When I graduated many years ago, the hall was filled with people from around the world: different colours, different races, different religions, as many women as men. Now some 30 years later, I’m often the only woman in a room full of white men. When I ask my peers where all the diversity has gone, they shrug their shoulders and say “We appoint on merit”.
Actually, they’re wrong. We don’t appoint on merit. We appoint on metrics.
rethinking merit and metrics
The accepted norms of the higher education workplace are an obsessive focus on a very narrow set of metrics as a proxy for merit, a high attrition of women, a lack of diversity in leadership, and sometimes the development of toxic unwelcoming workplaces.
We need to rethink how we measure merit and we need to consider demerit too so that we can be confident that the people we invest with power, leadership and decision-making are not sexist, racist, homophobic or bullies.
To start, we need to look at what we mean by merit. The dictionary defines merit as the “quality of being particularly good or worthy, especially so as to deserve praise or reward”. I don’t think anyone would argue that we shouldn’t appoint leaders on merit using that meaning. In a society that is diverse, like ours – 50% women, multicultural – you would expect that merit and the power and leadership earned as a result, would be evenly distributed across diverse demographics. But it’s not.
For some reason, promotion on merit does not give everyone a fair go. Leadership, power and decision making are concentrated almost uniformly in a narrow demographic: old white men.
Yet the data show that leadership teams with greater diversity and differing life experience generate better outcomes. More diversity provides a competitive edge. If we focus on gender, for example, companies with more women on their boards make larger profits. Really, investors should only support companies with women CEOs. They’d make a lot more money. What about research? Well, teams of mixed gender produce higher quality research and a higher proportion of women increases team collective intelligence. What’s more, when organisations improve things for women they make things better for everyone by increasing access to parental leave, flexible work practise, better work life balance.
The attrition of diversity impacts negatively on productivity and innovation in academia. Yet when the dominant group are challenged about the lack of diversity in senior academic positions, their defense often focuses on the word “merit”. When we probe further, we find that merit here actually means metrics. Most importantly, we don’t measure demerit at all. Let me explain.
easy to measure metrics
To assess merit in academia, we measure a few specific things. The number of publications, the number of grants, the number of PhD students. These numbers focus on a very narrow selection of things that people and universities do. And it is no coincidence that these metrics are also easy to measure. The problem comes when we use these “easy to measure” metrics as a proxy for merit. We have now evolved ever more cryptic numbers (H index, IF, etc) that mean nothing to those outside the sector but which are avidly pursued within the sector, almost to the exclusion of everything else. The higher the numbers, the better and more valued you are. We chase after these metrics – but do they really measure what we should be measuring?
personal qualities we value
creativity critical thinking resilience motivation persistence curiosity endurance reliability enthusiasm empathy self-awareness self-discipline leadership courage civic-mindedness compassion integrity resourcefulness honesty sense of beauty sense of wonder generosity humour humility kindness consideration authenticity care
(Collated by US education policy researcher, Gerald Bracey with a few extra that I threw in)
In my opinion, it is the above list of personal qualities that should be considered when rewarding merit and choosing leaders. Yet none of these are measured directly and most are not measured at all when we assess the merit of people and higher ed institutions using current metrics. That means there is a disconnect between the metrics we use and the actual merit of a person or an institution based on these qualities.
We need new metrics. Metrics that value personal qualities. We should not measure how many PhD students an institution produces, we should measure how well an institution supports their PhD students. Universities should be assessed on how inclusive they are, how diverse their senior executive is, and how well they support the work-life balance of their staff. After all, university rankings are meant to help students and staff identify the best places in the world to study, work and do research. That should mean measuring which universities provide the safest and most supportive workplaces where everyone – not just those who fit into a very narrow demographic – can succeed. Professors should be assessed, for example, on how well they sponsor and mentor others to achieve research, teaching and service goals (with more weighting given to supporting diversity), not how many people are in their group or how much money they have received in grants.
And then we also need to look at the other side of the coin.
The dictionary defines demerit as a “fault or disadvantage”, or “a mark awarded against someone for a fault or offence”. When we measure the worth and value of someone or some institution we ought to consider demerit alongside merit. When a professor tells a sexist, racist or homophobic joke, that should count as demerit. When a university supports or organizes a conference with an all white male list of speakers, that must count as demerit.
Our current focus on a very narrow set of metrics as a proxy for merit sometimes leads to or supports selfish, unprofessional or even unethical behaviours that can generate toxic workplaces. Harassment is one such toxic behaviour that pushes women out. In a recent study, 64% of scientists surveyed about their experience on field trips reported sexual harassment; 22% reported sexual assault. The majority of those reporting harassment and assault were young (undergrads, postgrads, postdocs) and female. The perpetrators were predominantly male and senior. The power differential makes it very difficult for the victim to report the bad behaviour; the perpetrator may be a highly respected person with huge metrics. They are “too valuable” to lose, too powerful to challenge. The power differential silences and shames the victim. Even when unethical behaviour is reported it may not be dealt with appropriately.
Sometimes I wish there were a Demerit App – one that silences and shames the bully, harasser, or predator. So that when a married male professor won’t stop looking down the shirt of a female postdoc, she can press the thumbs down button against the professor’s name. The professor would be denied access to his laptop and portable electronic devices for an hour. If two or more people activate the app, the professor would be locked out for an even longer time and a message sent to the supervisor who would need to take action or they too would earn demerit points. Demerit points would accumulate for each individual and for each institution and would be deducted from the metrics used to calculate a person’s merit and a university’s international ranking.
it’s time for change
We are now well into a new millennium. But we are stuck in the stereotypes of the past. This roadblock is limiting our decision-making, our progress, our innovation. To move forward, we need to challenge the current norms; define merit much more broadly; measure qualities we value in people but which are hard to measure; and we must value ethical behaviour. Most importantly, we need to assess demerit alongside merit to gauge the true worth of a person or an institute. This way we can bequeath new models of success and leadership to the next generation to help fix the problems we have inherited from the past.
In this revolutionised workplace, academics with integrity, empathy, respect and compassion – as well as critical thinking and creativity – will be rated highest and valued most of all.
This post is based on a TedX talk I gave at the University of Queensland on 23 May 2015. The video of the full day event is here; my talk starts at 1:26:50. I’ll update this post with a new link when the edited video is online.