The myths of meritocracy – and potential solutions

08 March 2023 6 min. read

Suzanne Zudiker – a global inclusion account director at training consultancy PDT Global, a GP Strategies company – explains how employers can help break the still-intact glass ceiling for women.

Somehow it is still a surprise when people – not only men, or white heterosexual men without a visible disability, but even women – genuinely believe that, because women can have the same professional abilities as men, they must have the same access to professional opportunities.

This is just one of the many microaggressions and fallacies of thought that women face in the workplace. Women are almost always deemed to have a more junior position than if there is a man in the room – in fact, twice as likely. Yet involvement in inclusion efforts is all-too-often considered extra-curricular and thus not rewarded, so attempting to foster male allyship is basically considered a hobby. According to McKinsey & Company's Women in the Workplace 2022, 37% of women leaders have had a co-worker get credit for their idea, compared with 27% of men leaders – and, overall, women are questioned far more about their qualifications to do their job. If a woman is also a caregiver, their access to opportunities lessens, benevolent biases creep in, and they are left out of projects or other ways to stand out for managerial-level opportunities simply by never having access to the chance to showcase that side of their skillset.

In the vain hope of recognizing progress and overall positivity, a report released in 2023 by the IBM Institute for Business Value indicated that women's representation in the C-suite and board rooms is up 12% in 2023. Less positive is that, still, only one in four in C-suite positions is a woman and only one in 20 is a woman of color.

The myths of meritocracy – and potential solutions

Lack of prioritizing diversity metrics and goals, as well as a lack of managerial and human resources (HR) accountability in achieving those goals, are leaving companies at major risk of completely disenfranchising women and other marginalized groups. The same McKinsey report cites 59% of Black women leaders want to be top executives, compared with 49% of women leaders overall. However, one in three believe they have been passed over for opportunities based on either their race, their gender, or both.

And the report asks how women can advance to a position of even relevant parity when, for the eighth consecutive year, a 'broken rung' at the first step up to manager is holding women back. This year represents one of the largest setbacks in progression from junior leader to senior leader, as well as indicating that there simply won’t be enough women in the pipeline qualified to fill roles with increasing responsibility and skillsets. Shoulder shrug? The hope is that, after all the recent commitments published on the prioritization of gender parity, there are practical ways to offset the almost identical details of these two reports on the status quo.

Despite the challenges, there have been positive developments in recent years in terms of increasing women's representation in leadership roles. Many consultancies have initiatives in place aimed at promoting gender and diversity in leadership. They have implemented diversity and inclusion programs and set targets for increasing women's representation in leadership roles. In addition, there are organizations and networks that provide support and mentoring for women in leadership. However, much work still needs to be done to achieve true gender and diversity parity in senior management positions.

Calling people out on little 'paper-cut-style' comments and language – whether it is towards you or as an act of allyship – can at times cause more harm than good, as not everyone is an expert at conflict resolution, de-escalation, and behavior change. There needs to be more of a focus on calling in, understanding the root of what was said, and teaching both managers and associates how to address and ultimately prevent saying something hurtful – even if they "didn’t mean it that way."

Every person who is either responsible for hiring or is a people manager should undergo training. The first step is unconscious bias training – if the whole team has not done that already – as well as the provision of tools and tips on how to be an inclusive manager and how to treat teams with equity in mind rather than equality.

All too often a woman will be described as too strong and abrasive, for example, whereas a man in the same scenario would be smart and great to work with, albeit a little impatient. The Society for Personality and Social Psychology published a study last June highlighting sentiment on providing direct performance feedback to the employee and found a clear indication of gender positivity bias: "Across studies, people prioritized the goal of kindness more when they gave, or anticipated giving, critical feedback to a woman versus a man." How can we expect women to succeed or improve if, on the one hand, they are being told what a great job they are doing – and, on the other hand, managers often report a different picture to HR. No wonder men are moving into managerial roles first.

Education for managers on guiding their team through their career, especially those they might not automatically connect with or personally understand, along with clear HR structures and a system of checks and balances, can help mitigate natural biases that occur in almost every organization.

To mitigate bias, managers should be taught and required to submit a framework as to why one person was chosen over another when it comes to task delegation. First and foremost, it is a manager's role to know the individual workload of their team, the skills needed for a particular opportunity, a timeline of how important the task is, and how long it will take – as well as knowing and continuously assessing the current and desired skills and direction of their employees.

Removing benevolent bias requires leaders to first know what it is, but a close second is employing process-driven work allocation methods that eliminate attitudes such as "he seems like the best guy to handle the job and get it done" or "she seems a little overloaded today, best I leave her out of this opportunity to give her time to catch up."

Despite the challenges, there have been some positive developments in recent years in terms of increasing women's representation in leadership roles. However, much work still needs to be done to achieve true gender and diversity parity in senior management positions.