· Comment

The biggest myth around meritocracy? That it exists

It's an absolute and utter con-trick that meritocracy has ever existed anytime or anywhere in history, especially if we want to go by its meaning that it's a society governed by people selected according to merit. 

It matters because the business case has been proven and in The Pipeline's Women Count 2021, we see that without women in top jobs UK businesses are missing out on a potential £123 billion in pre-tax profit. The best performing companies through the pandemic had women on their ExCos and leaving women out of the top jobs doesn’t make any business sense. 

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We can go back to where it starts; girls often get better grades than boys out of schools and universities on merit. So why is it when they go into the world of work, they're not getting promoted as quickly? 

If an organisation's intake is balanced and at entry-level, many are. But then at the top of it, you've got between 80 and 90% men; it's implausible to think or believe that you have a business that operates a meritocratic approach to promotions. Over time, I've observed it takes women around seven years longer to get to the same point as an equally qualified man in her career. 

Some people cite having children as the reason for the lack of senior women, which can be a barrier for some. However, around only 40% of women in corporate UK have children aged 0-18 years; what about the other 60%? Why don't they feature more prominently in the upper echelons of business and public organisations? Where is the meritocracy for them? What we do see is the reality that people promote people who look like themselves. 

In Women Count 2021, the data shows gender parity in the FTSE 350 has been pushed back four years - whatever businesses say they are trying isn’t working. 

The cultural reality is women are more likely to be stuck in the attainment trap than a mythical meritocracy. In organisations, men are appointed on potential and women for attainment because of how we are socialised. There are some outlier societies, but overall across the globe, men are socialised to ask for what they want; not take rejection personally and have a go without minding the outcome.

Because having to go at being in the ring, whether you succeed or fail, is seen as what it is to be an ambitious man.  Whereas a woman is socialised to think that if she asks for something and gets knocked back, it will irrevocably damage her reputation. She will more likely: 

  • Keep her head down and work hard to get noticed.
  • Try to understand how to develop professionally with less feedback than her male colleagues.
  • Navigate the business with mentors rather than sponsors and strategic networks.

The lack of support for women that many male colleagues have access to makes many women feel like they're failing and need fixing when it's the system. This leaves women with the option to tread water or leave, and many choose the latter. Instead, it's the purporting of ideologies like meritocracy that need to stop. 

When that comes to appointments, all the head-hunters and HR directors I speak to will tell you that a man will go for a job when he's got five out of the 10 essential criteria, and a woman will struggle to go for it when she's got eight out of the 10. This is not about men being bad for having a go; this is about learnt behaviour that makes men think they can, and women think they can't. 

World leaders at the G7 summit were hinting at targets, which could mean regulation, businesses still have the power to put this right, but time is running out. 

We do need to change the way we socialise boys and girls so we all know we can have a go, take risks, and not face imagined reputational damage. However, this difference in male and females risk appetite - and the behaviours it leads to - are deeply ingrained and will not change any time soon. 

Innovative organisations have already realised they need to combat this internally. They are reaping the rewards and pulling away from the field as they have worked out that this isn't about 'fixing' women. Instead, they invest in those groups the system doesn't currently work for, although they are equally, if not more, qualified than those that the system does works for.  

Daniel Marcavitz, in his book The Meritocracy Trap, eviscerated the idea that meritocracy has ever existed anywhere in the world. Unless we understand this, we will continue to struggle to promote talent equally.   

We know what works; at The Pipeline, we see talented women reaching the top more quickly when they and their organisations abandon the mythical natural talent selection ideology and act. For those companies who are still struggling to promote and retain their female talent, what's the excuse? They know how to help people carve out successful careers as they do it for the men. Are they willing to find the right solutions for their women? 


Lorna Fitzsimons is co-founder and CEO of The Pipeline


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