On meritocracy

Two posts critiquing the concept of ‘merit’.

Appointed on merit? Might as well believe in the tooth fairy

The idea that talent decides top jobs ignores not just gender or race, but all the social connections that successful candidates accrue
Of course appointments should be made purely on merit. But – especially in public life – they are frequently made on the basis of connections: social and cultural capital accrued via old-school ties, college dining societies, nepotism, networking, and biases subconscious or overt. Nevertheless, those at the top of politics, business, media and the arts hold fast – understandably – to the notion that they have got there through their own hard graft and dazzling talent: their “merit”.
To accept that society functions on a purely meritocratic basis requires the same blend of woolly optimism and wilful blindness that Reaganites invested in “trickle-down economics”. Curiously, champions of meritocracy are usually detractors of socialism, which gets dismissed as “a nice idea, sure, but it simply wouldn’t work in practice, what with human nature being just too venal, greedy and corrupt”. Yet the equally optimistic myth of meritocracy endures, even though in a country governed by an Etonian elite – the cream of society only in the sense that they’re rich, white and bad for your health – it seems as quaint as believing in the tooth fairy.
In theory, a meritocracy should be a good thing. It basically boils down to a society in which people reap the rewards of their skill and effort. But as countless advocates for women and minorities in the tech world have pointed out, meritocracies are a lot messier in real life. The tech industry isn’t still predominantly white and male because white men are better at their jobs than everyone else, it’s because many white men have had more opportunities to succeed than their minority and female counterparts.
The false idea that the tech industry is a meritocracy hurts everyone.
I’ve started to wonder: do white, middle-to-upper class men ever lie awake at night wondering whether they only got as far as they did because of who they are and what they look like? The thought of a true meritocracy must be somewhat terrifying – would they have succeeded if women, working class kids and people of colour got a fair go? Presumably some of them wouldn’t have done nearly as well. Maybe that’s why some of them try to plant the idea of the ‘token woman’ or the ‘token black’ – it makes them feel better.

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