The Myth of Meritocracy
Before we can talk about truly effective diversity and inclusion initiatives, we need to address a persistent idea that negatively affects many organizations’ efforts to eliminate bias and create a fair work environment.
That idea? Meritocracy, defined by Merriam-Webster as "a system in which the talented are chosen and moved ahead on the basis of their achievement."
In truth, it sounds like a great idea that could solve all of the problems we’ve discussed above. Most people would probably agree that making hiring decisions and decisions about salaries, bonuses, and promotions based on skills and performance is the most equitable way to ensure that the best person gets the job and is rewarded appropriately for their work.
In fact, we don’t just believe that meritocracy is how the world should be — we also believe that it is the way the world works, whether or not this is actually true. Brookings Institute found in 2016 that about two-thirds of Americans agree with the statement that “people are rewarded for intelligence and skill,” the highest percentage across 27 countries participating in the international survey.
Meritocracy has been the rallying cry for a lot of tech companies over the past few years, but if it’s working, why haven’t we solved gender parity?
Emilio J Castilla (MIT) & Stephen Benard (Indiana U) set out to examine this issue, and in 2010 they published their findings in an article called the Paradox of Meritocracy. The researchers’ goal was to test the hypothesis that simply stating meritocracy as a core value would cause companies instead to create an environment where unconscious bias goes unchecked.
The results of multiple tests showed that “bias can be triggered by attempts to reduce it,” and companies that explicitly emphasize meritocracy as a core value and state merit-based approaches run the risk of creating unintended negative consequences.
So, now what? If removing gender from the equation and hiring/promoting based on merit doesn’t work, what can we do?
Castilla and Benard note in their research that they don’t intend to abandon the idea of meritocracy. The goal is still admirable and an ideal to attain. The key is how it is implemented. They encouraged further study and stressed using company policies and procedures to increase transparency and accountability because these efforts have been shown to reduce the expression of individual bias.
Hiring Women in Tech for Culture Fit vs. Culture Add
Let’s talk now about one practice you can take away and start implementing in your organization today: hiring for culture fit versus culture add.
Hiring for culture fit is a common practice in recruitment, often thought of as the “beer test” — would I want to go get a beer with this person? But this way of thinking might be unintentionally excluding people who look, think, and act differently from the majority of your team. For example, think of the name of the beer test: not everyone drinks beer, and that shouldn’t exclude someone from a job opportunity (even in tech).
When you hire for culture fit, you could be weeding out employees who represent the values and needs of your clients, meaning you’ll miss out on possible revenue streams, and you might even code bias into your product.
Instead, consider hiring for culture add. This doesn’t mean that you hire someone who doesn’t align with your core values — rather, hire a person who might expand and deepen them by contributing their own unique views and experiences. Look for people who will embrace your processes and then add to them in a productive and complementary way.
This starts with clearly defining your own company values and culture. At Very, ours are autonomy, fairness, and balance.
Ask yourself and your senior leaders:
- What’s important in your approach to business?
- What drives your business and your employees?
- Where you are headed in the future, and how you plan to get there?
- What impact do you want to have — both locally and in the world?
What Have We Learned About Gender in Tech?
I hope it’s clear from this discussion that “hiring the best for the job,” although a worthwhile goal, is infinitely easier said than done.
There are lots of important pieces of information we need to consider:
- Gender diversity in the tech industry is still lacking. Progress is slow and not always steady.
- We need to keep the conversation going because it is a complex and deep-seated issue with many facets.
- While the pipeline of young women entering tech and pursuing STEM degrees is one of the aspects that requires attention, that alone will not solve the dilemma.
- And though we need to address unconscious bias in the recruitment process, ignoring and avoiding gender does not provide answers.
- Turnover of women in tech illustrates a key obstacle pointing at the need to improve workplace culture.
- A growing body of research in psychology and neuroscience suggests that believing in meritocracy makes people more selfish, less self-critical and even more prone to acting in discriminatory ways.
- Making the tweak from hiring for culture fit to culture add acknowledges the need to actively seek out hires that will enhance cultures and challenge the status quo.
Most importantly, let’s continue making some form of progress. We can’t stop making attempts, studying the outcomes, talking about it and trying to do better.
To quote Ellen Pao, former Reddit CEO, “We need to understand that if we all work on inclusion together, it’s going to be faster, broader, better, and more thorough than anything we can do on our own.”
Are you a woman in tech looking for a new opportunity? Very is hiring! Check out our open positions here.