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Bosses That Talk About Meritocracy May Not be Walking the Walk

Bosses That Talk About Meritocracy May Not be Walking the Walk

I once went to a diversity event organized by a progressive Austin tech company. The panel represented all case study categories of diversity: a stylish African American man, a young and hip white woman, an overweight Hispanic man with a geeky T-Shirt, a queer African American woman and a single-mom with blue hair (the company’s open-minded recruiter). The panelists talked about their experiences in technology, barriers they faced and successes they've had. The recruiter talked about how her company created a more inclusive culture and ensured that its hiring processes were bias-free. As the session was wrapping up, the company’s CEO (middle-aged, white man) made his final remarks. He reinforced the company’s commitment to diversity and suddenly added: “but don’t worry, of course what is most important to us is meritocracy.” In this one statement he wiped out the credibility of the entire panel. I could see the panelists’ happy faces going through all stages of shock, sadness and anger.

The CEO was trying to say the “right thing” but ended up outing his own bias that diversity implied a tradeoff with meritocracy. It was an arrogant statement based on the assertion that members who don’t fall into the “diverse” category are somehow more qualified on average than people of other backgrounds. It also reminded me of a mini scandal that ensued in Silicon Valley when Michael Moritz, partner in one of the most prominent venture capital firms, Sequoia, tried to blame the lack of women in venture capital on a pipeline problem, adding that "we’ll hire women, we just don’t want to lower our standards." (read more here).

[Related: Leading from the Next Generation: Four Simple Ways to Stop Reinforcing Gender Stereotypes in the Workplace]

On my recent visit to Brazil, I met with several companies from industrial sectors and heard similar statements. They all reinforced their leaderships’ focus on meritocracy and credited shortage of women to fact that they preferred to hire engineers and very few women majored in engineering. Having met so many talented Brazilian women and having experienced Brazilian corporate culture firsthand, something was simply not adding up for me.

The Paradox of Meritocracy

Emilio J. Castilla, a professor at MIT’s Sloan School of Management and Stephan Bernard from Indiana University conducted a series of experiments in corporate and academic settings and consistently found that:

“When a company’s core values emphasized meritocratic values, those in managerial positions awarded a larger monetary reward to the male employee than to an equally performing female employee.”

Minorities and women had to work harder to obtain the same rewards. They termed this "the paradox of meritocracy."

This is counter-intuitive but actually makes sense because,

“When people think they are objective and unbiased, they don’t monitor and scrutinize their own behavior. They just assume that they are right and that their assessments are accurate… Organizations that emphasize meritocratic ideals serve to reinforce an employee’s belief that they are impartial, which creates the exact conditions under which implicit and explicit biases are unleashed.”

Meritocracy as whole is a great concept that should drive productivity. However, when merit is not defined by clear and objective criteria but instead open to individual interpretations and preferences, this approach can easily backfire and serve as corporate-speak for avoiding change.

In a world where the majority of university students are now female, it’s very hard to believe that the only thing that keeps them all away from key industries and key jobs is lack of merit. This is a huge missed opportunity for these companies.

Where to go from here?

Be wary of meritocracy assertions and make sure to question the assumptions behind them. Here are some of the questions that we can ask engineering-focused companies who say that their processes are totally meritocratic:

  1. How does intake of engineers correspond to gender profile at universities (about 20% of engineering majors are women)?
  2. What percentage of leaders in the organization are actually engineers?
  3. Do all the roles really require engineering degrees and/or could individuals be trained to perform them anyways?
  4. Are there challenges due to the homogeneity of the group? (like underdeveloped managerial skills, groupthink, difficulty to innovate, unhealthy social pressures like bullying or even sexual harassment)
  5. Are all the smart and talented individuals in the country concentrated among the very small engineering-majors cohort? (I know the answer to this one: No.)
  6. What does women’s participation in the leadership pipeline look like in other, less technical, but still critical functions?

Answering these questions will help you question your biases and allow you to discover opportunities to do better.

[Related: Out-Designing Bias to Achieve Gender Parity]

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Miriam Grobman is the founder of Miriam Grobman Consulting that works with organizations that want to advance more talented women into leadership roles by breaking cultural barriers and giving them the right skills to be successful. Their approach is data-driven, global and collaborative. Check out their strategic influence one course for professional women: Master Influencer Boot Camp for Women.


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