced in the field, you are applying a new form of bias, the bias of merit. You should therefore not appoint any woman because she is the best candidate, but because she is a woman or a member of a minority group, whether qualified or not. The real evil is therefore ‘The Merit Trap’, which is working its insidious way through business and commerce and propping up biases instead of destroying them. The problem with merit, you see, is that it ‘serves to hide gender biases’ and prevents ‘more diverse outcomes’. So if you want more diversity in employment, look for less merit. Nothing must stand in the way of achieving diverse outcomes. As merit is the new bias, it is time for employers to ‘confront the merit trap’ and this worthy charter tells them how to do it. 


Before they can confront the merit trap lurking in its lair, employers must establish a ‘merit alert’, a trigger warning in the office or on the shop floor that enables them to ‘spot the warning signs’ of merit. With practice, you can tell when top executives are falling for the merit trap when they say things like ‘I always appoint the best person for the job’. That shows they are biased against women because if they were free from bias they would employ women who are not qualified and appoint them solely on their gender. The guide to merit alerts then tells us that other employers are marked by a slavish adherence to outdated dogma because they go looking for ‘specialist or technical expertise’ when they could just as easily fill the job with someone without that expertise, provided they are diverse and know about ‘transformational capabilities’ and ‘caring responsibilities’. And in what must be its king hit, the charter tells us that employers should be continually asking themselves: ‘Is your pipeline falling short on diverse candidates?’ and ‘Isn’t it time for you to review your regular granular pipeline reporting?’ Employers should continually be on the lookout for the warning signs, for bias stalks the land in many shapes and sizes. There is ‘affinity bias’, ‘confirmation bias’, ‘the halo effect’ and ‘social and group think bias’, all of which are lying in wait for the potential merit miscreant. And they are all being hidden by this perverse pre-occupation with merit. Fortunately, some employers have seen the light. Qantas is held out as being a particular champion in the anti-merit reform movement. During its earlier days of medieval darkness its executives kept coming up with pathetically lame excuses for insufficient diversity like ‘We need technical skills. There just aren’t any women who have them.’ Thus, technical requirements at Qantas have become ‘overvalued’, and in any case are only imposed by pesky ‘regulatory requirements’. I agree; the case for technical competence in keeping aircraft in the air has been greatly exaggerated and the spate of exploding engines and bits falling off must surely be due to other causes. The ANZ Bank is also on board in the serious business of ‘onboarding senior women with transformational capabilities’. If you thought that knowing about banking was a good qualification for working in a bank, you are wrong, as is clearly demonstrated by this inspiring charter; the real needs of banks are ‘bold hires’ and ‘onboarding non-bankers.’ Promotions in the Army are also better done by ‘gender balanced panels’, committees that include 30 per cent women, and outsiders who understand things like ‘caring responsibilities’ rather than knowing how to shoot straight.

A new dawn, and one for which I am very grateful, is therefore coming to the modern workplace, as employers progressively become aware of the merit trap, install strategically placed trigger warnings, call out biases, forget about ‘specialist or technical expertise’, turn up at ‘diversity events’, nurture ‘diverse appointments’, and above all, ‘review regular granular pipeline reporting.’ It is a relief that at least this area of public policy has been set on a true path of reform and for this we must thank the Male Champions of Change. Well, all of them except the one at the Australian Football League who was sacked last week for an inappropriate office romance.

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