How the 'meritocracy myth' is used to keep women away from power

Deputy Prime Minister Barnaby Joyce during question time at Parliament House in Canberra.

Deputy Prime Minister Barnaby Joyce during question time at Parliament House in Canberra. Photo: Andrew Meares

Few women will be unfamiliar with the argument that we live in a meritocracy. When discussions of quotas and gender parity goals arise (as they often do, particularly in celebrations around International Women's Day), the common retort is usually to complain about 'giving jobs to people who don't deserve them' - as if all the white dudes currently running the show worked, like, super hard to get there.

Consider Australia's own parliament. When former Prime Minister Tony Abbott announced his incoming Coalition ministry in late 2013, it was with a sense of pride. "It is, I believe, one of the most experienced incoming ministries in our history and I think it's important to have experience as you move from opposition to government."

The inclusion of only one (white) woman in this all-white ministry was a fact that seemed to neither astonish nor embarrass him. It would have been two, he said, if Sophie Mirabella hadn't lost in Indi. Alas, she did and so he had no choice but to promote only one - Julie Bishop, whose presence was a foregone conclusion given she was also the Deputy Leader.

Malcolm Turnbull's ministry.

Malcolm Turnbull's ministry. Photo: Alex Ellinghausen

It wasn't that Abbott didn't believe in women's abilities, oh no. Nobody loves women more than Tony Abbott. This man who had halted access to RU-486 during his time as Health Minister, who once tried to campaign against the carbon tax by telling the 'housewives' in Australia that it would see their electricity prices rise every time they turned their irons on, and who is on record as expressing the view that women shouldn't automatically get to withhold sex - this man was a feminist, we were told. He watched Downton Abbey! He loved his three daughters, and everyone knows that you cannot hold sexist views if you have daughters whose virginities you closely monitor.


In attempting to explain his choice to promote only one woman to his senior ministry, this 'feminist man' said, "There are strong and capable women knocking on the door of the cabinet and there are strong and capable women knocking on the door of the ministry." And those of us who complained were told, predictably, to shut up and accept that we lived in a meritocracy.

The idea that we live in a 'meritocracy' is probably one of society's most pervasive falsehoods. To suggest that only the most experienced and capable members of the Abbott government were promoted into his ministry is laughable. After all, Peter Dutton - that useless buffoon caught on camera joking about Pacific nations being consumed by the sea while at a Pacific Nations leadership meeting to discuss climate change - is our current Immigration Minister. If the concept of rewarding 'merit' in the LNP isn't the furphy it appears to be, the Liberal party must really be comprised of a travelling circus of incompetent clowns.

But even if the LNP's senior ministers (and current Deputy Prime Minister) didn't provide ample evidence that 'merit' in politics is a joke, the idea that jobs in governance are given to those who deserve them is predicated on idealistic naivete anyway. There's no merit in politics. There are rewards, factional deals and the scratching of influential people's backs.

Even before this, the voting public have minimal say over who they elect to represent them beyond putting a number in a box. These decisions are made by the political party planners determining who gets chosen for pre-selection, who gets funnelled into safe seats and who counts as just a face to put on a poster to help other people get elected. Merit? Has anyone actually heard Barnaby Joyce speak?

It's so easy for lazy people to believe that the those privileged most by gender, race, sexuality and class are somehow judged separately from the benefits these things bring. Imagine the bloody hell that would have reigned down on Julia Gillard had she appointed a Cabinet ministry in which only one member was a man! In no way, shape or form would those appointments have been defended as ones of merit because our culture doesn't view women as being inherently meritorious.

Instead, Gillard would have been hounded as some kind of feminist witch, destroying the system in order to push a nefarious agenda that involved demonising men and curtailing their opportunities to succeed and contribute - in short, all the things women (and people of colour and women of colour especially) are subjected to now, but minus the gobsmacked outrage that would no doubt accompany such a move. Imagine - just imagine - what the public's reaction would be if the majority of newspaper columnists, TV commentators and CEOs were women. Think of the outcry if Australia's talkback radio stations (which are currently wall-to-wall with white men) were suddenly overrun by women.

Merit? No, that wouldn't be merit. That would be an anarchist conspiracy. That would herald the start of matriarchy and the end of the world. Women? Running things? UNFAIR.

In fact, the 'merit' argument is little more than a convenient retort to anyone who tries to point out the workings of the deeply flawed systems we live in. It's telling that those who defend merit as being present in appointments are the same people who often defend themselves (as Abbott has done) as supporters of women's rights.

If you believe that women are equally as capable of performing in positions of responsibility, it logically follows that we shouldn't consistently see these structures of power being dominated by men. On the other hand, if you defend the current and historical imbalance of power as being due to nothing more than 'merit', it doesn't matter how much you loudly profess your feminist credentials - what you quite obviously believe is that white, middle class, heterosexual men who have always held all the power are the only ones capable of doing so. It means you inherently think these people are better than everyone else. You can't have it both ways.

So no, we don't live in a meritocracy. Stop pretending that we do because it's easier than having to defend the fact you have a boring, shallow outlook on the world and how you want it to be.