Women, inclusion and merit

D&I initiatives have transformed many modern workplaces. Even so, the value of meritocracy should not be overlooked. Laurie Cohen, a Professor of Work and Organisation at Nottingham University Business School, explains why all workers should be allowed to succeed on the basis of their own abilities and why talent alone is often still not enough for some women.

Businesses, policymakers and educators remain hugely frustrated by how few women pursue careers in certain fields. The shortfall is especially worrying in areas such as science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM), where a sea-change has been sought for years but remains as elusive as ever.

One problem may be that we too often focus on failure. We usually concentrate on why so many women see their careers stall or why they avoid the likes of STEM in the first place. We seldom ask why some women actually succeed – why they do embark on such careers and, more importantly, why they often turn out to be very good at them.

“One problem may be that we too often focus on failure.”

Our recent research into women in engineering identified several strategies popular among those who stay the course. Keeping family life out of work, networking and sheer perseverance all emerged as significant considerations for the successful.

Yet arguably the most interesting theme of all was the value attached to progressing one’s career wholly on the strength of one’s abilities rather than relying on special initiatives, quotas, targets and other “favours”. In short, the appetite for succeeding on merit shouldn’t be underestimated.

“The appetite for succeeding on merit shouldn’t be underestimated.”

The view among most of our respondents was that nothing beats competence – that when it comes to moving up the ladder, when it comes to proving oneself deserving of advancement, there’s no substitute for doing the job and doing it well.

With this in mind, many of the women who took part in our study actively sought out the toughest tasks at work. They were determined to take on hard assignments, to complete them and, crucially, to let everyone know they had completed them.

This is a vital point, because meritocracy can be a complex construct. Sometimes it can be used to continue promoting people who fit the type. In some organisations it’s still not enough merely for women to be competent: they have to be seen to be competent as well.

This may help explain negative attitudes towards diversity and inclusion (D&I) programmes. Many of our respondents believed such schemes could ultimately undermine rather than assist them – that they would be seen as less than genuinely competent if D&I played a role in their career progression.

“Many of our respondents believed [D&I] schemes could ultimately undermine rather than assist them.”

Above all, what they really disliked was being singled out for any kind of “remedial” help. For these women D&I policies were not well-intentioned efforts to break down barriers: instead they were corrosive examples of “positive discrimination”.

Perhaps the key lesson for businesses of all kinds is that any guidance, boost or sponsorship should be seen not as a selective “favour” but as a benefit available to all. This represents diversity and inclusion in the truest sense and renders claims of positive discrimination redundant.

D&I initiatives undoubtedly have their place. So, too, do quotas and targets. They have been pivotal to the transformation of many modern workplaces. But if we really want to solve the problem of why so few women pursue careers in certain fields then we need to take a good, hard look at how we define competence; and we need to be sure we aren’t simply rewarding people who look like the bosses and who continue doing things in the same old ways.


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