At every event that I address on gender diversity, one question gets asked: “Our organisations have made commitments on gender diversity goals. Senior management performance evaluation and bonuses are tied to meeting these goals. We do not find enough women professionals in the labour market. To meet the goal, we will end up bringing women not necessarily only on merit. Don’t you think this compromises meritocracy?”.

This framing positions diversity and meritocracy as contradictory and states that achieving one value will affect the other negatively. While the definitions of diversity span a broad continuum across several dimensions, the notion of merit is ambiguous.

A simple and well-understood definition of meritocracy is a system of management and organisation in which appointments and placements are made based on job-related suitability, intelligence, knowledge, skills, abilities and qualifications rather than unwarranted bases like wealth, social position, and networks. In such a system, the representation of competent people is a given condition and does not warrant any discussion. Yet, when it comes to women in the workplace, this definition seems to fall flat.

Women constitute 50 per cent of the world population but are nowhere represented at those levels across the hierarchy. The gender pay gap is real, and we know that men, on average, earn more than women for the same work. A report published by Ashoka University shows that 73 per cent of Indian women exit their jobs after childbirth and struggle to re-join the workforce. Fifty per cent of employed women in the nation leave their positions to care for their children by age 30. Furthermore, among those who manage to return to work, a staggering 48 per cent drop out within just four months of reintegration into the workforce. Fundamental to this is the missing social support and physical infrastructure of reliable help at home and creche facilities, unchanged social expectations and individual pressures to excel on all fronts.

Motherhood penalty

Since 2017, India’s most educated women are leaving jobs faster than others. Motherhood penalty is a significant contributor to declining rates for women at work. Organisations, even today, are structured around the notion of “Think Manager, Think Male.” Long working hours, commutes, and lack of flexibility characterise workplaces. While there are few entry points for women, the exit gates are many — pregnancy, childcare, elderly care, lack of family support and unsupportive work environments. The fundamental assumption of Meritocracies predicated on the belief that only the best are chosen and that hard work and talent are always rewarded is essentially flawed within this context.

On this women’s day, we must pause and ask the key question: “Is it a level playing field for women in India?”. We can now see that merit is a context-specific phenomenon. Socially advantaged women can afford to hire help or find avenues to manage childcare or elder care. Strong family support allows women opportunities to invest time and effort in their career development process.

Elite institutions and access to mentors and networks provide professional development opportunities and are a function of class/caste and geography. With growing inequalities in wealth and income globally, the opportunities the few elites enjoy will be challenged. The gendered social fabric and the patriarchal privileges will be questioned. In the short run, gender diversity quotas will be subverted since they challenge the status quo of the dominant majority. Yet, no society can brush away its historical wrongdoings to the disadvantaged.

Organisations and leaders should recognise that businesses can be a force for good. Diversity and meritocracy are best understood as two interrelated values that inform and support each other, and organisations failing to invest in diversity and meritocracy are likely to build a workplace that is both unfair and suboptimal compared to the opportunities available in the labour force.

Organisations need to go beyond gender diversity policies; they need to embrace a compelling purpose of social change and a commitment to make the world better for future generations by being more inclusive. This includes building communities of change champions (men and women), identifying new ways of work that enable women, male allies and mentors, and finally, a willingness to imagine new ways of shaping work culture.

Vasanthi Srinivasan

Vasanthi Srinivasan

(Vasanthi Srinivasan is a Professor of organisational behaviour and human resources management at the Indian Institute of Management Bangalore)