By Ora Rammala, ED&I Consultant
Meritocracy, a society governed by people selected according to merit, is a term that is often debated amongst all sections of society. The idea is intrinsically linked to western society as it works in tandem with capitalism. Britain and America base the foundations of their economic and moral agenda around the idea that everyone with skill and imagination may aspire to reach the highest level if they work hard. However, the idea of meritocracy, as idealistic and well-intended it is, doesn’t live in a vacuum. Time and its consequences influence society and unfortunately, as the author of the ‘Meritocracy Trap’ Daniel Markovits writes, meritocracy becomes merely “a pretence, constructed to rationalise an unjust distribution of advantage.”
Elitism and nepotism are the catalysts for meritocracy’s flaws. Throughout human life, our capitalist system uses meritocracy as a moral to live by and it is fed to us in our education, hiring and indeed, our career progression. The idea that we are all given equal opportunity to do well ignores the systemic inequalities carved out by a history of colonialism and classism. Educational equality in both Britain and America is a myth. Money impacts the quality and opportunities of education drastically. Schools with less funding produce fewer graduates and lower grades for students. Whilst the wealthy spend enormous sums of money on getting their children prestigious nursery’s, schools, coaches, tutors and music teachers, and this means the children of rich people simply do better on the merits.
Education, therefore, plays an outsized role in people’s lives. Even if someone from a disadvantaged background does make it into university, for the individual student, the investment in time and money can be enormous. Not to mention the looming reality of disadvantaged students paying a kind of black tax, whilst paying off colossal debt. Students from disadvantaged backgrounds have different priorities and that is often ignored when we think of meritocracy. Although there are large amounts of positive opportunities in universities for disadvantaged students the reality of economic influence has always widened the gap of inequality. The problem, of course, is that elites cheat and they game the system in all kinds of self-dealing ways in order to get ahead.
For example, in 2020 the American college admissions scandal involving super-rich parents who essentially bribed their children’s way into elite colleges and universities. These kinds of loopholes and areas of vulnerability are constantly abused and the consequences impact not only the opportunities for disadvantaged students to get into prestigious universities they also influence their progression towards getting hired after they graduate.
In the age of unconscious bias training and blind hiring, a meritocracy seems like a plausible idea. Under meritocracy, recruitment should be about hiring based on competency, skills, experience. If all universities and previous organisations were seen as equal and competency and skill was prioritised, workplaces would be more diverse, inclusive, and efficient. However, the reality of elitism of education impacts who even get invited for an interview let alone who gets the role. When an organisation incorporates blind recruitment to tackle inequalities, they often forget the implicit inequality of education. Under meritocracy, the idea that the rich get into the best schools is ignored, instead, the best schools are seen as the basis of organisational standards. Various companies across Britain and America only hire from Russell Group or Ivy League schools and this alienates a large population of disadvantaged candidates who couldn’t afford these schools. This is especially relevant beyond screening when candidates are interviewed, as unconscious bias and nepotism rear their heads. We find it unseemly when someone is hired because his or her parents made a phone call. We think that’s unmeritocratic. However, we are not taken aback when we learn that someone got a job interview through a university roommate or an alumni connection, even though that is also unmeritocratic. We accept that those connections, along with connections that students make with their professors, are among the things you “earn” by getting into a university. It’s one of the rewards for merit.
A world in which meritocracy is used as an ideal is a world that engineers and reproduces inequalities. It exacerbates and reproduces inequalities because the rich can afford to educate their children in a way nobody else can, when it comes time to evaluate people on the merits, rich kids just do better. Class and race are intrinsically connected in Britain, it is exactly why 78% of White people were employed, compared with 66% of people from all other ethnic groups combined. The reality of systemic racism is ever-present in education and the interview room; it has and continues to strip opportunities away from the disadvantaged repeatedly.
Career progression within companies is one of the pillars of meritocracy; when a candidate chooses a company to work at the ultimate selling point is often the opportunity for progression. Work hard and you can succeed, the core of meritocracy. The reality behind the facade is that women, Black, Asian and marginalised groups are not given the same opportunities to succeed. In terms of gender, equal pay is scarce, which is unmeritocratic. According to Catalyst Research, In Britain 2019, women represented 18.6% of executive committee members and 29.5% of direct reports in the FTSE 250. The opportunities for progression are not equally afforded to women, and the chances seem even slimmer when we acknowledge that only 8 women (3.2%) held CEO roles in the FTSE 250 as of October 2019.
The picture becomes bleaker when we look through an intersectional lens. Last year, the Resolution Foundation1 published a report that found that, although progress has been made around education and employment, growth for men and women from ethnic minorities in the UK, startlingly large pay gaps and pay penalties still exist. For instance, black male full-time graduates earn on average 17% less than white male full- time graduates and black female full-time graduates face a “pay penalty” of 9% compared to their white peers. Black employees hold just 1.5 per cent of top management roles in the UK private sector, research has found; a figure that has increased just 0.1 percentage points since 2014. The slow rise in career progression and pay equality for women and disadvantaged groups is a clear illustration of equality that is a meritocracy.
The fundamental problem with meritocracy is that it presents itself as an equal path to empowerment that lives in a vacuum outside of the real consequences of a global and colonial rule. Meritocracy adds a kind of a moral insult to this economic exclusion because it frames what is in fact structural inequality and structural exclusion as an individual failure to measure up, and then tells you that the reason you can’t get a great high- paying job is that you’re not good enough. Brittney Cooper, a Black affirmative action associate professor of Women’s and Gender Studies and Africana Studies at Rutgers University, claimed that the American meritocracy is a myth “a certain form of opportunism because Americans see themselves as people who work really hard, and they believe in the myth of meritocracy. We’re all indoctrinated into this myth. So then, when you have to listen to people of colour point out all the ways in which that isn’t true, it disrupts a fundamental identity narrative for many white Americans about how they came to their prosperity.” It’s crucial that we consistently acknowledge that we are all, in this particular historical moment, born into a set of conditions that are not of our own making. Whilst the ancestors of people of colour were negotiating these conditions, European ancestors positioned white people to benefit greatly.
So, if a hiring manager of a large and well-known corporation is looking for a Chief Data Officer in London, will that process be meritocratic? If the numbers for Black Asian and Minority ethnic candidates within data is already low the chances of getting a candidate form a diverse background is slim. The hiring manager tells their manager and may suggest altering some of the specifications to be more open and inclusive; instead, they are told to pick candidates purely based on ‘merit.’ The hiring manager is not objective, merit can mean something different to anyone. Unconscious bias in recruitment is ever-present, our standards of good ‘merit’ often mean experience in companies with status, the crème of the crop. This is not meritocratic because in the top organisations and universities the representation of diverse talent is often low and there is a small pool of candidates to pick from. Although a hiring manager may understand the organisation’s need to hire diverse talent, they will always subconsciously look only at the candidates with good status as opposed to the candidates with strong capability. So how can a hiring manager objectively hire on merit if the systems which create candidate pools are inherently discriminatory?
This unequal society we live in can no longer be masked by an ideal that does not acknowledge history or its consequences. Thus, empowerment is the only way to balance the scales. A progressive framework that can support empowerment in education, hiring and employment is capability theory. A key element of capability theory is through the evaluation of wellbeing. The capabilities lie within a person’s freedom to function differently; they determine how, why, and what equality can mean for varying individuals. There is, as Unterhalter writes, “a sense in which empowerment is both the personal state of having a wide capability set, high-quality choices and freedom to act.” We can no longer ignore the realities of inequality in our countries, but we can examine them and factor them into how we educate, hire, and progress our talent. It takes a lot more training, self-education, and innovative work but it would be worth it to have a society that truly includes everyone rather than the ruling few.
1. Opportunities Knocked? Kathleen Henehan & Helena Rose 2018
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