The best person for the job – a question of merit

Merit – claim to commendation; excellence; worth. Something that entitles to reward of commendation, a commendable quality, act, etc (Macquarie dictionary fifth edition).

When the question of quotas are referenced to ensure the equal representation and opportunity of women in various industry departments it quickly turns into a discussion of merit. The question of merit is validated around the narrative of finding the best person for the job regardless of gender. This is then received more widely as the reasonable approach as we make it about the merit of the person regardless of gender, or so it is believed. However this proposition simultaneously removes the debate on how to achieve gender equality. For if we state we are not looking at gender then we are also stating that gender equality has been achieved, something that most of us can easily identify as false. It is when we recognise the question of merit however as a guise to quash the gender equality debate that we more fully start to understand it as a misogynist tool that makes women prove their worth.

Kate Manne writes in Down Girl – The logic of misogyny that “misogyny should be understood primarily as the law enforcement branch of a patriarchal order”. Manne continues to illustrate this function under sexism vs. misogyny with the example of the misogyny speech made by the former Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard. This speech helped to crystallise for many how misogyny is a mechanism of a patriarchal society and prompted the updating of the word in the Macquarie dictionary which had become out of step with how the word had been used for the past 30 years. It was too restrictive to mean only the hatred of women. It was more accurate to widen the scope and it now therefore more accurately includes “entrenched prejudice against women”(Macquarie dictionary 2018).

Prejudice – an unfavourable opinion or feeling formed beforehand or without knowledge, thought, or reason (Macquarie dictionary 2018).

Within this scope we can more clearly identify misogyny, as a mechanism used within society to keep women in their place, a place as defined through the eyes of a a patriarchal society. Certainly it seems not a place of power but rather of servitude. We could be convinced then that we did not get the job not because we are female but because we lacked the so called merit to do the job, there was just a better person suited to the position and that person just happened to be a man.

To demonstrate how language is used to undermine the feminist movement I have included dictionary definitions. For when we brake down the components and examine them closely we discover how the mechanism works in this context and it opens up inquiry. Simone De Beauvoir in her book the Second Sex asks the question “What is a woman?” as De Beauvoir goes on to explain “Merely stating the problem suggests an immediate answer to me. It is significant that I pose it. It would never occur to a man to write a book on the singular situation of males in humanity…A man never begins by posting himself as an individual of a certain sex that he is a man is obvious”.

Just like De Beauvoir used this type of inquiry to ask the right questions here too we must ask questions of merit and what constitutes it; who and how is this determined; can it ever be unbiased in a system that was built on gender bias. Especially if the same men holding positions that they acquired through gender bias decide it, how can they be expected to see through the bias?

An example of the inability to identify this bias is that a man may assume he had the required merit to acquire his employment position, that gender played a role will not be questioned. This is the accepted norm once he gets the job. For women though they must argue why they deserve equal representation, for men they can assume the over representation is based on merit. If women were given equal opportunity, then mathematically it would equate to them being equally represented to men within all departments given that they represent roughly half the population. However we still do not see anything close to this despite the new slogan of merit.

For women we continue to make separate rules as we tell them employment for them will not be based on gender but merit. In effect we are still separating them from men who used their gender as proof of merit for centuries. Apparently now that women want to use the gender card to gain opportunity it is suddenly deemed a flawed system. It is a flawed system, however it is difficult to make the argument that within a gender that represents roughly fifty percent of the population a woman could not be found with the correct merit for the job.

Merit in this context is at worst telling women they do not possess the merit for the job and at best puts obstacles in the way of them achieving equality. Making it an excruciatingly slow if not impossible device to achieve equal opportunity for women in the workplace.

A quota system works because it demands equal representation. Whereas as a merit system is based on a subjective analysis that can unwittingly be decided under an unconscious bias. A quota system enables a diverse representation (it can apply beyond gender) whereas a merit system falls short due to being subjective from the perspective of the person(s) deciding what constitutes merit.

If we tell women and men that merit was the deciding factor then we are telling them all the men in leadership roles have those jobs solely because of their merit alone. The bases of merit in this situation then starts to fall apart at the seams because we can clearly see the inequality it continues to justify.

So we must continue to ask questions. Such as, what is the merit of having an all male work place or only males in leadership roles? What type of culture does that create and does it become detrimental to have such an unbalanced work place? The more questions we ask the clearer the answers become as it brings awareness to the lack of equality achieved through a so called merit system and it displays how this continued structure has inhibited desired outcomes due to a lack of perception caused by looking through the narrow lens of a male only experience.

These questions have illuminated the fact that there are still many men in leadership roles today not because they were the best person for the job but because they were the best man for the job. Again we are back revealing the merit objective as one that acts as a wall for women and validation of entry for men.

Women may themselves argue for a merit based system over a quota system as we have in seen in recent Australian politics. Again questions must be asked; such as, is this response by women one stemming from the fear of being viewed as not having the merit for the job?

Again when we ask this type of question we realise that it is only women asking themselves this question not men for men assume that merit was valid upon appointment, despite the overwhelming evidence that suggests the opposite. The evidence being if men and women where given equal opportunity to leadership roles then given they represent half the worthy candidates then we should see this reflected in leadership role representation, we don’t. So why don’t men ask themselves if they have the merit for their position?

The simple answer is it probably never occurred to them to ask, because within our patriarchal society it is only women that we ask to prove their worth/merit. That a man has worth is a given he is a recognised human being (a man does not need to fight for his rights they are given), for a woman though it seems debatable. When we are not given equal opportunity we are not given equal rights or equal status as a human being.

If we continue this merit rhetoric then we continue to tell women that we were unable to identify their worth and we trap them within the patriarchal system they are forced to abide by. The hidden agenda of finding the so called best person for the job based on merit is a bit like when the term ‘post-feminism’ was pushed in “the mid-1980’s”(All the rebel women Kira Cochrane 2013) as an attempt “to banish feminism to the margins” (Cochrane 2013). We were told that women had achieved equality we could aspire to become whoever we wanted; we could do away with feminism and the struggle was won, it was not. It was in actuality being sidelined so that the momentum that had grown out of the feminist movements could be quietly disarmed. For if we thought we had won what did we need feminism for?

Merit in the context of employment is being used in just the same way. It tells us that women will only be judged on merit but what it doesn’t tell us is that men will be given advantage because of systemic gender bias. It prevents women from being able to point out the disparity in the ratio of men verses women in certain jobs, because it indoctrinates the accepted response that the men had more merit. Just like telling women they live in a post-feminist world, telling them merit was the deciding factor deters women from raising feminist issues and prevents them from achieving equality as they are silenced. The language conveyed by post-feminism and merit systems attempts to remove the perceived need for feminism precisely when it is most needed. So lets give feminism the merit it deserves and call for mandatory quota systems to be enforced. The flow on effect of this could also open up an opportunity to close the pay gap, as women would be empowered to do it for themselves.

A poem inspired by my reading and research of merit.

Social experiment

Take away the scales
Add a boy and a girl
Place one in front of the other
Blind the boy with sugar
Tie the girls hands
Bake the boy in golden sunshine
Beat the girl down and leave to rise
Measure only the material
Add judgement to the girl
Add praise to the boy
Discard cause and effect
Walk away from the results

Camille Barr

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