The Arbitrariness of Merit

by Alice Rosati - Psychology student at the University of Amsterdam

APRIL  23, 2021
Equality image.tif

According to the 2020 Global Gender Gap Report of the World Economic Forum, the time needed before reaching gender equality is approximately 99.5 years. In 2020, women represented only 25% of the global parliamentary positions. In the United States' health and education sector, women before the pandemic constituted 77% of the workforce; now, they make up 83% of this sector's job losses. In Italy up till 2018, there have been 1500 ministers, and women have accounted for less than 100. These statistics are contradictory to the fact that women constitute 49.6% of the global population, are obtaining higher grades compared to men through all subjects and ages, and are more likely to complete a bachelor's degree and advanced education degrees. This unexplainable underrepresentation is what caused the need to establish gender quotas.

Gender quotas are defined as a "positive measurement instrument aimed at accelerating the achievement of gender-balanced participation and representation by establishing a defined percentage or several places or seats to be filled by or allocated to, women or men, generally under certain rules or criteria." Gender quotas have been mainly used to aid women representation in political and organizational groups and have been an area of great debate. One of the main arguments being lifted against them is that if a woman deserves the position, she will obtain it regardless of gender quotas. Yet, what those who follow this line of reasoning do not seem to consider is the arbitrariness of merit.

Humans are unable to attribute merit objectively. Merit is associated with a set of beliefs, both conscious and unconscious. These unconscious beliefs that influence our judgements are what we define as "implicit cognitive biases." A 2017 study conducted by Drake, Primeaux and Thomas demonstrated an implicit cognitive bias that causes both men and women to see women as the more emotional and warm gender and males as the more dominant and logical one. The characteristics implicitly attributed to men are the factors that are most valued in the workplace because they convey leadership, expertise and strength. Another study mentioned in an Italian podcast called Quasidì reported that a vast majority of about eight years old when asked to imagine a genius imagine a man and not a woman.

Furthermore, a 2014 meta-analysis completed by Koch, D'Mello and Sackett provided evidence of a general preference towards men in male-dominated jobs while there was no significant preference for either gender in female-dominated positions. Thus, nowadays, we observe several implicit cognitive biases attributed to women characteristics deemed unfit for the workplace, especially jobs associated with rationality and leadership, such as political positions. Because of these implicit and uncontrollable biases, we are unable to choose objectively between man and woman.

Women representation is fundamental for numerous reasons. Two of these reasons are the role model effect and the importance of gender diversity in the workplace. Firstly, gender quotas by increasing women representation also enhance the role model effect. The role model effect emphasizes that the more women are seen in stereotype inconsistent roles, such as scientists, the more the society will start to change its beliefs and begin to see women as fit for those positions. A prominent example of this effect is Kamala Harris, the newly elected vice president of the United States.

As a consequence of her election, there will be a higher chance that young boys and girls, when asked to imagine a vice president, will picture either a man or a woman compared to last year. In her acceptance speech, Kamala Harris made the importance of the role model effect very evident by saying: "But while I may be the first woman in this office, I won't be the last. Because every little girl watching tonight sees that this is a country of possibilities. And to the children of our country, regardless of your gender, our country has sent you a clear message: dream with ambition, lead with conviction, and see yourself in a way that others might not see you, simply because they've never seen it before." Concerning the importance of gender diversity in the workplace, a McKinsey document published in 2018, called "Delivering through Diversity," states that executive teams with high levels of gender diversity have a greater probability of outperforming on profitability. Furthermore, according to the 2019 Global Risk Report of the World Economic Forum, if the gender gap would be reduced to zero, the global GDP would increase by 5.3 billion dollars.

In conclusion, I believe that gender quotas are the necessary beginning to solve female underrepresentation. In a society that still stands on patriarchal standards and unconsciously believes men to be a better fit for specific job roles, it is fundamental that we recognize our inability to attribute merit objectively. I am a twenty year old woman raised in a family that has always taught me the importance of women empowerment and gender equality. Yet, the first image that comes to my mind when I think of a politician or a "genius" is a male figure. My wish is that gender quotas will eradicate our biases until they are no longer needed because women will be seen as capable as men in the workplace.