The problem with being promoted on ‘merit’

“Homo WHAT reproduction?”, asks a friend of mine wondering why I would think that sexual orientation and children lead to inequality regimes and discrimination.
“No, homoSOCIAL reproduction” I reply.

It’s a common mistake because so few people have even heard of homosocial reproduction, or the tendency for people to promote others who are like themselves. But given that issues of inequity are still rife, as evidenced by a lack of diversity (race, gender, class etc) in the top management teams of many organisations, and given that sometimes the biggest opponents of measures to improve equality are people from the oppressed group (e.g. the Women’s Anti-Suffrage Movement claiming that giving women the right to vote was a dangerous experiment), I feel the need to shout this from the roof tops:


According to Rosabeth Moss Kanter, there are three main reasons why this can occur.

  • Uncertainty and the need for trust
  • Ease of communication
  • Difficulties in measuring managerial performance

Managers have to deal with a lot of ambiguity in their roles and that means that we like to promote people who will make good decisions. This means that we need to trust them and perhaps see eye to eye (noting however, that diversity of thought usually leads to better performance outcomes). Thus, the further you rise up the managerial chain, the more ambiguous our roles become and the more subjective ‘merit’ is especially when you consider the effects of teams on individual performance. Instead our mental template of what constitutes a ‘great’ leader takes over and ‘objective’ outcomes are often hindered by the unconscious biases that are lying deep within our psyche. This means that unless we are specifically looking for it, we might end up promoting someone who is like ourselves and/or the dominant culture, rather than someone who might bring diversity of thought to the team and lead using a different, but equally effective, style.

Why 'merit' is subjective

When managerial performance is reduced to ‘climbing trees’, the monkey wins every time.

Noting that I have often worked in male dominated environments, some of the best leaders I knew did not meet the requirements of the ‘boys club’ because they stood by their ethics and authenticity. Despite being excellent leaders with great communication, empathy and team performance results, they found themselves trapped by a glass ceiling because they perhaps did not ‘tick the social box’, be that a beer drinking ‘lad’, a ‘heroic’ leader who is going to swoop in and save the day (as opposed to a facilitative leader who inspires the team to save the day), or some other shallow template of trustworthiness.

So what can we do to help overcome the inequity that results from homosocial reproduction?

  • First of all, be AWARE that it exists
  • Secondly, recognise that ‘merit’ is highly subjective when it comes to managerial team performance, and like a good sports team, you don’t just choose the top players, rather you choose a diverse and talented group that through synergy become a top TEAM
  • Thirdly, support quotas, diversity metrics and HR policies that seek to dismantle the inherent inequality and unconscious bias that exists within organisational systems
  • Finally, come to understand yourself. Test your unconscious bias using the Harvard Implicit Association Test at You might be as surprised by the results as I was!

Why We Need Flying Camps For Girls

A short while ago, the Royal Australian Air Force announced via its Facebook page that they had just completed a flying camp for girls as a means of encouraging more young women to pursue careers as pilots. While most of the comments by FB users were positive and encouraging, a number of not so supportive voices stood out. “What about flying camps for boys?” and, “This is reverse discrimination!”

Is there any truth or fairness in these comments? When I was studying for my engineering degree we used to attend Women in Engineering (WIE) events. Some men in our class would similarly complain, “but that’s reverse discrimination!” or would feel threatened by their imaginings of what we might be up to. I really enjoyed going to the WIE events. We listened to really interesting guest speakers talk about their experiences of being women in a male dominated culture and found their tips for being successful useful. It provided a space for bonding with fellow women and a network that followed us out into the workforce and supported us in our careers. It seemed like such a good thing. But at the same time, given that it wasn’t geared for men, did that really mean it was a case of reverse discrimination?

I wasn’t entirely sure and didn’t really know how to respond, until one day a friend of mine said, “but every day is Man in Engineering Day!” And suddenly it made sense. The system was culturally set up to support men more so than women. Sure, on an individual level people have different abilities and experiences that help or hinder their success, but in general, the overall ‘engineering system’ was based on ‘men’s cultural values’. In the same way that our WIE events were geared towards women’s needs (e.g. how to survive as a woman in a male dominated environment), the overall system was geared towards men’s needs by virtue of the fact that it couldn’t address the needs of women without WIE events to support it. Thus it was not reverse discrimination. It was simply trying to level the playing field for women who had a disadvantage by being so underrepresented in the engineering demographic and subject to a system that was originally designed around men’s values and needs more so than women’s. This line of thinking can also be applied to race, ethnicity, sexual orientation religion and the disability realms. When you strip back these other needs, you find that the system is typically set up for white men and this is the core of ‘privilege’. The privileged in any system rarely see their privilege because they face fewer obstructions; hence the cries of reverse discrimination.

Back to the flying camp for girls. Women are significantly under represented as pilots in the Royal Australian Air Force. This lack of diversity in any organization or team has been shown to lead to lower performance than where there is greater diversity of gender, race, etc. In 2001 I was the 13th woman to graduate pilot training despite the first two female pilots graduating in 1987 and a few hundred men during the time in between. Some people make biological arguments as to why women are not interested in becoming pilots, but this is short sighted because the issue is really one of social obstacles.

When I was recruited I hadn’t even considered being a pilot since there were so few role models (I didn’t even properly consider it as a serious career). Similarly, spatial awareness is a significant factor in the various tests of aptitude for selection to undertake pilot training. Studies have shown that women tend to do more poorly on spatial awareness tests. My personal belief is that a lot of this comes down to conditioning. My mother, who is a teacher, did a very good job of helping to cultivate both left and right brain functions in me as a child by encouraging not only creative pursuits, but also video games, sports and intellect. However, what about the girls whose parents encouraged them towards less ‘masculine’ pursuits? What opportunities exist for girls to overcome all the obstacles and people along the way who don’t take them seriously if they say they want to be pilots?

Thus we do need a flying camp for girls. It is a small step towards helping to restore the balance by promoting opportunities to girls who, due to social conditioning, may otherwise never consider a career as a pilot. Furthermore, if we only take the best men, aren’t we selling ourselves short by ignoring the best women? A bird can’t fly on one wing alone.