Column: The merits of meritocracy

My CatMail inbox is often chockfull of emails with subject lines advertising “Exciting!” or “Once in a lifetime!” opportunities for science undergrads. Overeager and always looking for a chance to spread myself just a little too thin, I open these messages with fervor. By the time I’ve read about the cutting-edge research position or the trip to study some cool parasite in a far-off county, I’m hooked. Then, I read the last line: “This opportunity is only available for underrepresented minority students.”

As your run-of-the-mill white girl, this is not me. I acknowledge that I come from a place of privilege; I’ve been afforded ample opportunities in life that some students might only dream of. Still, albeit my nagging social-consciousness, I can’t help but be a little disappointed when I see these.

I understand why underrepresented students might be given preference, but should non-minority students really be ruled out for academic opportunities so entirely? Shouldn’t the most qualified or hardworking student — regardless of their background — be considered for the job?

I can’t pretend to know the answers to these questions. As a product of my environment, I’ve always operated under the biased, American Dream-inspired notion that hard work merits reward.

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Though I know this isn’t always the case, I found it heartening to see that many startups are transitioning from partial diversity policies to meritocratic structures.

A meritocracy is an institution for which people are selected and paid based on their abilities and quality of work. In the words of Marianne Cooper of The Atlantic, the thinking goes that “If a company evaluates people on their skills, abilities, and merit, without consideration of their gender, race, sexuality etc., and managers are objective in their assessments then there is no need for diversity policies.”

The logic of meritocracy seems sound. If racial bias is what necessitated diversity policies in the first place, then perhaps racial blindness is the next step for companies to ensure fair representation and pay.

As it turns out, however, the system of meritocracy isn’t that simple. In a study of over 9,000 employees with salaries supposedly determined by the quality of their work, MIT professor Emilio J. Castillo found that “women, ethnic minorities, and non-U.S.-born employees received a smaller increase in compensation compared with white men, despite holding the same jobs, working in the same units, having the same supervisors, the same human capital, and importantly, receiving the same performance score.”

This paradox seems to hold true across a variety of seemingly "meritocratic" institutions. Through further research, Castillo deduced that the more objective employers believe themselves to be, the more likely they are to actually exude bias in their workplace evaluations. "Meritocrats" believe that they — by definition — are unbiased, so they don’t deem it necessary to scrutinize the checks and balances of their own decisions.

While discouraging, this phenomenon doesn’t completely discredit the merits of meritocracy when practiced in its truest form. Certain startups,like Silicon Valley’s GapJumpers, abide by a form of meritocracy that is — quite literally — race blind. GapJumpers seeks out the most skilled applicants by subjecting them to anonymous online "auditions" meant to evaluate their problem-solving abilities. Only the highest scoring auditions — devoid of identifiers — are then considered for hire. Cooper reports “The result: About 60 percent of the top talent identified through GapJumpers’ blind audition process come from underrepresented backgrounds.”

In a perfect world, such a process would be unwarranted. While it’s unfortunate that race and gender-blind interviews are necessary to negate bias in this day and age, it’s still encouraging to see meritocracies acting in the spirit with which they were founded.

It’s no coincidence that true meritocratic organizations hire applicants that accurately represent the actual demography of the workforce. People of talent come from all backgrounds — that’s just the way the world works — and employers would do well to realize this. 


Follow Hailey Dickson on Twitter.



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