Contributed by Curt Rice

Everything we know about improving gender diversity points to one uniquely important success factor. Great programs notwithstanding, brilliant arguments in abundance, the pursuit of enhanced gender equality flourishes or flounders with the interest and investment of an organization’s top leadership.

It could be the CEO of your company, the president of your university, or the director of your institute. Whoever is at the top has to care and has to support action. If we can’t get our top leadership engaged, we probably won’t succeed.

But people who have made it to the top are creative. They might have different ideas about achieving diversity — ideas that sound good, but that probably won’t work. How would that happen? What could we do in that situation?

To get CEOs on board, they need to believe in the cause themselves; they need to believe that gender diversity matters. We must provide the best arguments we can so the people at the top will care.

Some of those arguments conclude that increasing gender diversity is the right thing to do. Others suggest that it’s the smart thing to do. I’ve written a series of posts sketching the most compelling arguments.

Imagine that your CEO is convinced and decides to act. We now have research available to tell us what kinds of actions make a difference. Building on research, you can tailor a program for your organization.

And still, this isn’t enough. Gender action plans — if they are to make a difference — require more than just the interest of the CEO; they require time and money. Programs to advance women and yield greater gender balance demand economic investments. And they demand hard work, too.

So what do we do when our CEOs start looking at action plans and then make counter-proposals?

Instead of targeting women with complicated and expensive initiatives, perhaps they’ll decide to target everyone and eliminate the most basic problems for all employees. The key, they might suggest, is fairness.

Let’s develop a program that enriches our institutional values, a creative CEO might say. Let’s develop a program that makes it clear to every employee that our company is fair. Decisions are fair. Hiring is carried out fairly. Reviews give fair results. Promotion decisions must be based on fair evaluations. If we could just heighten our awareness of fairness — if we could just act fairly — then we could eliminate all those unfair gender-based impediments along a career path, and diversity and balance will be achieved.

Progressive CEOs might even have rich and liberal conceptions of fairness. They might see the “double shift” problem and think of onsite daycare as a fair initiative. They might see career interruption patterns and conclude that fairness forbids punishing pauses. They might genuinely have the best interests of the institution and all the individual employees at heart.

But there’s troubling research to consider. There’s research suggesting that some ways of emphasizing fairness actually give less of it. There’s research that concludes that explicitly advocating for a meritocracy can in fact undermine the recognition of merit.

Progress requires that we build on research — even when research yields surprising conclusions. Let’s look at one example, from an article called the paradox of meritocracy in organizations.

The experiment analyzed in this article creates an artificial situation in which the participants evaluate files of fictitious employees at fictitious companies. On the basis of those files, they make recommendations about bonuses, promotions and terminations.

The goal is to see what happens when the only difference between two files is the gender of the employee. We learn that men and women with files that are literally identical are treated differently based on the description of the fictitious company.

Some of the made-up companies are described to the subjects as having a core corporate value of emphasizing merit in evaluations. In other cases, this particular value is not mentioned in the description to the subjects.

What is the conclusion?

“When an organization is explicitly presented as meritocratic, individuals in managerial positions favor a male employee over an equally qualified female employee by awarding him a larger monetary reward.”

This is what the authors call the paradox of meritocracy.

Much of their article is devoted to discussing the psychology of this paradox. They note, for example, that when people are led to believe that they are unbiased, fair or objective, they in fact are more likely to behave in biased ways. An individual who is allowed to explicitly disagree with sexist statements before an experimental task will then tend to act in a sexist way, recommending a male over an identical female candidate.

The paradox of meritocracy in organizations is a complex study and we have to think carefully about the conclusions we should draw. It seems, however, that explicitly deciding to be fair and explicitly taking action to implement fairness as a corporate value, does not necessarily lead to increased fairness. On the contrary, research suggests that it creates greater imbalances. And there’s much more than just this one article.

So what do we do with a CEO who wants increased gender balance but proposes a broader, more general strategy? Maybe it’s fairness, maybe something else. Keep talking. Keep building arguments.

But stop building them on anecdotes. Knowledge is our friend in this work, and research is the road to knowledge.

Curt Rice is the Vice President for Research & Development (prorektor for forskning og utvikling) at the University of Tromsø. He writes on his interests in issues related to leadership development at academic institutions online at: Topics include the improvement of research funding, working on gender balance issues, developing policies about Open Access and more. You can join his community of thought-leaders by subscribing to his blog.