Does Meritocracy hurt Minorities?

Imagine that you head a service design department and, after many months of talks, negotiations and entertaining, company Z finally reached out with a one-year contract opportunity to develop a new market. You are now looking for someone to head this important project for Company Z. Every Monday, you have a standing 15-minutes weekly departmental meeting to hear about progress on ongoing projects; identify, shift and allocate resources; collect feedback from the team and present new projects to your team. During the meeting, you ask for candidates to lead this new project, emphasizing its importance for your company in terms of potential revenues growth and brand awareness. You have one of your managers in mind for the position, but you decide to make it an open-door opportunity — “come to my office if you are interested. I will choose a project lead by end of the day.” You get two potential candidates — your two most senior project managers Jim and Kyle. You hear pretty much the same thing from both — “I have done this type of project before” “Can do it in my sleep” “This is what we did for X company, remember?” “I already have in mind the team that would deliver on time” “No big deal” “Piece of cake” “Who else are you going to choose?”. The person you had in mind does not show up. You go to the company’s cafeteria and see that person sitting by the window, enjoying a cup of coffee while reviewing some contracts. You sit at the table and ask Serena why she is not interested in the new project, after all, she mentioned during the last performance review that she was ready to head her own project. She answers that “she does not know if she is ready” “she would have to put together a new team” “Nor sure she has the right internal network for such a team” “What if she disappoints you” “What if she messes up the new contract?”. You go back to your office, open up the email from your boss asking you for the project lead name for the Company Z project… What should you answer? Who should you choose? What should you base your final decision on? Skills and abilities? Potential developmental growth? Merits?

My guess is that most managers would answer that the person should be chosen based on his or her merits. Before you make up your mind and come up to your own decision, let me provide you with a different perspective. Meritocracy was introduced during the Industrial Era at the end of the 18th century in Europe and USA. My favorite definition of meritocracy is one I recently read in The Guardian that states that “meritocracy represents a vision in which power and privilege would be allocated by individual merit, not by social origins[1]. I like that definition because, as a first impression, it does sound like a beautiful goal — power and privilege based on how you perform, and not your birth rights or social status. Made sense in the 18th century. If you remember your history, Europe was very hierarchical and elitist society and the US was trying get away from that hierarchical and elitist European society as a new “free” and “democratic” country. Basically, the concept was meant to reduce the importance of class and hierarchy and promote individuals based on their own merits and accomplishments. But that assumes that we all start from the same starting point, and that we all previously enjoyed equal opportunities. As you have probably heard before, equality and equity are not the same concepts.

Imagine that you have several teams preparing for a race. The first team is fed a big range of foods but is not allowed to go outside to run — they are part of a new program that studies the power of visualization — “see yourself run and you will become a good runner” (in my head, that’s said with a Star Wars’ Ben Kenobi voice). The second team is provided with a limited amount of nutrition and is allowed to exercise for one hour a day — “teach the body to optimize the restricted caloric intake to maximize effort during a limited exercise time” (no special voice needed there). The third team has unlimited access to any foods they want and/or crave, to the best equipped-gyms and running tracks and the team is provided with athletics coaches to help them train for the race. As the three teams arrive to the race track, all teams will start from the same point and run exactly the same distance. The teams are provided with the same type of athletic clothes and running shoes. Same rules apply to all. Still, what team do you think would win the race? All being equal, the third team would most likely win the race. Even though the rules of the race were the same for all, the previous preparation for each team resulted in acute differences in performance. Equity would require that all three teams arrive to the starting point with matching conditions in terms of access to nutrition, sports facilities and coaching expertise.

Who has access to the number one position in the podium?

Within a diverse organization, we have dissimilar racing conditions due to those elements that result in the diversification of our teams. Those differentiating attributes could be borne from previous access to education, gender and social norms, cultural background, social networking, previous experiences, age, internal organizational support, coaching opportunities, inspirational role models and personality. A recent article in the Harvard Business Review pointed out that minorities are less likely to engage in small talk or socialize within the organization or at corporate-sponsored events even though the attendance rates were similar across demographical groups[2]. Minorities participate out of fear of negative repercussions to their careers but limit the nature and depth of interactions and small talk with other co-workers. Why? Because minorities may not be willing to share as much about their personal lives as non-minorities are willing to share, for fear to confirm certain stereotypes or take the conversation into “the wrong direction”. Culturally and socially, those minority employees may not have the same societal references and tastes (i.e. tv programs, musical taste, culinary taste, type of vacation, family ties, voluntary and community work, religious practices …). Starting that conversation or engaging in small talk may present different challenges than it does to their non-minority peers.

Gender also plays a contributing role here. Reshma Saujami, founder of Girls Who Code, mentioned that women were less likely to volunteer for projects that they did not believe they were fully prepared to undertake while male counterparts would jump at the opportunity even if they were not ready for the project[3]. Sheryl Sandberg addressed similar issues in her book[4] and TedTalks — most girls are taught to avoid taking risks and to prevent making mistakes. Failure is not an option that most female employees will feel comfortable contemplating. Men are more willing to take risks and tackle projects for which they may not be completely ready or qualified. Failure comes with risks that men may feel comfortable taking and it is perceived as a learning opportunity, not a handicap or deterrent.

This has a deeper negative effect on organizations — men get more experience and exposure, which the meritocratic system translates into more pay raises and promotions. And this system becomes the catch-22, feeding the “qualified” candidates to more promotions and more pay raises and ignoring potentially qualified individuals that approach a goal from a different perspective or have a different tolerance to risk. Meritocracy reduces the person to a performance grade, a fixed-in-time evaluation data point, ignoring the fact that skills, knowledge, values and talents could be situational and developed. Most importantly, it limits the learning opportunities on the job, by rewarding those that already have the experience[5].

There is another problem with the meritocratic system — it fails to provide the variety of role models that we seek for inspiration and aspiration. Since the organization saw to promote individuals with a very specific profile that matches the profile created by the merit system, employees that are non-traditional because of race, gender, age, cultural background or education, are left out of the meritocratic machine and also lack the relatable role models that could coach them into beating the system or inspiring them to aim for growth within that organization.

As inclusive leaders, we need to look beyond those merits to consider other factors such as potential for development and learning. I am not suggesting that we ignore the skills, knowledge and abilities of individuals- I am arguing that we add additional attributes to the search bar. When faced with having to choose between individuals with similar qualifying profiles, it would be beneficial for the organization to consider the potential for professional growth and development. Which one of those candidates experience the most significant professional growth by undertaking that new role and opportunity? In our initial examples, Jim and Kyle have already done those types of projects. It would be a benefit for our organization to set Serena as a team lead, with proper coaching and support to help her grow into the position. That would inspire other minority employees to seek those types of positions, enriching the future choices for team leads and potentially attracting new customers seeking new and different perspectives.

As leaders, we should not solely rely on the 18th century developed meritocratic practices to promote our employees. We should look beyond the numbers and past accomplishments, considering the whole human with whom we work and the future development of our teams and organization.



[3] Saujani, R. (2017). Girls who Code: Learn to Code and Change the World. Penguin.

[4] Sandberg, S. (2015). Lean in-Women, Work and the Will to Lead.