Once and for all: Tech is not a meritocracy

March 26, 2013
March 26, 2013

I’ve had it with meritocracy.

Not because it’s not a wonderful concept. Of course it is.

My problem is with the belief many people seem to hold that the world (or some part of it) is already a meritocracy, or even that it’s an achievable and realistic ideal, rather than a platonic one. This mythology is particularly rampant in the tech sector, perhaps because coders deal so much in the cold logic of zeros and ones that they imagine their professional lives are exempted from any kind of bias. It’s been my experience that quite often, any suggestion that the sector lacks diversity is perceived as an attack on the concept that people should be hired, promoted and celebrated for their skill rather than their demographics.

I can count at least three instances in the past week where an online conversation about gender diversity in tech was rapidly hijacked by someone arguing that diversification strategies were bound to dilute the caliber of [fill in the blank]: conference speakers in one case, technical employees in another, “focus” in a third.

Just about every time diversity comes up in tech-sector conversations, there is a chorus of protests that tech is a meritocracy where anyone who’s talented and hardworking will advance smoothly and quickly. The problem with that belief system is that it assumes that there are no external or internal forces contributing to some groups being underrepresented in tech. I would argue that there are both.

While it’s a wonderful and important ideal, “meritocratic” is a long way from being an accurate description of our current state of affairs, thanks to human foibles of various kinds. Those foibles can be broken down roughly into two types: biases (both conscious and unconscious) that limit people with qualifications from advancing, and barriers (personal, social, and systemic) that prevent people from attaining the qualifications, support, and mentorship necessary to succeed.

Let’s talk first about biases. (I’m going to focus here on gender diversity, but some of these suggestions play out in similar ways around race, ability, sexual orientation, and other kinds of difference.) I see some of the resistance to gender diversification efforts in tech stemming from a conflation of conscious and unconscious bias—that is, a belief that because overt sexism, racism, and other forms of discrimination have been expunged from your vocabulary, that you’re therefore incapable of sexism or racism.

Here’s the thing: The defining feature of a blind spot is that we don’t know it’s there. And it’s hard to notice it until we’re challenged on it. We see this again and again with all-male speaker lineups at tech conferences. I certainly don’t believe the organizers of those conferences are rabid misogynists; they just have a blind spot when it comes to gender, and frequently don’t notice the lack of women until it’s pointed out to them.

I don’t think most of them have contemplated the possibility of cognitive (i.e. unconscious) bias. Uncomfortable though it may seem, it’s incumbent upon those in positions of power to familiarize themselves with the concept of in-group bias, and figure out ways to correct for it. Several conference organizers have blogged recently about the strategies they’ve used to improve speaker diversity, and one of the recurring themes is that it takes real effort to break out of the default mode of inviting people like ourselves, but that the conscious effort of reaching beyond the usual subjects has improved both the diversity and quality of their speaker lineups.

Lest the conference organizers think I’m putting all the responsibility on them for those all-male speaker lineups (and let me just reiterate that I’m not just talking about conferences here—this applies to hiring, promotions, compensation, status—in short, all the ways we rank people professionally), there’s a whole other side to this, which is the stuff that prevents women, non-white people, and other marginalized groups from entering into “meritocratic” competitions in the first place.

First, as we all know, there is a pipeline problem in tech. The pipeline problem has many roots. For starters, there is an acknowledged achievement gap between girls and boys in math and sciences, and while we can debate until the cows come home whether that’s a nature thing or a nurture thing, it means gender and race discrepancies in STEM can start as early as primary school. Unsurprisingly, further up the education ladder, we see fewer women completing STEM degrees or even beginning them in the first place.

We also know that there are socio-cultural aspects to this stuff. Girls are frequently dissuaded, whether by family members or peers, from pursuing solitary, geeky pursuits like computer coding. They also don’t see a lot of role models they can look up to.

The result is that there’s a pretty massive gender divide in the tech sector, with a roughly 75/25 male-female split and worse numbers in university computing programs, with just 19 women in every 100 graduating computer science students last year. Some data suggest the ratio of men to women in the tech industry gets more out-of-whack the more techie the role, though it’s harder to get hold of substantial data on that front, with no thanks to stonewalling by some of Silicon Valley’s biggest players.

Some critics of diversification efforts will be tempted to point to these numbers and suggest they constitute the whole story: fewer women enter the ring, so of course there are fewer winners. But let’s jump ahead and assume you’re one of the women who made it through the first round of hurdles: you’re a computer geek with a university degree, and you’ve found yourself a job. I hate to break it to you, but you’re facing another set of challenges, and this time, they’re internal.

Women are less likely to put themselves forward for advancement opportunities such as VC funding, promotions and raisesspeaking engagements, and so on. Those who have delved into this problem have discovered that the reluctance can be overcome with mentorship, coaching, and encouragement from peers, but many women seem to be plagued by self-doubt, impostor syndrome, and fear of failure that means many of them self-select out of competition.

Similarly, there is some evidence that women don’t apply for jobs unless they feel 100% qualified, while their male counterparts consider themselves strong candidates even if they lack a qualification or two.

One of the challenges of the debate on tech sector diversity is that both proponents and detractors of diversity have a tendency to focus on a single axis of the problem: Bias or barriers. And as we’ve seen with the recent critiques of Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In, it’s all too easy to derail a discussion about one (in this case, barriers, since Sandberg’s focus is squarely on the internal hurdles women face) with criticism that the other (systemic bias) has been unduly ignored, and that the discussion, therefore, has no merit.

I’m of the opinion that until we embrace a “both, and” mentality about this stuff, there’s a limit to what we can accomplish. Women face internal barriers, yes, but we don’t do so in a vacuum. And while bias is an unavoidable fact of life for individuals and the organizations we build, we do ourselves no favors by foisting all the responsibility for change onto others.

If we can agree that cognitive bias and internal barriers exist in the tech world (and I really, really hope that we can, because there’s plenty of evidence to support their existence), then we can begin to acknowledge the sometimes painful reality that we do not work in a pure meritocracy. That, in turn, will allow us to work creatively on strategies to help us to build systems that more closely resemble the merit-driven tech culture we so passionately want to see.

You can follow Lauren on Twitter at @laurenbacon. We welcome your comments at ideas@qz.com

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