Viewpoint: The Myth of Meritocracy

We all want to believe that merit is the sole factor driving our talent decisions. It isn't.

By Barbara B. Adams August 27, 2018
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Viewpoint: The Myth of Meritocracy

Barbara B. Adams

“We hire and promote based on merit.” 

How often have you heard this? I’ve listened to it for decades, and it’s a common refrain in current policy debates. In fact, it’s a statement I used to believe. Who wouldn’t want to? The notion that companies are structured to reward the most talented and determined individuals is pervasive in this country. It plays to our sense of fairness: In a meritocracy, we all have an equal chance of succeeding if we are self-motivated, work hard and persevere. 

Indeed, we love stories about people who start from meager means and rise to riches. Look at Oprah, we say. The United States is the land of opportunity, where anyone from any circumstance can succeed. Race, gender, disability—those characteristics hold you back only if you allow them to. 

The problem, of course, is that these ideas are based on the presumption that the playing field is level for everyone. Unfortunately, that is far from the truth. 

A Rigged System 

We buy in to the concept of meritocracy because it supports the sense of can-do individualism that has shaped American mythology and gives hope to all. But in reality, unconscious bias and structural bias based on people’s social class, immigration status, gender, ethnicity and other factors impede a fair system for all. Clinging to a false narrative undermines opportunities for developing a more productive, balanced business strategy. Merit is a beloved but misguided assumption about the way most U.S. organizations operate.

In a 2012 study by the National Academy of Sciences, researchers sent identical resumes for a laboratory manager job to over 125 hiring managers in U.S. universities. Half of the resumes had a male name and the other half a female moniker. The hiring managers, which included professors of both genders, were asked to rate the candidates. The results were disturbing: Both male and female evaluators ranked resumes with women’s names as belonging to people lower in competence, employability and appeal as potential mentees. The salaries offered to females who landed the job were more than $3,500 lower than those proffered to males. Clearly, an unconscious bias led the evaluators to favor men in this case. Level playing field? Not. 

In most organizations, performance is cited as the primary basis for wage increases. But studies consistently show that, even with the same performance ratings for the same role, white men out-earn black and Hispanic men, white women and women of color. In addition, people born outside the U.S. typically receive lower salary increases than native-born workers, all else being equal. Why? When managers are accountable for making salary decisions, they focus on the subjective nature of the process—usually who they feel has growth potential or view as most similar to themselves—even if they don’t realize they’re doing it. After all, performance is the primary basis, not the sole factor. Is your organization being hindered by practices that merely reinforce the status quo?

Previous atrocities against minority groups, including the mass killing and displacement of Native Americans, the enslavement of Africans, and the internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II, are sad chapters in our shared history. While those events are in the past, their echoes reverberate throughout our society today. When we act as though a small number of women and minorities in mid- to upper levels of business is due to individual failings or lack of availability in the market, we ignore the effects of hidden bias, subtle prejudice and structural discrimination.

Global Implications

And what about global companies? The interconnectivity of the world economy and workforce is increasing as the flow of products, services, money and information continues to move across borders. Meanwhile, competition for talent is heating up as the population ages. While globalization has been good for business—and for some people—inequality remains rampant. 

The largest economies in the world are the United States, China, Japan, Germany and the United Kingdom. Although each of those countries purports to have a meritocratic education system, disparities based on socioeconomic status and access to opportunities abound. Historical forms of discrimination may differ by country, but the outcomes are the same. 

A New Framework

So what should business leaders do? And why is it important for HR professionals to refute the myth of meritocracy?

Promoting diversity, equity and inclusion are well-established as sound business practices. Studies show that companies with higher percentages of women in management roles have better financial returns, ethnically diverse companies are more likely to outperform homogeneous organizations, and organizations with greater ethnic and gender diversity innovate faster. In fact, improving leadershiplevel gender diversity alone can add trillions of dollars to the global GDP. 

Here are some things HR leaders can do to promote equality in the workplace: 

Focus on behavior change, not culture change.

Be transparent about pay. This is especially important as jurisdictions around the country adopt gender equity laws.

Provide nonthreatening training and education to surface and address implicit biases.

Educate stakeholders on how structural bias affects corporate bias.

Enlist allies to support women and minorities at work.

Has the belief in meritocracies led to more egalitarian business practices worldwide? Unfortunately, it has not. In human resources, this ideology has failed to deliver positive results in multiple areas: recruiting, promotions, pay and performance management. It doesn’t have to be this way. Leaders who proactively address the misguided myth of meritocracy and make actionable change own the future. Be one of them!  


Barbara B. Adams is the founder of GAR (Gender, Age, and Race) Diversity Consulting, based in the San Francisco Bay Area. She is the author of the forthcoming book Women, Minorities, and Other Extraordinary People: The New Path to Workforce Diversity (Greenleaf Book Group, 2018). She holds a doctorate of psychology in organizational development. 
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