Invoking meritocracy is thinly veiled prejudice

Invoking meritocracy is thinly veiled prejudice. It’s the most recent way to dress up sexism, racism and homophobia in an attempt to maintain social inequity.

In recent years every time there is publicity around a candidate selection policy that aims to diversify an organization to better reflect the general population the issue of meritocracy is raised. Most recently, in Canada, this diversity vs. meritocracy “debate” was raised with respect to the selection of the new Federal cabinet by incoming Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.

When someone claims that less qualified candidates were selected over more qualified candidates to meet a diversity quota they are demonstrating their own prejudice.

When someone says that a hiring policy that seeks gender parity* means that lesser qualified applicants are being awarded positions they are saying something that is sexist. They are perpetuating a sexist culture.

The position that a gender parity policy necessitates selecting less qualified women over more qualified men relies on three sexist assumptions:

  1. Assuming the women selected are less qualified.
  2. Assuming that the pool of qualified candidates does not include a sufficient number of women candidates such that meritocracy and gender parity can both be achieved.
  3. Assuming that diversity is not worthy of merit or consideration in the qualification criteria.

The most damaging affect of claiming that gender was privileged over merit in a selection process is that it sustains a myth that women cannot succeed on their own merit. No matter how accomplished the woman is she will now have to fight the perception that she did not get the position because she is the right person for the job, she only got it because she is female. This is a new spin on the old sexist line that successful women have slept their way to the top.

Fortunately, in the case of the new Federal cabinet many people have gone to lengths to show how accomplished all the members are.

To claim that less qualified women are awarded positions over more qualified men when gender parity is applied in the selection process demonstrates a prejudiced assumption that qualified men are plentiful but qualified women are rare. In fact it assumes that qualified women are such an extreme rarity that it would be impossible to reach gender parity without selecting less qualified women.

This assumption seems particularly ridiculous as women now make up more than 60% of university graduates in Canada.

Of course the whole issue of meritocracy ironically doges the question of what is worthy of merit.

In any selection process applicants are judged against a set of experiences and skills required to do the job.

When an organization adopts a diversity policy like gender parity what they are saying is: this organization recognizes a requirement to have equal representation of men and women in order for the organization to be best positioned to deliver on our mission.

This means that the organization is saying that part of what makes a candidate qualified is their lived experience as a woman and their ability to credibly represent women’s voices and viewpoints in the organization.

So, those who are arguing for meritocracy are ignoring the fact that the organization employing a diversity selection policy has itself defined diversity as something worthy of merit.

And there you have the insidious truth at the heart of the claim that diversity policies undercut hiring by merit.

Those who are saying a selection process should be based on merit alone are also saying that the perspectives and experiences of women, people of colour, LGBTQ people and other under represented populations are without merit. And that is prejudice. That is sexism. That is racism. That is homophobia.

*or better representation of people of colour, or LGBTQ population, or any other under represented population. From this point toward I am going to use the example of gender. However gender, sexist and other language could easily be replaced with race / racist or sexual orientation / homophobic.