The Thing That’s Stopping You from Hiring Based on Merit

The person next in line to enter the room looked sharp, confident and ready to ace their first job interview. Dressed in a blue suit, shiny shoes and with their hair well combed, they were ready to take over the world and show that hard work pays off.

 If I were to tell you that the person described above is a man, would you be surprised? Probably not. You’ve probably seen a similar description for a man before. That’s because, as humans, we often repeat certain words and phrases. We do this because we like order. We like to recognize and categorize things. This in turn trains our minds to make assumptions about characteristics of people very quickly, with little information.

Here is where I introduce the term meritocracy, and explain why I find myself a tad skeptical whenever I hear “we’re a meritocratic organization.” Meritocracy is a term describing the ideal state in which equal merit results in equal rewards. Unfortunately, believing in meritocracy as a given is as naïve as believing that only men are biased against women, when even women themselves are biased against women. Not shocked enough yet? Keep reading this post and I will further explain the consequences of unconscious and conscious bias, more specifically, the bias that recruiters have when recruiting potential employees. Through scientific and peer-reviewed evidence, I want to show you why and how meritocracy is (often) a myth.

Bias is a term that goes hand in hand with meritocracy. It means “prejudice in favor of or against a thing, person or group, compared with another.” Bias can be seen as an obstacle to meritocracy; the one thing that is preventing merit from being the single most important factor when hiring. Bias can be found everywhere, even as you are reading this post you are being biased in the same way that I am being biased writing the post. Below is a study that was conducted to test people’s biases.

In one study, from 2012, the same resume and application materials for a science lab manager job were sent out to 127 biology, chemistry and physics professors at American universities. The researchers sent out the same application to all the professors, but changed the names on the application so that half had a male student’s name, and half had a female student’s name. 

The professors, who were both men and women, had to rate the applications on a scale of 1–7 in terms of competence, hireability, how much mentoring they’d give the candidate, and starting salary. The results were staggering: the applications with the woman’s name was on average rated lower in competence, hireability, and how much mentoring the professors would give. The “female” application package received, on average, a wage that was more than $3500 less than the “male” applicant per year. 

The bias appeared in both female and male professors who were reviewing the packages. That is, women and men are equally biased.

It might seem impossible to ever reach a true meritocracy, but don’t worry because every day more opportunities for a more inclusive workplace appear. For example, there’s a start-up helping companies with blind applications processes, called GapJumpers, where you can post jobs that don’t require applicants to submit characteristics such as gender or ethnicity.

Through blind hiring, true meritocratic recruiting can in fact also exist. Also, just becoming more aware of unconscious bias is a first step in reducing its effect. But the belief, assumption, and expectation that a company is just somehow, by default, a meritocracy without carefully planning out exactly how that outcome will be achieved, is a myth.



About the Author: Alice Marshall is a Gender Equality and Diversity Expert, and Founder of Equality Inc. She helps companies improve gender equality and diversity via her 90 Day Diversity Program and trainings on unconscious bias and inclusive leadership. She writes a blog with Google Sweden called Gender Equality in Tech.  

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1 Comment

Branigan Robertson

Good article. Sadly, women in the workplace suffer disproportionately. What’s worse, so many of the consultations I give are with people who I believe have been harmed by hiring bias and other workplace discrimination— but don’t have a strong enough case to seek damages. It’s a widespread problem, and lots of workers suffer.


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