Rec­og­niz­ing the myth of the mer­i­toc­ra­cy is the first step toward end­ing the gen­der pay gap for women in tech.


7 min read

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Sil­i­con Val­ley is known for its inno­va­tion, high-skilled tal­ent and its mer­i­to­crat­ic ethos — that is, the focus on eval­u­at­ing and reward­ing employ­ees based not on who they are, but on what they achieve. Big tech com­pa­nies like Google and Uber famous­ly pro­mote com­pa­ny val­ues that empha­size those ideas as a way of cre­at­ing equal­i­ty in the work­place.

When tak­en at face val­ue, that all seems fair and good. How­ev­er, real­i­ty cap­tures a far dif­fer­ent pic­ture. Despite the tech sector’s good inten­tions, com­pa­nies with mer­i­to­crat­ic prin­ci­ples still face a deep gen­der gap in their indus­try and con­tin­ue to be crit­i­cized for their bias. For exam­ple, look no fur­ther than Google’s memo fias­co or Susan Fowler’s crit­i­cism of Uber’s gen­der bias, man­age­ment hubris and poor HR sup­port.

How is it that top-tier tech com­pa­nies can seem­ing­ly pro­mote mer­i­to­crat­ic ethics while their female employ­ees fight against sys­temic bar­ri­ers that pre­vent them from pro­gress­ing up the lad­der? Research from Mass­a­chu­setts Insti­tute of Tech­nol­o­gy (MIT) sug­gests that despite the val­ues these com­pa­nies claim to embody, mer­i­toc­ra­cy in big tech might not actu­al­ly exist at all.  

Meritocracy: the myth contributing to the gender pay gap

Unlike their male coun­ter­parts, women aren’t fac­ing an indus­try that judges them sole­ly on their accom­plish­ments. In actu­al­i­ty, the major­i­ty of women oper­ate in orga­ni­za­tions mud­died with insti­tu­tion­al­ized bias­es. At least 42 per­cent of work­ing women in the Unit­ed States report that they’ve expe­ri­enced some form of dis­crim­i­na­tion, includ­ing uncon­scious bias at work. While sex­u­al harass­ment is a painful, very explic­it form of unfair treat­ment, bias­es at work can be far more insid­i­ous than that.

Relat­ed: Why Lead­er­ship Is at the Crux of Clos­ing the Gen­der Pay Gap

When it comes to diver­si­ty, Google still has work to do. It’s lat­est diver­si­ty report shows that the num­ber of women and unrep­re­sent­ed minori­ties bare­ly budged in the past year. The com­pa­ny has faced gen­der-pay law­suits. Sim­i­lar­ly, Uber suf­fers from lim­it­ed female staff and lead­er­ship and has also been hit with sex­u­al harass­ment claims.

MIT research echoes these assump­tions, cit­ing how seem­ing­ly mer­i­to­crat­ic orga­ni­za­tions can unin­ten­tion­al­ly favor men over “equal­ly per­form­ing women,” offer­ing them high­er bonus­es and more favor­able career out­comes.

Authors Emilio Castil­la and Stephen Bernard called this con­tra­dic­tion the “para­dox of mer­i­toc­ra­cy.” They argue that when pro­gres­sive com­pa­nies fos­ter mer­it-based prac­tices, they assume they’re not biased regard­ing hir­ing, reten­tion, com­pen­sa­tion or pro­mo­tion deci­sions. How­ev­er, these process­es don’t pro­tect against ingrained, demo­graph­ic bias.  For exam­ple, a mer­it-based sys­tem still doesn’t stop man­agers from giv­ing more favor­able reviews to employ­ees who are most like them.

“When man­agers believe their com­pa­ny is a mer­i­toc­ra­cy because for­mal eval­u­a­tive and dis­trib­u­tive mech­a­nisms are in place, they are in fact more like­ly to exhib­it the very bias­es that those sys­tems seek to pre­vent,” says Castil­la for the MIT Sloan Man­age­ment Review.

Tra­cy Chou, a tech engi­neer vet­er­an who has worked at tech com­pa­nies like Quo­ra and Pin­ter­est, has expe­ri­enced this kind of bias and mar­gin­al­iza­tion, despite being an expert in her field. Chou con­front­ed bias­es rang­ing from every­day microag­gres­sions to sex­u­al harass­ment from her male cowork­ers, despite her author­i­ty. After hear­ing sim­i­lar expe­ri­ences from women in the tech indus­try, she start­ed to real­ize that mer­i­toc­ra­cy in Sil­i­con Val­ley is deeply flawed and didn’t sup­port equi­table work envi­ron­ments that help women like her suc­ceed.

“Mer­i­toc­ra­cy is this myth that, if you have mer­it, you will rise up and peo­ple who are in posi­tions of pow­er and suc­cess got there because they have the most mer­it and they most deserve it. Hav­ing a lot of mark­ers and cre­den­tials that Sil­i­con Val­ley gen­er­al­ly like, I didn’t quite ques­tion that either, when I first start­ed work­ing,” Chou told Quartz.

Due to the pre­vail­ing bias­es which per­sist today, it’s no sur­prise a tru­ly mer­i­to­crat­ic sys­tem ceas­es to thrive. But there may be some light at the end of the tun­nel —  and it begins with chang­ing work cul­tures.

Tools and initiatives to help companies curb gender bias 

Sil­i­con Val­ley can incor­po­rate tru­ly mer­i­to­crat­ic val­ues, but it requires mak­ing a few small, mean­ing­ful adjust­ments to the cur­rent struc­ture.

Castil­la says, “Com­pa­nies can devel­op into mer­i­toc­ra­cies by imple­ment­ing mer­it-based eval­u­a­tion and reward sys­tems that have both account­abil­i­ty and trans­paren­cy.”

Relat­ed: These Are the U.S. States Where the Gen­der Pay Gap Is Widest

Clear process­es that offer cri­te­ria for all employ­ees at any career lev­el can help com­pa­nies ensure that skilled work­ers oper­ate in a tru­ly mer­it-based cul­ture. These pro­grams need to have indi­vid­u­als or groups of indi­vid­u­als that focus on the respon­si­bil­i­ty, abil­i­ty and author­i­ty to ensure that these for­mal process­es remain fair.

Google has tak­en a step to help resolve this issue. The tech giant now allows an employee’s qual­i­fi­ca­tions for a pro­mo­tion to be based on peer rec­om­men­da­tions rather than a manager’s deci­sion. These peers (along with all Google employ­ees) are trained to spot and guard against uncon­scious bias­es so the review process remains fair. It’s not per­fect, but the prac­tice is now the norm in many Sil­i­con Val­ley tech com­pa­nies, includ­ing Pin­ter­est and Quo­ra. 

While Chou no longer works at either of these com­pa­nies, she now uses her exper­tise to guard against bias, pro­mote trans­par­ent data report­ing on gen­der and reshape big tech’s work cul­tures. In 2016, she estab­lished Project Include, a non­prof­it that uses unbi­ased data pro­gram­ming and advo­ca­cy to help these tech giants bring on more diverse employ­ees. 

Uber has also man­aged to rede­fine its ethos from 14 core val­ues, which inef­fec­tive­ly pro­mot­ed mer­i­toc­ra­cy, to eight new cul­tur­al norms, which are expect­ed to evolve as Uber grows. The com­pa­ny is still slow to imple­ment more women in lead­er­ship and over­all staff posi­tions, but it is rein­forc­ing its diver­si­ty and inclu­sion goals to offer an equal play­ing field for tal­ent. 

Accord­ing to Uber’s 2019 Diver­si­ty and Inclu­sion report, it’s strength­en­ing its hir­ing man­ag­er train­ing pro­gram to cre­ate more inclu­sive inter­view­ing skills through the Inter­view Mod­er­a­tor Ini­tia­tive. The ini­tia­tive helps ensure that tech inter­views are free from sub­jec­tive bias and stereo­types. Mean­while, through­out their Career and Tal­ent teams, they con­tin­ue to review and redesign their sys­tems and pro­grams to help employ­ees of all back­grounds thrive equal­ly. This includes the cre­ation of per­for­mance man­age­ment and diver­si­ty score­cards. 

Relat­ed: How to Fight the Gen­der Pay Gap as a Self-Employed Woman

How­ev­er, biased work cul­tures will not change with­out inter­nal aware­ness and analy­sis. The World Eco­nom­ic Forum advis­es com­pa­nies to incor­po­rate The Implic­it Asso­ci­a­tion Test. The free resource from Har­vard Uni­ver­si­ty helps users gauge their per­son­al bias­es around gen­der, race, age, weight, sex­u­al­i­ty, tone and more. The tool offers insights into con­flicts, address­ing how employ­ees think, their assump­tions of social norms and how these bias­es inform our deci­sion mak­ing on a dai­ly basis. In all, these tools and ini­tia­tives can help make both the hir­ing and pro­mo­tion process­es more equal. 

Reviving meritocracy with gender equality

While it’s often assumed that mer­i­toc­ra­cy fos­ters gen­der equal­i­ty, it seems to ini­tial­ly have had the oppo­site effect in com­pa­nies who pro­mote these prin­ci­ples. It’s not that mer­i­toc­ra­cy is hurt­ing women’s careers, per se, but that com­pa­nies with uncon­scious bias­es are using mer­i­to­crat­ic prin­ci­ples in ways that are inef­fec­tive and prob­lem­at­ic. 

We have a long way to go until busi­ness­es reach a tru­ly mer­i­to­crat­ic mod­el. It’s time for com­pa­nies to reex­am­ine their diver­si­ty and inclu­sion goals and offer bet­ter sup­port sys­tems that help work­ing women thrive. These com­pa­nies can only become tru­ly mer­i­to­crat­ic work­places by instill­ing gen­der equal­i­ty poli­cies and thus mind­sets, at the core of their cul­tur­al val­ue sys­tems. Then, and only then, will we start to build a cor­po­rate ethos that is tru­ly based on tal­ent and hard work.

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