"Meritocracy" is short-sighted

Michael Robertson writes:

@Jason @MicahSingleton Biz can pursue profits or racism, but not both. Tech industry is a meritocracy as is all industries in a free market.

and Jason Calacanis adds:

.@MicahSingleton I agree, just making a point that the tech industry seems like the best meritocracy we have! Folks should study it!

The tech industry is a meritocracy. We hire people based on their skills alone.

When Michael Young coined the term “meritocracy” in 1958, he intended the term as a joke: an ironic signifier of the self-delusion of the English class system and, in particular, as a critique of academia and government.

Meritocracy is a powerful myth. It's seductive, for people within a system like academia or technology, because it says “we are here–we have stature, money, influence, and respect–because we are more able. We who have achieved have done so on the basis of our natural abilities and hard work.” Because the myth builds a story of self-worth, it is easy to believe.

It may even be true. An industry or field may allow entrance, may assign promotions and allocate grant funds and direct the best engineering team or doctoral candidates towards a person, on the basis of their great skill or successful work. But this causal chain is rarely open. With money, with investment, with respect of ideas, with retweets and upvotes, one's influence and the scope of works one can accomplish are amplified. We can reward people for being successful, and they are more likely to succeed as a result.

Is this optimal? If we put our resources into people who have accomplished things, who we believe to be more able because of their IQ or their citations or their coding style, how do we know we chose the best people? We can point to the organization's success as a whole–our company wrote good code and our product was well-loved, so our process must be working. But if success is self-reinforcing, by some probabilistic dynamic, we can expect to succeed with a broad variety of people. Maybe people who we didn't select.

Who didn't we select?

We sure didn't hire women. In ten years I've worked closely with zero women in operations, IT, and software development. Two people of color. Most of the startups I've interviewed at didn't even have a woman on staff. No women called or interviewed me. Women work in only 27% of computer science jobs. They make up 10% of the applicant pool for physics tenure-track professors, and make up 18% of hires. In chemistry, women are 21.6% of applicants, and make up 16.3% of hires. Mathematics doctorates are roughly ¾ men. In the STEM jobs they do find, women earn 14% less than their male counterparts.

Are women intrinsically less intelligent? Less capable? I doubt it. Girls have high test scores and interest in STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) fields up until middle school. Women are well-represented in biology and earth science, and those are both challenging technical disciplines. Yet they aren't just under-represented in physics and technology–they aren't even applying. Most engineers I know would love to interview more women for their team, but finding them is tough. It doesn't matter if there's a systematic bias in our application process–if we're totally “meritocratic”–if the applicant pool itself is 90% male. Or or 90% white, for that matter.

The American Association of University Women has a good summary of the research literature, entitled Why So Few. They report:

  • Men consistently outperform women in tasks of spatial reasoning, but spatial skills can be dramatically improved with short training courses.

  • Women more often report that their academic departmental culture is hostile and unfriendly, and they're more likely to leave the workplace early than their male counterparts. For a fun time, ask a woman who's a physics professor or mathematician about their tenure track experience.

  • People consistently judge women to be less competent than men in “masculine” fields unless they're clearly successful. If they're clearly successful in a “masculine” job, they're considered less likable.

  • Recent shifts in girls' mathematical achievement suggest that culture and education play a large role in priming girls to be interested in, and capable of working in, STEM fields.

  • Stereotype threat–for example, being told before that “men are better than women at writing code” or “asians are better at math”, consistently produces these effects in performance tests. When women are aware of stereotype threat, the effect is less powerful.

  • Girls are less likely to interpret academic success in science and math as being valuable skills for STEM fields. If girls don't think they can pursue these fields, they won't take the classes, read the books, or go to school for them either.

  • Even when they are interested and skilled, women face significant barriers in the workplace: a lack of family leave policies, on-site childcare, an absence of female mentors or colleagues to talk to about their experience, receiving consistently smaller paychecks, and being passed over for promotions or consideration.

This is why every company I've worked at has had an overwhelmingly–or even exclusively–male engineering team. This is why the conferences I attend are almost all white. This is why my pull requests almost all come from people who look like me.

This is what a meritocracy looks like.

And yet it's obvious, isn't it? Success, ability, even motivation itself is statistically influenced by many factors. Every developer, every chemist you hire is a confluence of family, nutrition, housing, genetics, education, self-determination, role models, and peers who came together in this one person. Hiring color-blind or gender-blind isn't enough. We have to act at all levels–and the people we hire today will be parents, friends, and teachers in ten years. They'll push their daughters and their students to play with legos, to enjoy games of logic and spatial reasoning, to read, to explore the world and build things for themselves.

When my friends say “I'm done with this business,” or, “I just want to find one other lady developer so I'm not the only one,” or, “I wish my co-workers wouldn't shovel all the 'emotional' work on to me,” I start to think that ability is more grown than ingrained, and I wonder: how long will it take for the loop to close?

Eric Thayer
Eric Thayer, on

Kellan at Etsy gave a talk about how they approached this issue http://firstround.com/article/How-Etsy-Grew-their-Number-of-Female-Engineers-by-500-in-One-Year

aanrechtblad, on

This continually is amazing to me how bloggers such as yourself can find the time and also the dedication to keep on creating fantastic blog posts. This is wonderful and one of my have to read on the web. I simply want to say thanks

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