Is the Right Person for the Job Actually Wrong?

Have you been to one of my gender diversity workshops yet?

If you live in Brisbane, for the first time you might have been able to answer yes. I was delighted to have delivered my first public session in the Sunshine State this week, and connect with some great IT leaders who share Clicks’ views on the importance of increasing gender diversity in the Australian IT market.

In today’s blog I want to call out one of the thorniest topics that is emerging in current gender debates: the notion of meritocracy.

It has historically been inarguably logical to say that you want ‘the best person for the job’. This is how I was trained when I entered the recruitment industry 20 years ago, it was common parlance when talking with hiring managers about their needs, and it dictated which candidates I shortlisted for my clients to meet.

Enter the more recent, yet (almost) equally universally accepted wisdom that we need to reach gender equity in our workforces, and not take 100+ years to get there.

Houston, we have a problem.

We know that, after the age of 25, men tend to have more years of professional experience than women of the same age. This is due to women taking time out from their careers to have and act as primary carer for their children.

We don’t want to disadvantage these women, but we also want ‘the best person for the job’. Which one wins? The more senior the position, the greater the conflict.

At the risk of moving lower down your Christmas card list, I will share my view on this.

I believe that adhering to older-style meritocracy should move over. Not get completely out of the way, just shuffle up a bit to make room for a new entrant to the bench.

The suggestion I’m about to make won’t work for every role, but even if it worked for one in five it would hugely speed up the time it will take to achieve full gender equity.

The first part is as follows: next time you have a new vacancy, I encourage you to consider whether you can intentionally hire a less experienced female. This will require consultation, forethought, and planning. This person will require additional onboarding and development for the first 12 months, and you need to be prepared for that to ensure you are setting them up to be a success.

The second part is to talk openly and often to your team about what you’re doing. Going public about your plan, why you want to do this, how you think it will benefit your organisation and community, how it aligns with your diversity goals and targets, and perhaps even offering a special referral bonus, will get everyone on board with your vision, and create a culture of diversity champions.

It will also ensure you don’t create a culture of resentment among your male employees, who may become discouraged, or worse, begin to distance themselves and modify their behaviour in front of their female colleagues. This can have a negative psychological impact on both the female incumbent as well as the rest of the staff.

The pendulum is definitely swinging in favour of us achieving gender equity. The trick is to ensure it doesn’t swing too far in the opposite direction. An ideal workforce and community is one where everyone has their strengths and abilities recognised, and is rewarded fairly and equally for them.

If you’d like to get involved in discussions about this and other gender-related issues, I’m running public workshops in the evening in Sydney on 5th June and Melbourne on 6th June. I’d love to see you there. You can RSVP or email me here with any other thoughts, questions, or comments.

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