One of the debates that often surfaces in the diversity debate is that we should simply hire “the best person for the job”.

By Anna Curzon, chief product and partner officer at Xero

I’ve been reflecting on how we might consider this phrase. It’s not a new argument and is often one that is raised against the concept of quotas, or as reason for a lack of diversity.

Let’s consider for a moment that small but mighty word ‘best’. When we’re asking ourselves who the best person for the job is, how do we define it? What does it look and sound like? How does it shape who we hire? And how is its definition shaped by who we are?

There is a bedrock of economic and social structures underlying our definition of best. They shape our individual biases and our behaviour in the workplace. Gender assumptions are so deeply embedded and powerful that even when we’re acutely aware of stereotypical gender roles, both men and women act them out every day. They affect the way we look at the world and each other and we might even dismiss someone’s abilities, because they don’t look like us, verbalise their ideas like us, or lead like us.

They’re so ingrained in us that inadvertent sexism in our language, behaviours and social structures can seem quite ordinary, until we call it out.

As evidence of this, the recent 2018 McKinsey report published that women experienced the following at a disproportionately higher rate than men:

  • Having your judgement questioned in your area of expertise
  • Needing to provide more evidence of your competence than others do
  • Being addressed in a less than professional way
  • Being mistaken for someone at a much lower level than you are at
  • Experiencing demeaning remarks about you or people like you

This does not describe an optimal environment for women to do the best work of their lives. These behaviours are often without ill-intent, but if we don’t call them out, we’re conforming to the same gender roles that are driving these institutional structures forward to the next generation.

Of course we don’t want to ignore that every human being is different or diminish individual achievements, but in my opinion, merit is only one variable. We should be looking beyond IQ, a strong CV or an extraordinary confidence in asserting an opinion. If you’re still looking through this old lens of what best is there is no doubt it will be holding you, your team, and your organisation back. In addition to merit, we should be looking at the team dynamic, what individual characteristics might be complementary, the diverse backgrounds of the candidates and the new and unique lens they will provide, and their future potential.

Recently I heard author Stephanie Land talk about her newly-released book, Maid. A former maid, now accomplished author, Stephanie stated that: “we don’t all start from the same place”.

That really resonated with me because when we’re in a position of privilege it’s hard to see the social structures that are holding us up on higher ground. It’s a privileged few who still make the calls about who gets certain roles, promotions, public praise, inclusion in discussions, or the opportunity to make decisions.

We don’t all start in the same place. So when hiring the best person for the job we first need to acknowledge our position of privilege and our unconscious biases and understand the inherent power they have over our decisions. If we have a restricted view of what success looks like, how can we really even know who the best person is? And how can we combat the immensely powerful institutional structures that are confining us and the next generation?

Finally, if you need another reason to make this a personal priority have a think about the impact on your business, when you’re competing against those that have addressed gender inequality and unconscious bias. Diversity and inclusion in the workplace equals better business outcomes because it creates an environment where new and fresh opinions are brought to the table. What’s more, when people feel valued and included, they can do the best work of their lives.