While living and working in San Francisco many years back, I learned a new term: Meritocracy.
It sounded like such a lovely thing - the idea that people are celebrated, rewarded and advanced by the merits of their talent and hard work. If I worked hard and produced great stuff, I would benefit the same as anyone else who did the same. And those who weren't getting ahead? They just weren't working hard or smart enough. And the poor saps that lack the talent and skills they need to rise to the top? They would still be recognized for their input.
But as time went on, I noticed that reality didn't quite match this romantic idea of meritocracy. Only a certain type of person seemed to get ahead again and again. And there were plenty of talented, hard-working people who were left behind.
But I still wanted to believe that the system worked. It just sounded so amazing! So I had some theories about the discrepancy between idea and reality:
- Those same types of people who kept getting ahead in a meritocracy had more time and resources to hone their skills and contribute. For example, a young single guy from a wealthy family could afford to work more on an open source project than a middle-aged woman with kids.
- There was some unchecked bias that was leaking over into this merit-based system. All we needed to do was check our bias at the door.
I was so naive. When I brought up the first theory, I would get the, "So, what are you proposing as the solution? That we reward people differently? That goes against the idea of a meritocratic system!" When I protested that we ARE treating people different by expecting 80 hour work weeks, thereby eliminating anyone with any sort of responsibilities, they accused me of being one of those socialist types that discouraged hard work.
The second theory was harder to prove - the very idea that meritocratic types had bias was offensive and any example I brought up was defensible - but lucky for me, a study came out a few years back (Dec. 2010) that looked into bias and meritocracy and guess what it found?
Not only is bias a factor that renders meritocratic rewards decidedly UN-meritocratic, it actually exacerbates bias!
Let me repeat: BIAS IS EXACERBATED IN A MERITOCRACY!
In three separate and controlled studies with 445 participants (pre-screened to have deep managerial experience), they found that time and time again, the participants rewarded male employees significantly higher than their female colleagues (in the same job, with the same supervisor, with the same performance evaluations). And even more interesting was that, when they controlled for a non-meritocratic condition, the female employees were rewarded slightly higher.
Wow, right? So those that strive for this utopic, egalitarian ideal of meritocracy are actually MORE biased. And why was this?
"Uhlmann and Cohen’s (2007) argument that a sense of personal objectivity moderates the extent to which individuals act on their beliefs, including stereotypical beliefs, would also predict the paradox of meritocracy in employment settings. They showed that when people feel objective, they become more confident that their beliefs are valid, and thus more likely to act on them." p.27 (emphasis mine)
In other words, the more you believe in the soundness of the system, the more likely you are to leave your bias unchecked. It reminds me of when people say, "no offense but," then follow it with something incredibly offensive, believing their initial statement removes the speaker from responsibility for the statement.
The only way that meritocracy could actually work is in a world where:
- we are all starting from the same position of advantage. Time, money, ability, education, etc. [bonus: read The Invisible Knapsack of White Privilege]
- we had checks and balances on our biases.
In other words, a world in which unicorns and leprechauns exist. In other words, not in this world in 2013.
So let's please stop fooling ourselves that those that get celebrated, rewarded and advanced are the most deserving. We should know better by now.