Affirmative Action, and the use of quotas and targets in business, creates stigma and erodes merit. Fact or fiction?
Read the first part of my update here.
Affirmative action measures such as quotas and targets are seen to be problematic for many reasons. Perhaps the biggest concern is that women will be selected for roles based on their gender alone.
This leads to a double negative. First, there is a perception that women themselves will suffer the stigma of being in a role under false pretences. Second, that merit is eroded leading to a performance deficit, as women selected under these conditions are not deemed suitably capable.
What’s the evidence for stigma?
Numerous studies led by Heilman and others between the mid-1980s and mid-2000s explored the idea of stigma. Their research showed that women hired and explicitly identified as being hired under affirmative action programmes were generally seen to be less competent and less deserving of their positions.
This applied even where it could be demonstrated that they were as competent and qualified as male colleagues. (It’s something of a conundrum that women as competent and qualified as male candidates had to be hired through an affirmative action programme…).
Both men and women assessed the women described in this way as less capable. The women appointed through these processes themselves held these views, even in the face of contradictory evidence about their competence!
They also went on to take less credit for successful outcomes and indicated less interest in continuing in leadership roles.
More recent meta-analysis of this same databank, as well as more recent research, creates a more refined view that points to a fundamental problem with how we see affirmative action.
Why Affirmative Action?
Affirmative action is designed to ensure proactive investigation of whether or not equality of opportunity exists. And if it doesn’t, to take steps to eliminate barriers and establish real equality.
Quotas and targets are amongst such measures, in recognition that women and men of equal talent and skill tend not to be appointed to roles with the same frequency, as noted above.
The more refined view reinforces the importance of the language we use. Unzueta and his colleagues found that women’s self-image benefited generally from affirmative action policies, so long as they did not think they had personally benefited.
Other studies have shown that those who benefit from affirmative action recognise the success of such policies, see them as providing them with opportunities, and enjoy working for employers with affirmative action policies. Where women are told their qualifications are high, they do not experience the same negative effects.
In summary then, stigma may well occur under certain conditions, and how women’s success is described is a critical factor. If women are told they have won their role solely because they’re women, they are more likely to feel stigma.
Where there is a general environment that opportunity is being re-balanced and women move into senior leadership roles, there seems to be no stigma.
Where women are told they have won their roles because they are competent and capable, whatever the affirmative action landscape, there appears to be no stigma. (And this happens not just for women, but for any group in the minority, including male nurses working in a predominately female working environment.)
As it is so unlikely that women will be placed in roles solely because they are women, and as long as women are not described as winning roles solely on the basis of their gender, stigma should not be an issue.
Is Merit Eroded?
Merit is often discussed as if it were an absolute. As if there were perfect standards and assessment tools that allow raters to make unequivocal judgments about individuals. There is however clear evidence that measures of merit include subjective elements and are influenced by stereotypes. The testing community willingly admits to the challenges of making fair assessments of individuals.
Test construction and conditions remain open to bias, and plenty of research supports this. Given that implicit beliefs that associate men with leadership and women with support roles are held at least slightly by the greater majority of the population, it is clear that even those of us with good intentions may not be able to suppress these when we are assessing capability.
And according to Crosby, most people just don’t notice persistent injustices unless they have access to systematic comparative data. At individual decision level, and even within departments, and even by those attuned to such discrepancies, discrimination between different demographic groups isn’t discerned.
Detecting Different Patterns
It is only when reviewing large amounts of aggregated data comparing smaller groupings across a larger collection, that people are able to detect different patterns in hiring women and men.
Crosby and her colleagues put this down to a fundamentally human need to believe we live in a just world. When we perceive difference, we would rather put it down to a random quirk than to intention (discrimination), and so we miss the pattern.
Because observers are not always able to detect unfairness in processes, valid assessment of the merits of women are harder to achieve than valid assessment of the merits of men.
In Crosby’s words, “the main reason to endorse affirmative action … is to reward merit. Without the systematic monitoring of affirmative action, one can maintain the fiction of a meritocracy but will have difficulty establishing and sustaining a true meritocracy”.
What to do:
- Prime women for competence
- Prime others for women’s competence
- Take care in choosing assessment methods, and as far as possible structure assessment processes to avoid priming on gender lines
- Increase transparency of the numbers.
Dr Karen Morley is an Executive Coach, Associate Dean at Mt Eliza Education, expert on gender-balanced leadership and registered psychologist.