Meritocracy and new performance criteria for Businesses

Meritocracy and new performance criteria for Businesses

By Gabriele Schambach and Julia Nentwich
Mai 10, 2021


The objective assessment of performance is a myth -  in reality, it exacerbates inequality. "In our company, performance and competency count, not gender". This is the opinion of 82 per cent of male and 84 per cent of female managers who took part in the first Switzerland-wide survey on the gender equality commitment of male managers as part of the "Leaders for Equality" project of the University of St. Gallen. 

Meritocracy presupposes that it is purely a person's work performance that creates the prerequisite for promotion to a managerial or leadership position. Behind this is an essential ideal of our modern society: meritocracy. Neither noble birth nor family connections, neither skin colour nor gender are believed (ideally conceived) to play a role in the assessment of work performance. The fact that personal advancement is judged strictly on merit, is considered an essential principle of fairness and equality. However, there is a catch to this assumption: it presupposes that, in order to measure performance, everyone can perform the same task in the same way. However, this is often not the case - and this is precisely where the problem lies!

Bias trainings have made it clear in recent years that women and men who apply for a leadership position are assessed differently. The competencies that are important for a leadership position, such as assertiveness, rationality or ambition for example, are less often attributed to women - especially if they are mothers. This is aggravated by the fact that in the common image of leadership, skills such as communication or collaboration and flexibility, for example, are  sometimes interpreted as weaknesses. Women are given less credit here, and their performance is often not recognised in the same way.

In addition, not every “performance” is considered a performance. For example, "ability to work under pressure" is usually understood to mean the willingness to work overtime and in crisis situations. The high commitment of part-time employees to optimise work processes and develop effective time management shows that they are able to cope with a high work intensity. This skill however, this is rarely recorded under "resilience" 

The different life realities of women and men in management positions also play a major role here: data from the survey shows that managers work almost exclusively full-time. Two-thirds of male executives have children, but only one-third of female executives have children. The majority of the men's partners are employed only part-time (60 % max.) and presumably take on the main responsibility for family tasks, while the partners of the female executives are predominantly employed full-time. The men can count on the support of their partner, which is not the case to the same extent for the women managers. The data shows that women executives cannot be present and available all the time (if they have children and they are not looked after by other people than their parents).

In order to deal with the differences between women and men and, at the same time, maintain the performance criteria for career and potential development, companies often choose promotional measures to meet the supposedly “objective” criteria: For example, women receive further training to present themselves more offensively, to become more rhetorically quick-witted or to develop "more bite". It is the women who are supposed to get further education, participate in trainings and ultimately, change. For the male colleagues and  company politics in general , the promotion of women in this way (workshops etc.) creates a comfortable situation: the current and normative evaluation standards of performance do not have to be questioned.

This is not the way forward! What should be done instead?

First of all, it is important for companies as well as managers (and employees, of course) to recognise that the applicable performance criteria are not necessarily neutral, objective, or fair. Furthermore, it could be said that it reproduces existing social and structural inequalities and prevents equality. 
Instead, there is a need for new performance criteria that recognises and takes into account time constraints and responsibilities of both men and women. It is clear that men have a professional advantage over women if they are not expected to contribute time and energy to family life in the same way as women. In order to reduce inequalities in the work place we need to change and develop our performance assessment criteria . The current criteria therefore need to be put to the test and their interpretation possibilities both expanded and made transparent. This will help to ensure comparable assessments (and not comparing apples with pears  as is currently the case) and also build greater individual and corporate resilience.
At the same time, it also makes sense to eliminate certain criteria: physical presence at the workplace and  permanent availability, for example, are not suitable parameters for a gender-equitable performance appraisal. Instead, there is a need to measure both quantitative and qualitative outcomes of work completed .

These approaches imply an equality-oriented change in the current corporate and leadership culture. These proposed changes in which women and men in all their diversity are be equally involved would provide more sustainable and ethical outcomes for everyone.


We are pleased that the Handelszeitung as our project partner published this article in the print edition on April 29, and in the online edition on May 2.