06 September 2016

Why “the best person for the job” isn’t always the best

Author :

I had a conversation with my in-laws over dinner not too long ago. My father-in-law, who is a senior executive at a large and well known company, told us that three people had recently resigned from his team – all women. As he pointed out, that meant his team went from being relatively gender-balanced to almost completely male.

We spoke for at length about how to deal with this. He knew he didn’t want to have an all-male team, partly because gender diversity is part of his company policy but mostly because he genuinely believes in the value of equality, both for business and for society more broadly.

I suggested ensuring an equal number of men and women were present on the hiring panel. He suggested insisting upon keeping the roles open until he received applications from an equal number of men and women. It was encouraging for me to hear this old-school businessman thinking so deeply about how to achieve diversity on his team.

At this point, my mother-in-law cut in.

“Why can’t you just hire the best person for the job?” she asked, exasperated.

In saying this, my mother-in-law presented one of the most well-worn excuses for why so few women make it to the upper rungs of the business world. In her opinion, business simply hire on merit, i.e. they hire the person most qualified for the job, showing no favouritism. If the best person for the job happens to be a man, well that’s just tough luck!

Here’s the thing. Merit is a myth.

Female university graduates outnumber males in record numbers. According to The Australian, 45, 000 more women completed tertiary qualifications than men in 2014. Women account for more than half of our workforce yet they continue to fall short of the top jobs.

Members of the ground-breaking group Male Champions of Change recently gathered to discuss the subject of merit. Some of Australia’s top business leaders, including CEOs from Deloitte, Commonwealth Bank and Telstra discussed how to “redefine” merit to ensure capable women are not overlooked for top jobs.

A particularly interesting example was raised by Shayne Elliott, CEO of ANZ. He spoke about the recent appointment of two female leaders in the bank – Catriona Noble and Maile Carnegie. Ms Noble, the former CEO of McDonalds was appointed to the role of Managing Director, Retail Distribution. Ms Carnegie, former Managing Director of Google, landed the role of Group Executive – Digital Banking.

As Mr Elliott pointed out, if deep experience in banking were the only criteria for the roles, very few women would have been considered. Banking is, after all, historically male-dominated. ANZ looked for candidates who could bring fresh perspectives and unique experience and skills to the roles. Ms Noble arguably understands retail better than most people in the country and Ms Carnegie’s credentials in digital are unparalleled.

In both cases, the best person for the job was hired. They just may not have looked like the best person at a first glance.


Companies need to redefine merit if they are to create real change and achieve gender equality in business.

At Akolade, we’re committed to being part of this transformation. Come along to our Boosting Women in STEM Forum to find out how, and stay tuned for more exciting events in this space.

Christian Berechree joined Akolade’s production team in May 2016. He has a Bachelor of Media and Music and a Masters in Journalism.

Christian is a musical theatre geek and a new dad, and he’ll happily spend hours telling you about either or both of those things.

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