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What every leader needs to know - the myth of meritocracy

Erica Kinmond, Vice-Chair of the Axis Network and Employment Lawyer with Pinsent Masons LLP, explores invisible barriers to maximising talent in our industry and what we can do to break these down.

We like to think that our workplaces hire, develop and promote people based on a combination of their skills, talent, experience and merit - that is certainly the aim of most hirers and managers. However, the data actually shows that none of us work in true "Meritocracies" and leaders who still believe that they treat everyone equally are the ones least likely to do so.

I recently had the pleasure of interviewing the winner of the Royal Society’s Insight Investment Science Book Prize 2019, Caroline Criado-Perez, at an event sponsored by Shell.  Ms Perez's book has garnered a great deal of media attention alongside its scientific award. A crowd funding endeavour even ensured that a free copy was sent to every MP at Westminster earlier this year. The book is "Packed with facts and insight" and is "Powerful, important and eye-opening" according to the reviews, but the ground-breaking importance of her book is that Caroline uses research to evidence the pervasive data gaps which are causing barriers and challenges in all of our workplaces.

In order to meet Vision 2035, it is clear that as an industry we need to attract and retain the most talented people, which will not happen as long as our workplaces and managers (inadvertently) put additional barriers in the way of certain groups. The leaders and organisations who are able to most successfully tackle these barriers and challenges are likely to reap significant rewards, particularly in respect to increased profit, retention and attraction of staff in their businesses.

So what are these barriers and how can you deal with them?

Ms Criado-Perez's book "Invisible Women", focuses on barriers in relation to gender, but many of the same barriers also apply in relation to minority groups in our workplaces. As a result, the measures suggested to tackle gender bias are also likely to help remove barriers for all minority groups as well.

One key barrier highlighted by Ms Criado-Perez was in feedback, job evaluations/assessments, references and reviews. A number of decisions in relation to hiring, remuneration and promotion are directly linked to the data provided, but what many of us do not realise is just how inherently biased this data is towards men.

“Invisible Women” highlights a study which found that "Students believe that male professors hand marking back more quickly - even when that is impossible because it is an online course delivered by a single lecturer, but where half the students are led to believe the professor is male and half female. Female professors are penalised if they aren't deemed sufficiently warm and accessible, but if they arewarm and accessible, they can be penalised for not appearing authoritative or professional. On the other hand, appearing authoritative and knowledgeable as a woman can result in student disapproval".

The book also refers to an online tool which analysed 14 million reviews on website to compare the frequency of particular words in evaluations of male and female professors. It found that male professors are more likely to be described as "Brilliant", "Intelligent", "Smart" and their reviews more likely to contain the word "Genius". Female professors in contrast were more likely to be described as "Mean", "Harsh" "Unfair", "Strict" and "Annoying".

Ms Criado-Perez also directs us to a study which has shown that women are more likely to be described with "More communal (warm; kind; nurturing) and less active (ambitious, self-confident) language than men. And having communal characteristics included in your letter of recommendation makes it less likely that you will get the job, particularly if you are a woman: while 'Team player' is taken as a leadership quality in men, for women the term 'Can make a woman seem like a follower".

She also highlights an analysis of 248 performance reviews collected from a variety of US-based technology companies which "Found that women receive negative personality criticism that men simply don't. Women are told to watch their tone, to step back. They are called bossy, abrasive, strident, aggressive, emotional and irrational. Out of all these words only aggressive appeared in men's reviews at all 'Twice with an exhortation to be more of it'".

The differences in our perceptions of how men and women should behave are based on our experiences and are deep-rooted in our society. However, there are at least three simple steps which all leaders (Male and female) and organisations can quickly take to help reduce the impact of any inherent bias:

1) Slow down important decision making – particularly in relation to hiring and promotion. We are more likely to make biased decisions when we do so in haste;

2) Question ourselves when we are judging or assessing someone as to whether or not our expectations or impression of that person is impacted by gender norms. A quick test would be if you are tempted to use any of the adjectives listed above or to 'Flip the picture' and imagine the person is the opposite sex; and

3) Don't make assumptions about what people will/will not be willing to do and ensure that you are distributing opportunities evenly amongst your teams.

There are many barriers to maximising and retaining the talent already in our organisations which we can tackle and the AXIS Network invites all organisations working within the Energy industry in Aberdeen to pledge to better understand the barriers in relation to gender in their own organisations and put in place effective strategies to tackle them. More information can be found at

It is only once we have removed the invisible barriers in our organisations and management that we will be able to confidently say we are leading and developing our teams based on their skills and merit.

Erica Kinmond, AXIS Network Vice-Chair and Employment Lawyer with Pinsent Masons LLP.



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