Not qualified enough

9 Nov

There was a lot of talk (and polling and commentary) leading up to the 2016 Presidential election about Hillary Clinton’s and Donald Trump’s respective “qualifications” to be POTUS. And yesterday, we made history by electing the first POTUS ever to have no previous government or military experience (attending military school not counting as “military experience”). The post-mortem on the election includes repeated references to the majority of people polled (upwards of 60%, according to KQED this morning) who indicated that they recognized that Trump wasn’t qualified to be president–and the apparent minority within that same demographic who voted for him anyway.

I want to focus on this aspect of the presidential race for a moment. Among all the complex, interwoven, individual, cultural and systemic factors that went into how each of us voted, the perception of “qualifications” is one that deserves consideration. It seems obvious: vote for the qualified candidate, hire the qualified applicant. Qualified is qualified, right?

Wrong. It turns out that identity matters when it comes to discerning how qualified you are. Research persistently demonstrates that not only do minority or non-traditional candidates anticipate needing to accrue more “qualifications” when aspiring to a position–whether it’s POTUS, Head of School, board member or any role with a competitive selection process–they, in fact, need to be more qualified.

In “Critical Mass on Corporate Boards: Why Three or More Women Enhance Governance,” Vicki Kramer et al. present the evidence for why having enough women on a board isn’t just good for the women on the boards: it’s good for the boards and the companies and constituencies those boards serve because enough women growthfully impacts process and outcomes. That said, it’s not as easy as just adding more women. Fortune 1000 boards cite a critical barrier to increasing gender diversity: there just aren’t enough qualified candidates. Qualified, in what way, you might wonder? Having served previously or currently as the CEO of a Fortune 1000 company. Instinctively, this may seem like a reasonable or even essential qualification for someone to govern a Fortune 1000 company. And yet.

Not only does diversity of experience better serve any group (from corporate boards to the Supreme Court to any work or school cohort) than homogeneity of experience (which is to say, having only and all identically qualified people), Kramer and her colleagues found that women are held disproportionately to the prerequisite of Fortune 1000 CEO experience, compared to their male peers. In other words, when all is said and done, despite any talk or presumption of gender-neutral or blind qualifications that treat all candidates equally, women need to have this experience; men don’t.

In unsurprising parallel, Ara Brown identified multiple examples of the statistically significant differences between the education (pedigree and level) and employment (experience and credentials) between heads of color and white heads of independent schools. In “Examining the Pipeline: People of Color’s Pathway to Headship,” Brown presents data that demonstrates: heads of color as a group are more qualified than their white counterparts.

Why might this be so? Perhaps because only the most qualified candidates of color apply for headship (which in and of itself is worth understanding better). And perhaps–like women on corporate boards–only the most qualified candidates of color are considered qualified enough, while white candidates with less experience, less previously demonstrated career achievement and/or less adherence to traditional pathways to headship are apparently, as a group, deemed as, if not more, qualified for the same positions.

Bringing this back to the election, we could have predicted that Hillary Clinton’s over-qualification and Donald Trump’s under-qualification (according to traditional standards of “qualification”) to serve as POTUS didn’t really matter. At least not as much as we claimed to think it would. It turns out, again unsurprisingly, that Trump didn’t need to be qualified in those traditional ways. He is simply more “qualified” simply by having been born a white man, in a system that has historically accepted that as qualified enough. The takeaway, if we disagree with how “qualification” can be used selectively to reinforce sexism, racism, classism and other systems of privilege, is that any one point of qualification itself needs to be assessed in context and vetted for why and how it’s bona fide, as well as applied equitably–and sometimes equally–if it is, in fact or consensus of opinion, a bona fide criterion for admitting, hiring, promoting or electing.

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