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Sep 17, 2013

Promotion on -- ahem -- merit? It's hard to see how ...

Until men are actually promoted on merit, there's no reason why women should have to be. True equality is as many mediocre women in positions of power like federal cabinet.


Tony Abbott Warren Truss

There’s an old piece of early 1930s newsreel footage I saw in a documentary somewhere that features Mahatma Gandhi visiting Britain for the very first time. With his classic white loincloth and round glasses on the end of his nose, he is an exotic sight amongst the British newspapermen (they’re all men, of course).

One of the journalists yells out a question: “Mahatma, what do you think of Western civilisation?” He responds: “I think it would be a very good idea.”

And that is precisely what I think when I hear people talking about promotion on merit. I am all for it, but I see absolutely no evidence of it occurring at the moment. If you doubt me, just think for a second of all the places you have ever worked. Think of all the people in authority you have ever had dealings with. Now tell me, hand on heart, that all of those people got to the top purely on merit. I sometimes think I have met more idiots at the top than I ever have at the bottom but, to be fair, that’s probably because idiots with power are far more of a problem than idiots without it.

What I notice about people at the top is not their merit, but how similar they are. If we really do promote on merit, as so many claim, then merit is astonishingly concentrated among white, middle-class, private school-educated men. (Someone claimed last night on Twitter that there were more ex-students from Riverview in the Abbott cabinet than women.) This is either a biological and evolutionary reality that is well worth scientific evaluation or a rather stark demonstration of bias. This doesn’t mean that people who fit the above description have no merit but simply that they may not have quite the stranglehold on it that many of them appear to assume.

Because that’s another thing that is a little revealing about the claims by some that — much as they’d like to help women — they “prefer” to promote on merit. Those who like to congratulate themselves on such exceptional fair-mindedness and commitment to excellence are so often members of the very same group that they think has all the merit! Another quite remarkable coincidence (honestly, I think there must be a few potential PhDs in this).

When anyone suggests that it is “tokenism” to include members of “minority” groups simply because of their gender or ethnicity — indeed, that it might even be “insulting” to do so — I am reminded that women are not a minority group. In fact, they make up the majority of Australians. Mind you, if you are one of those people with merit, it is an understandable mistake on your part because one place where women are always a minority, of course, is in any corridor of power. Wherever there is an underpaid, overworked and undervalued workforce, on the other hand, they are in the majority. Not because there is any systemic bias or prejudice, presumably, but because they lack merit.

“Quotas are not new. Indeed, until relatively recently, there was a worldwide 100% quota that reserved all positions of power, authority and privilege for men.”

There is also an enormous fear of quotas to help get more women into positions of power. This is also curious to me. Quotas are not new. Indeed, until relatively recently, there was a worldwide 100% quota that reserved all positions of power, authority and privilege for men. This was regarded as natural, normal and unexceptional.

Even in our very own federal cabinet, quotas are in existence. I heard a discussion about how difficult it was to select a new ministry given how the PM had to balance the required number of ministers from Queensland, Western Australia, Tasmania, etc, plus the required number of National Party people. Um, sorry, pardon my ignorance (perhaps its my vagina-owning lack of merit), but aren’t they quotas? Do the ministers from Queensland feel patronised that they might have got their cabinet positions based on their location, not their merit? (I’m not going to ask if the National Party members feel patronised; I am sure they do, all the time.)

Many boards in the private sector have similar interstate quotas so — pardon my presumption — why is it only quotas for women that are so unacceptable? Indeed, one could ask why it is only women who appear to have to earn their place at the decision-making tables by proving their merit at all.

Perhaps it’s because men — particularly those who tick all the class-related boxes listed above — are assumed to have merit unless proved otherwise. Women — no matter what boxes they tick — are assumed to have no merit unless they can prove otherwise.

Until men are actually promoted on merit I see absolutely no reason why women should have to be. In fact, I believe we will only have true equality when there are as many mediocre women in positions of power as there currently are mediocre men. And if you’d like to see just how mediocre things can get, look no further than our new federal cabinet.

*This article was originally published at Women’s Agenda


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23 thoughts on “Promotion on — ahem — merit? It’s hard to see how …

  1. klewso

    Don’t you promote the idiots out of the way, to free up the competent to do the actual work?

  2. klewso

    “The old fella network”?

  3. Outsider

    A slight problem in the first paragraph. Gandhi was a law student in London between 1888 and 1891. Otherwise a great article.

  4. Shaniq'ua Shardonn'ay

    Great Article. I was unaware that there were quotas for each State.

  5. Shaniq'ua Shardonn'ay

    Either rename ‘Crikey’ ‘Men’s Agenda’ or start publishing these sorts of articles directly in Crikey and Scrap the ‘Women’s Agenda’ site. I know you need the ad revenue but it is another example of treating your female readership as a minority.

  6. Shaniq'ua Shardonn'ay

    That was a bit ranty – preface it with ‘Please’

  7. bjb

    Good article. If the Coalition are talking about promotion on merit, why in the hell is Hockey not Sinodinos’ assistant and not the other way around.

  8. Josi V

    Thanks, Jane. An interesting read even though as a female, there was nothing that many of us didn’t already know. Where I work, men get ‘tapped on the shoulder’ for positions (with a pay increase). Merit? Pfft.

  9. beachcomber

    If merit played a part, there would be no National Party members in Cabinet at all.
    There seems to be a quota for old men in houndstooth jackets with leather elbows.
    There’s also an over abundance of pompous gits and mincing poodles
    When Julie Bishop is overseas on her foreign duties, our Cabinet will resemble a meeting of the Cardinals in Vatican City.
    Perhaps we should keep up our eye out for white smoke coming from Parliament House, to signify a new Liberal leader has been elected.

  10. Matthew Laing

    Ahh yes, the old ‘promote on merit’ chestnut. I’m sure that’s why Nigel Scullion, a professional fisherman from England, has been promoted to Indigenous Affairs minister over Ken Wyatt, who is actually indigenous and has 25 years of experience as a senior bureaucrat in indigenous affairs.

  11. shepherdmarilyn

    And Chris Pyne has not talent I can fathom, Ruddock as whip, Bronny as Speaker – talk about days of the living dead.

  12. Hamis Hill

    Do women buy newspapers?
    Because, without the Murdoch press, none of these mediocrities, (mediocrity is excellence to the mediocre: Joules Joubert) would be in power.
    Rupert thinks they have merit or does he value them for their malleable mediocrity?
    The “Mr Burns” of Australian politics says “Excellent”.

  13. Margot harker

    Good words and sound observation Jane, thank you. I came across the “cloning theory of recruitment” a while ago, and it explained a lot. I saw it most clearly in operation during the last 12 years in the Commonwealth Public Service. Given free rein, people tend to recruit people like themselves. It’s comforting. The movement in the eighties to instil equal opportunity principles into selection procedures (of which I was part) was intended to counteract the dominance of individual senior managers in the recruitment and promotion processes. Rules now state that selection committees should consist as far as possible of more broadly representative people. There should be at least one person on the committee from outside the structural unit, to give balance.

    So here’s the thing, as they used to say in Seinfeld. A true-life example. A selection committee of four, including top management person recognized as a sociopathic bully, draws up a shortlist based on merit. Conforming to the Cloning Theory, Top Management Person really really wants Candidate P, and really really doesn’t want Candidate M to get the job. This is not based on qualifications or experience, but on their personalities. After interviews etc, TMP tries to bully the rest of committee into selecting P, when they have uniformly plumped for M. Rest of committee resists and carries the day. TMP left snarling and foaming as M takes up the position. So TMP, who is very good at this, spends the next few months disempowering M, by keeping her out of the loop, tying her up with inane tasks, bypassing her to deal directly with her junior staff, ignoring her advice and dumping her written documents. M, deciding that this is a shitty existence, transfers out of the department, and all her experience, expertise and corporate memory are lost. And another talented woman bites the dust.

  14. Dogs breakfast

    “What I notice about people at the top is not their merit, but how similar they are.”

    Indeed it is Ms Caro.

    And it isn’t so much gender that I note as the similarity, but an overweening sense of self-importance, an overarching ambition, usually coupled with very little talent. A capacity for self promotion way beyond your capacbilities is key here.

    I have worked for a number of organisations, in HR for most of that time, and in organisations where women have done very well for themselves.

    But it was rarely the highly competent women who were promoted, it was invariably those I describe above.

    Which takes us back to klewso’s comment at 1. Believe me, it is no more liberating or inspirational to find incompetent women at the top as incompetent men.

    The very idea of merit needs to be re-thought. Without question, the key components are self-delusion and ambition. I suspect that the reason that women don’t do so well in the workplace is that they are less likely to be deluded about their qualities, although there are the exceptions (Mirabella, Concetta Fierra whatsit), and also less likely to want the sacrifices that come with that promotion (loss of time, sycophancy etc).

    And I just can’t see a way around that, but sure, why not have equal numbers of incompetent women to match the incompetent men.

    Re the cabinet, given that it would be hard to find more than 5 members of the coalition with any talent at all, (and 3 of them are Turnbull), it’s hard to see how Tony couldn’t fit more women in.

  15. tonyfunnywalker

    But Jane, Alan Jones said that women are “trashing the place” in fact women and the role of women has been under siege for some time in Australia – again driven by the media especially after Gillard’s Misogyny speech in Parliament. We are back to the 1950’s thinking here. Gender equality is under siege and for the reformists its back to the drawing board. Academically women are must better performers than their male counterparts – better qualified, but in the professions like politics men dominate in the key positions,get paid more for the same work and are given more latitude as they are still seen as the ” bread winner”. Yesterday was a sad day in many ways but a reflection of where Australian Society is at – its still the ” Blokes and the Sheila’s” mentality of which we should be ashamed as so much talent just goes begging and so it is now with the Liberals. The treatment of a woman PM was bad enough to make any talented women think twice about being Ministers in the first place- but as the door is now closed and bolted the “Boys Club” of Ministers is secure in knowing that for the next three years they will not be challenged by a ” Sheila” for their job. Julie Bishop is going to be busy ” making tea and sandwiches”.

  16. _007

    Lets just see how the ‘merit’ based system is working for the private Liberal boys club. When your leader happily stands in front of a ‘Ditch the Witch’ poster on television and refuses to distance himself from the sexist comments about a female prime minister what chance have you got in a ‘meritocracy’? When he is well known for thinking men are superior. When his friends include Alan Jones who thinks we should put the PM out to sea in a chaff bag. And the young Liberals at Sydney Uni not only then have Alan Jones attend but then auction a jacket made from a chaff bag. When the same young Liberals club on FB is chock full of pictures of boys doing the power thing, and one or two pretty ‘Mad Men’ style female members. I tell you where you get on ‘merit’. Nowhere. Those slimy little students that are working their way up the Liberal Party ranks have looked up to Howard, Mr Rabbit, and the likes of Alan Jones and until someone hangs them up by their boat shoes and shakes them up, there will be no women getting anywhere on merit, except the ones that are able to swallow their self worth and marry for money.

  17. klewso

    Does Jones suffer from gynophobia?

  18. Minstrel

    Whine whine whine.

    Maybe if women didn’t get promoted early in their careers because they use their looks and charms then they would learn the skills they need to prove their value rather than relying on those looks and then when their looks fade not having the skills to fall back on.

    The simple fact is both genders have advantages. Women have the ability to get ahead early but that often leads to them failing to develop the networks of contacts and gaining the demonstrated experience to get the top level jobs.

  19. Djbekka

    Surely it is the definition of merit that needs to change. While I agree that self-aggrandisers are likely to be promoted above their competence, some public discussion about the nature of policy making merit needs to happen. Understanding of what a job requires would help us judge the merit or otherwise of a potential candidate. In politics, of course, those on the other side will always seem to have less merit, but with some agreed criteria beyond ‘a chap like me’ or ‘a bloke I like’, one could see the merit in the person while disliking her or his views. Then there is the question of how women members of the coalition will ever get the experiences required to meet sensible merit criteria when they don’t get the ‘training positions’ or the safe seats. ARGH!

  20. Serenatopia

    Guess what Jane—women have been safely promoted on the basis of having no merit—usually with extraordinary levels of bitchiness and the ability to play by bullies’ rules…there are so many logical fallacies in your article—‘if arsehole men get promoted—why not the unsympathetic bitches?’ C’mon—it should be about values, talent and commitment—not body parts—I echo Dogs Breakfast’s sentiments regarding the conduct of women in HR! An area that we all can do without and a source of much pain for many—

  21. klewso

    It is funny watching how women can turn on “sisters” after arguing for “solidarity and the common cause” – apparently they have to conform to certain ideals of the elite in places of influence/opinion amplification first?
    Murdoch’s “sisterhood of troll-op-eds vs Gillard” a case in point?

    [And “Mirrabella promoted on merit”?]

  22. andrew lindsay

    the author of this article chooses to state a lot of opinions as fact.Many of us believe strongly in our opinions and do this without realising. This author compounded this by lying in the first paragraph and claimed to have seen footage of Gandhi arriving in the UK and making his famed ” I think it would be a good idea” response to the question ” “Mahatma, what do you think of Western civilisation?”. This footage does not exist. the author of this article should think about her credibility and try and work with facts only in future.

  23. Glory Toad

    Some of those low profile shadow ministers cum ministers did bugger all so run the numbers. See how many asked questions and landed blows. Any man without enough runs on the board should have been given the boot.


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