Gender equality efforts and academic values: the pursuit of meritocracy in higher education institutions

Centre for Employment Relations, Innovation and Change

Cheryl Hurst is a Research Fellow at Leeds University Business School. Her research themes are: gender and inequality in organisations, diversity and inclusion, leadership, organisational change, and power and resistance. She connects these themes with macro developments on systemic inequality, gendered institutions, and institutionalisation.

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Meritocracy is a moving target

Inspired by a ‘meritocratic ideal’ (where people are evaluated and rewarded for their skills, abilities, and qualifications without consideration of other characteristics or features), many organisations aim for their recruitment and selection procedures to be free of explicit and implicit biases as well as overt and covert forms of discrimination. While merit is widely considered a guiding value for making hiring and promotional decisions, merit-based processes are built upon subjective definitions, often with little clarity about what constitutes a true meritocracy.

Despite this lack of clarity, achieving a merit-based system has been celebrated, with the majority of institutions deeming themselves to be ‘meritocratic’ in how they select, promote, and reward their employees. Yet, women remain underrepresented in leadership and managerial roles, including within higher education institutions (HEIs). Despite accounting for more than half of all undergraduate students (57%) and postgraduate students (58%) and nearly half of all academic staff (46%), women hold only 24% of professorships in HEIs across the UK. Professorships are nearly always a pre-requisite for more senior roles, and thus the proportion of women continues to decrease as the rank increases.

One possible explanation for this, in keeping with the view that a meritocracy has been achieved, is that women and men make different lifestyle choices, and thus the disproportionate number of women than men in leadership and managerial roles is symbolic of preferences, rather than flaws in the system. This view has been substantially criticised, with research demonstrating that women face several barriers as they progress through their careers. Although individuals do make their own choices, the extent to which women’s preferences can be realised in the current system is at question. The difficulties women face when returning to work after having children, for example, demonstrate that the system is still designed for those with uninterrupted careers and those who do not take periods of leave. 

At the same time, research has found several ways women experience biases that brings to question whether a true ‘meritocracy’ can actually exist. For example, studies have found that gender biases exist in student evaluations for teaching staff in higher education even when controlling for differences in appearance, presentation style, and content. Macneil and colleagues used a controlled online experiment to assess how students taking an online module would rate instructors when they believed they were female versus when they were male. The authors found that students consistently gave higher ratings to the instructor with a male identity than they did to the instructor with the female identity. The instructors, when posting online, administered the same content and course materials to the groups of students.  

This example of student evaluations is particularly important because the results of these evaluations are often considered when making promotion and recruitment decisions. Thus, although a process may seem fair and unbiased at the point of recruitment, the means of measuring success and therefore ‘merit’ are made up of other biased processes that reflect less than equal outcomes. In many other circumstances, women’s contributions are unfairly devalued in comparison to that of men, especially when their contributions resemble ‘service’ or ‘caretaking’ work that is generally associated with ‘women’s work.’ This helps to reinforce the existing status quo and prevent true gender equality. 

Why academic merit is never a ‘blank slate’

In some industries and at certain levels, gender-blind recruitment and promotion is achievable. Some symphony orchestras have even begun holding their auditions behind a curtain in attempts to remove gender and other biases. Using this process, the percentage of female recruits increased from 25% to 46%.

In academia, however, the networks are much wider and often tighter, and the names of researchers are tied to their publication history, their disciplines, and their academic identity as a whole. Gender-blind recruitment is an unachievable goal. Rather than aiming for a near-impossible solution of gender neutrality, there is a need to instead recognise that we do not enter conversations about ‘merit’ with a blank slate.

In a recent paper by researchers Emilio Castilla and Aruna Ranganathan, it is shown that personal definitions of merit evolve over time, depending on what is being evaluated, how the evaluation is performed, and who is being evaluated. Castilla and Ranganathan develop a model to demonstrate how individuals “gain clarity” in their definitions and understandings of merit through their own experiences. In turn, individual conceptualisations of merit are formed and influence decision making, specifically altering the use of merit as a metric within organisations. 

Research perspective

During my own doctoral research I became interested in these individual accounts of merit, asking: when does merit begin, and who decides? This refers to the role of institutions and decision makers. Is it possible, for instance, for management to take into account biases in student evaluations? Periods of maternity leave? Or other forms of gender biases that occur long before people enter the labour market (an overview of barriers and constraints is provided here). Should ‘merit’ exclusively focus on what is presented by potential candidates for roles, such as CV’s and qualifications?

My research found differences in not only how leaders in higher education come to define merit but also in how they promote the values of merit-based systems when faced with unmeritocratic practices. Although leaders are motivated to improve gender equality in their institutions, my research found that they also present recruitment and selection processes as inherently flawed. When doing so, they provided examples of unmeritocratic practices and described them as either exceptions or made attempts to justify them.

Using a form of discourse analysis, I explored these exceptions and justifications and found that participants did not share a clear definition of merit or meritocratic principles, nor did they challenge my interpretations of merit. Merit was positioned as being ‘apparent’ or ‘straightforward.’ When asking ‘where does merit begin,’ the situation became complex; some participants constructed a definition of merit that includes ‘how do people arrive in the room,’ while others maintained that it strictly takes into account ‘what we see on paper’ (referring to CV’s and experience). Thus, in some hiring cases, merit begins at the (seemingly) ‘objective’ level of recruitment and qualifications, while in other cases merit begins with a consideration of alternative reasons and ways in which individuals arrive to those particular roles.  

Moving forward, it is important for scholars and policy makers to recognise the ambiguity of the values that underpin gender equality programs. Although achieving meritocratic outcomes is a goal, some leaders appear to account for inequalities and privileges when making decisions, while others do not. There is little research that aims to specifically understand how meritocracy is subjectively evaluated or institutionally defined outside of the provided job criteria. It is these contradictions that must be understood and leveraged in order to break down existing gendered practices that render organisations to have a system with an unequal distribution of resources and rewards (including leadership roles).

Discourses of merit are therefore composed of taken-for-granted claims of objectivity, including the dimensions in which organisations value and employ merit as a defined concept. ‘Merit,’ a term often used and levied with high importance, is one of many difficult-to-define terms that make up a part of organisational discourse and that contributes to variations in the outcome of gender equality goals.

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