Managerial Perspectives on Implicit Bias, Affirmative Action, and Merit

AuthorSue Williamson,Meraiah Foley
Published date01 January 2019
Date01 January 2019
Managerial Perspectives on Implicit Bias, Aff‌irmative Action, and Merit 35
Abstract: Public sector organizations concerned about gender inequality have increasingly sought to address the
effect of implicit biases on merit-based employment practices through bias training and affirmative action programs.
Applying qualitative content analysis to interviews with 104 managers in three government agencies in which bias
training and affirmative action were being implemented, the authors find that many managers acknowledge the
existence of implicit biases and their potential to create unequal employment outcomes. However, this recognition of
bias does not translate into support for affirmative action, which is seen by many managers to be an unacceptable
violation of merit. The authors argue that implicit bias training and affirmative action are unlikely to create a
cultural “tipping point” to progress gender equality without a critical reassessment of merit.
Evidence for Practice
Public sector organizations concerned about the potentially discriminatory effects of implicit biases are
increasingly taking steps to raise awareness about the effects of these biases on merit-based employment
Public sector managers largely accept that implicit biases exist and can unfairly influence merit-based
employment processes. When faced with affirmative action as a remedy for bias, however, many managers
reassert the primacy of merit.
Educating public sector managers about implicit biases should be coupled with a critical reassessment of
merit, complemented by a reevaluation and reconfiguration of key human resource practices.
Public sector organizations around the world
have sought to redress persistent gender
inequality in their ranks, characterized by the
underrepresentation of women in senior management
roles (OECD 2014), occupational gender segregation
(Riccucci 2009), and a gender pay gap (Rabovsky
and Lee 2017). Although women in many countries
achieve education levels equal to or higher than men
(European Commission 2010) and hold a significant
proportion of public sector jobs (OECD 2014, 99),
gender inequality remains entrenched, challenging
long-held beliefs about the application of merit in
public sector employment.
Merit is a pillar of many modern bureaucracies, both
philosophically (Sager and Rosser 2009) and legally
(Podger and Chan 2015). Originally intended to
“guard against patronage, bias, and any other undue
influence” (APSC 2015, 42), merit has increasingly
been interpreted as “getting the best person for
the job” (Godwin 2011, 320). This modern
conceptualization of merit holds that individuals
should be rewarded according to their skills and
capabilities, irrespective of gender, race, or other
demographic characteristics (Scully 1997). Proponents
of merit argue that it gives everyone an equal chance
to succeed and is the fairest way to build an effective
bureaucracy (Hausser 2013; Ingraham 2006).
Despite this promise, decades of merit-based
employment have failed to produce gender equity
in the public sector, prompting renewed inquiries
about the sources of inequality (Riccucci 2009). An
increasingly common explanation is that women
face routine discrimination arising from implicit
(or unconscious) biases, defined as attitudes or
stereotypes that affect perceptions and decisions
in a nonconscious manner (Greenwald and Banaji
1995). In recognition that such biases “may prevent
meritocratic systems from working efficiently”
(OECD 2014, 67), many governments have made
bias training a cornerstone of their diversity and
inclusion strategies. In 2016, for example, the U.S.
Office of Personnel Management directed federal
agencies to provide employees with bias training
and education, acknowledging that the “employee
life-cycle is full of potential adverse impacts resulting
from implicit biases” (2016, 4). Other governments
Managerial Perspectives on Implicit Bias, Affirmative Action,
and Merit
Meraiah Foley
Sue Williamson
University of New South Wales
Research Article
Sue Williamson is senior lecturer
in human resource management at the
University of New South Wales, Canberra,
Australia. She specializes in two main
areas of research: gender equality in
the workplace and public sector human
resources and industrial relations. She is
currently examining how public sector
organizations can create and sustain
gender equitable and inclusive cultures.
Dr.Williamson has published widely on this
topic and shares her findings with industry
partners and the community.
Meraiah Foley is a postdoctoral
research fellow with the Public Service
Research Group in the School of Business,
University of New South Wales, Canberra,
Australia. She specializes in gender equity
in organizations, with a particular focus on
the Australian public sector. Dr. Foley has
consulted to public sector organizations
at the state and federal level and is a
regular media commentator on gender and
workplace issues.
Public Administration Review,
Vol. 79, Iss. 1, pp. 35–45. © 2018 by
The American Society for Public Administration.
DOI: 10.1111/puar.12955.

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