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The problem with working for a supposed meritocracy Add to ...

Whenever one person espouses greater diversity in the work force, leave it to some well-meaning colleague to raise the meritocracy card. Its allure remains understandable, since claiming that we work in a merit-based company or industry allows many of us to justify our own success. It has the added advantage of carrying an air of moral authority, not unlike driving an electric car or bringing your own bags to the grocery store.

Unfortunately, despite our best intentions, these sorts of professional utopias exist only in our caffeine-deprived daydreams. Scientific evidence continually quashes the meritocracy fairy tale, but for die-hard believers in the idea that the most talented individuals in an organization naturally rise to the top, here are two recent findings from the technology world that blow that theory out of the water.

A study by computer science researchers from California Polytechnic State University and North Carolina State University found that acceptance rates of code submitted by women to GitHub, a software repository, was actually higher than that for male coders – but only when their gender was hidden. Female coders who declared their gender saw their acceptance rates fall by more than 15 per cent.

Then, a startling report called The Real Unicorns of Tech: Black Women Founders, found that only 11 of more than 80 startups led by black women have raised more than $1-million in outside funding, often from the same three investors.

Naturally, who wouldn’t aspire to work in a fair and just organization or industry, but meritocracy, this sticky word, actually holds us back.

According to Sarah Kaplan, an associate professor of strategic management at the University of Toronto’s Rotman School of Management, the louder you talk about merit-based values in your company, the less likely you are to hire and reward employees based on merit. In addition to her own research, she cites experiments by professors Emilio Castilla of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Stephen Benard of Indiana University that showed that men in organizations who stressed how fair they were received larger bonuses than women, despite identical job performance evaluations.

Harping on about how merit-based your company is tends to have an adverse affect, explained Ms. Kaplan, because of the “moral credit” you give yourself for espousing that view. It essentially allows people who talk about merit a free pass not to monitor their companies for hidden gender and ethnic biases.

The problem with admitting your company could be more diverse is that it requires people near the top to admit that their own rise through the ranks may be less than deserved or the result of privilege.

“You are basically asking people to admit that their success is not due to their striving and hard work, which is hard because they probably are striving and working hard,” explained Ms. Kaplan.

Weeding out bias remains complicated, largely since it occurs unconsciously.

Few managers consciously discriminate, said Ms. Kaplan, but the criteria for success in many companies and industries often favour those who currently dominate. In other words, leaders tend to hire and promote people like themselves. If you promote someone who is “forthright” or “assertive,” you may think these characteristics are neutral, but they carry a specific gender lens, she added.

So what’s the solution? Ms. Kaplan advises organizations to be gender blind whenever possible. The GitHub study showed that when gender is removed as a qualifier, women rise to the top. Calls for a “blind recruitment” policy – removing names from job applications to reduce the likelihood of bias – for the public service this week demonstrate the appetite for these types of solutions.

When being gender blind is impossible, be gender aware, Ms. Kaplan said. That could mean including more qualitative data about potential applicants, such as grade point averages or financial performance, and ensuring adequate representation of women and minority groups on short lists. Her other recommendations include greater transparency through monitoring, and holding executives accountable for change. That way, you can’t just say you work in a meritocracy and have it taken for granted.

Another option could be to remove meritocracy from our lexicon and come up with a better word that carries with it a more realistic objective. Until the day when we can say merit is the true measure of someone’s worth at work, we should aim for a fair and just work environment where our hiring and promotion decisions are supported by data to show we’re doing our best.

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Follow on Twitter: @LeahEichler

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