Avoiding the Merit Trap

Executive Summary

June 2024

Senior leaders in business, government, education and community are calling on all employers to confront the way they use the concept of ‘merit’ when making decisions about appointment or promotion.

The report In the eye of the beholder: Avoiding the merit trap, originally released in 2016 in partnership with Chief Executive Women and Champions of Change Coalition, shows that although ‘appointing on merit’ sounds fair, it is often used to mask a variety of biases that prevent the progress of women. The report argues Australian organisations must face up to the merit trap if they are to benefit from gender diversity.

The report explains what the merit trap is and why it’s a problem, and provides guidance to help organisations spot the warning signs. It draws on research to show that the way merit is currently used in appointment decisions can, in fact, hide gender bias and protect the status quo. Indeed, the more an organisation promotes itself as meritocratic, the more inequitable it was found to be.

“We take it for granted that merit is objective. But in fact, it’s been shown to be highly subjective, particularly when trying to assess someone’s potential for a role. And wherever there’s subjectivity, we’re at risk of bias,”

– Elizabeth Broderick, Founder of the Champions of Change Coalition.

The report provides guidance for any organisation, regardless of size or sector to identify how they are at risk of falling into the merit trap, and what they can do to create a true meritocracy.

[Duration: 4min]

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