Engaging Gatekeepers, Optimizing Decision Making, and Mitigating Bias: Design Specifications for Systemic Diversity Interventions

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A strong belief in meritocracy underlies the way we perceive success in society, in organizations, and in individual careers. We like to believe that those who make it to the top do so because they have more merit (i.e., worth, superior quality) than those who do not. Put differently, “in true meritocratic systems everyone has an equal chance to advance and obtain rewards based on their individual merits and efforts, regardless of their gender, race, class, or other non-merit factors”. In many organizations, and especially in those that are characterized by a pyra- mid structure and matching notions of careers success in terms of climbing the ladder, organizational members tend to think this is not only how the career system should operate but also how it does operate. As a consequence, the distribution of success (e.g., rewards, promotions) across members from different societal groups, especially when looking at the top of the pyramid, is generally perceived to reflect the true distri- bution of merit between group members.

However, reward allocation and performance evaluation practices that appear to be meritocratic can result in an unequal distribution of success in favor of some compared with others, regardless of the actual distribution of merit. This means that the way we typically assess merit is biased in favor of dominant group members in terms of the criteria, the tests, and/or the evaluation process.The biased assessment of merit, through which superior qualities are ascribed to dominant group members, is thus rather a sign of bias for instead of bias against.

The paradox of meritocracy holds that when an organizational culture actively pro- motes meritocracy, decision makers in that organization may ironically show greater bias in favor of the dominant group. In other words, if man- agers believe that the way people in the organization are selected and promoted is meritocratic, their decisions about the careers of others are more biased and less based on merit.  

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