Meritocracy is Almost as Real as this Unicorn


Not sure how to avoid plagiarism? I use Grammarly because, if nothing else, I’m an original. ;)


While living and working in San Francisco many years back, I learned a new term: Meritocracy.

It sounded like such a lovely thing – the idea that people are celebrated, rewarded and advanced by the merits of their talent and hard work. If I worked hard and produced great stuff, I would benefit the same as anyone else who did the same. And those who weren’t getting ahead? They just weren’t working hard or smart enough. And the poor saps that lack the talent and skills they need to rise to the top? They would still be recognized for their input.

But as time went on, I noticed that reality didn’t quite match this romantic idea of meritocracy. Only a certain type of person seemed to get ahead again and again. And there were plenty of talented, hard-working people who were left behind.

But I still wanted to believe that the system worked. It just sounded so amazing! So I had some theories about the discrepancy between idea and reality:

  1. Those same types of people who kept getting ahead in a meritocracy had more time and resources to hone their skills and contribute. For example, a young single guy from a wealthy family could afford to work more on an open source project than a middle-aged woman with kids.
  2. There was some unchecked bias that was leaking over into this merit-based system. All we needed to do was check our bias at the door.

I was so naive. When I brought up the first theory, I would get the, “So, what are you proposing as the solution? That we reward people differently? That goes against the idea of a meritocratic system!” When I protested that we ARE treating people different by expecting 80 hour work weeks, thereby eliminating anyone with any sort of responsibilities, they accused me of being one of those socialist types that discouraged hard work.

The second theory was harder to prove – the very idea that meritocratic types had bias was offensive and any example I brought up was defensible – but lucky for me, a study came out a few years back (Dec. 2010) that looked into bias and meritocracy and guess what it found?

Not only is bias a factor that renders meritocratic rewards decidedly UN-meritocratic, it actually exacerbates bias!


In three separate and controlled studies with 445 participants (pre-screened to have deep managerial experience), they found that time and time again, the participants rewarded male employees significantly higher than their female colleagues (in the same job, with the same supervisor, with the same performance evaluations). And even more interesting was that, when they controlled for a non-meritocratic condition, the female employees were rewarded slightly higher.

Wow, right? So those that strive for this utopic, egalitarian ideal of meritocracy are actually MORE biased. And why was this?

“Uhlmann and Cohen’s (2007) argument that  a sense of personal objectivity moderates the extent to which individuals act on their beliefs, including stereotypical beliefs, would also predict the paradox of meritocracy in employment settings. They showed that when people feel objective, they become more confident that their beliefs are valid, and thus more likely to act on them.” p.27 (emphasis mine)

In other words, the more you believe in the soundness of the system, the more likely you are to leave your bias unchecked. It reminds me of when people say, “no offense but,” then follow it with something incredibly offensive, believing their initial statement removes the speaker from responsibility for the statement.

The only way that meritocracy could actually work is in a world where:

  1. we are all starting from the same position of advantage. Time, money, ability, education, etc. [bonus: read The Invisible Knapsack of White Privilege]
  2. we had checks and balances on our biases.

In other words, a world in which unicorns and leprechauns exist. In other words, not in this world in 2013.

So let’s please stop fooling ourselves that those that get celebrated, rewarded and advanced are the most deserving. We should know better by now.

12 thoughts on “Meritocracy is Almost as Real as this Unicorn

  1. scottx5 says:

    Like the notion of people who feel they are least biased act with most bias.

    Seems like those claiming to be acting in the service of a higher cause are particularly prone to permit themselves to raise above others. I remember my Mother being paid less than the young men she supervised on the grounds they had “family to support” while her kids were grown and self-supporting (Ha). On weekends when she covered for those blessed with issue, they had “soccer to go to” or “church duties” or some other selfish selfless activity.

    Maybe the cure is to have a lower obligation yourself? Like “I’d love to help but I was planning on going out and getting pissed”:-) (Or in California, “…a winery tour).

    In marketing you would think this type of self-deluded personality would persuade easily—unreflective as they seem. I wonder though if they just claim a belief in the nearest convenient moral stance and really know better?

    1. Tara Hunt says:

      I think you are onto something there. That whole century of the self (have you seen the documentary) is definitely part of the problem. :)

  2. scottx5 says:

    Hi Tara, Self can be quite a complexity to operate. In some ways it’s unfair for me to decide limits for others as I tend to push people too hard–for their own good and end up in shit I could have avoided. Maybe we are looking for a missing sense of obligation hoping others might return a loyalty to allowing us to be ourselves like our childhood friends still do after many years? As a product it would be nice that people liked me in an un-complex and comfortable way, like a unicorn maybe?

    I’ll check out the documentary. Cool paper from a coaching course I’m taking:

    Five Theories of Change Embedded in Appreciative Inquiry

  3. Marcus Pope (@marcuspope) says:

    A meritocracy still works regardless of people’s starting points. It’s not evenly distributed, sure, but then nobody suggests that it was designed to be. It’s simply the best alternative to plutocracies and aristocracies (et al) where even if you had the ability, time, (some) money or education you still couldn’t excel in life because you weren’t ultra rich or of a certain heritage. And because success can be obtained through varying degrees of “virtually none”-to-“limitless” money, time, natural ability and practice it’s a pretty decent standard for a society to operate on.

    And we do have checks and balances on our biases, mostly through free speech, which we are all more than ever capable of using to change our collective self. But also through laws (ala Title VII) and personal morality (ala people like you who want to make the world a better place and act willfully in that manner for their own accord.) Just a single lifetime ago we had a wholly different culture in that regard – where women couldn’t vote and minorities struggled exclusively with overt discrimination.

    So perhaps bringing to light specific biases that still need transformation or suggesting a better foundational system – if you can propose one – would be more productive than complaining that we don’t live in a perfect world of exact equality (a fantasy world were unicorns probably still don’t exist.) But to denounce our meritocracy entirely and claim it is as imaginary as unicorns because there is some remaining entropy still progressively being eradicated is just counterproductive.

    Our meritocracy is most definitely real, and significantly better than all historical alternatives.

    1. Tara Hunt says:

      Hmmmmm…I’m not complaining as much as I’m pointing out the fallacy here, which I think is a very valid and important thing to do.

      And I believe I *do* propose a way to fix it in the post (see my point about what we need to do in order to adjust and be more meritocratic – there are two points).

      And when it comes to unicorns, don’t get me started with free speech…

      1. Marcus Pope (@marcuspope) says:

        After reading the entire post again, I’m not sure how you could believe you proposed a fix in those two points. Your first point sets up an imaginary world where everyone starts from the exact same point with the exact same privileges and you equate such a world to a fantasy land of unicorns and leprechauns.

        Even your second point, which could potentially be construed as a vague proposal of “we need more checks and balances” would merely fall into the paradoxical premise you made earlier in all caps – that attempts to mitigate bias in a meritocracy exacerbates bias as a result. But still without any concrete means of improving checks and balances, it too is mostly a complaint about a lack of checks and balances.

        Pointing out fallacies and deficits without offering alternatives is the definition of complaining. And though I would never label you a socialist for thinking edge cases in our meritocracy deserve some attention, I whole heartedly agree with those who asked you before “What is your proposed solution?” And I do think you should open your perspectives to the vast majority of people who have benefited from the fact that even though they were not royalty/wealthy/white/male/etc. they have the best chance in history to be rewarded for their efforts based solely on their efforts. By comparison to a mere century ago when most women and minorities had no chance at all.

    2. scottx5 says:

      Needless to say Marcus I disagree with your realism unicorn. What does meritocracy have to say about my being fired without notice at the college where I worked while someone else I worked with was laid off with severance in the same cut cycle–someone I was mentoring. The difference between us was he had a one year certificate in graphic design and a year’s experience while I have 2 journeyman licenses and 40 years of on-the-construction-site work experience including project management. The reality, he had a “certificate” from a school and I had trade qualifications which buy no credits at a college, even one teaches trade qualifications. And NO my union didn’t back me up.

      And forget historical, come up to where I live in North East Alberta and check out the racism openly practiced against First Nations people who are “protected” by laws that aren’t enforced. In the 60’s this was called “benign neglect.” People without jobs are not subject to meritocracy and these people can’t get jobs. Nice little formula.

      What would you propose we do with people who don’t believe in meritocracy because they don’t see it anywhere in their lives?

      1. Marcus Pope (@marcuspope) says:

        Scott, I would say that’s unfortunate. I never said a meritocracy was fair or equal or without fault. It’s simply better than the days when no matter what you could do you’d never work at a university because you were not male or your last name didn’t indicate you were prestigious enough to work there.

        Racism is terrible regardless of the societal foundations that acknowledge merit. But those are wholly separate from a principle that rewarding those for their efforts is good. A practice that has helped reduce racism over the last century in many parts of the world.

  4. scottx5 says:

    Hi Marcus, yes, obviously the concept of meritocracy is a fine one and a no doubt a contributing principal in the drafting of civil rights and women’s equality legislation. Unfortunately it is neither law nor strict obligation and this makes it a nice thing to espouse and I’m glad I live in a society that believes in meritocracy. Only it doesn’t apparently apply to me or the many others left to struggle with unfairness.

    So, to me, meritocracy is just like all those other things people claim to prefer but don’t practice. When I was young we marched for equality and it forced the civil rights act of 1968 into law in a free country called America. At the time we were told to stop complaining, or to go back to Russia or worse things by people who felt everything was just fine–for them.

    I understand what you are saying and no society is perfect. But from this side of the divide between what should be and what is, things look like Oakland California in 1964 when racism was considered fair for all.

  5. kcrca says:

    I wonder if we must paraphrase Churchill: Maybe meritocracy is the worst social system except all the others? I certainly think that it’s an improvement over its historical predecessors. And we get closer to it really working over time if we don’t give up on it, but improve it, point out its failures both in general (as Tara does here) and in specific (when you see it failing a person and speak up.)

    Or maybe there is a better system I haven’t yet discovered. But since I haven’t yet discovered it, I’m sticking with improvements to this one.

    1. scottx5 says:

      As something to work towards I have to agree that Meritocracy is the best target to aim for. In spite of people using terms like this in a sloppy manner the actual logic that informs the term remains. Worked at a place that was all over vision statements and everyone knew they were for public consumption and represented no actual reality of practice. That said we’d be reminded from outside fairly often that our mission / vision was in conflict with our being generally a bunch of lying bastards. Each time we’d be reminded of an implied promise to be better and I think that helped.

      >From chapter 7 Obligation and Violation “The Work of the Imagination” By Paul L. Harris, Blackwell 2000
      Ross (aged 3 years 5 months): ‘We’ll be good if you give us chocolate.’
      Father: ‘You better talk to Mommy.’
      Ross: ‘I want to talk to you about chocolate.’
      Father: ‘How Come?’
      Ross: ‘Because we will be good.’
      Father: ‘You won’t be good without it.’
      Ross: ‘Because we will be good if you give us that.’
      (MacWhinney, 1991)<

      The reality of how we behave is as important as how we wish or imagine we should behave. this seems really important in marketing where it is sooo easy to fall in love with an image of ourselves that is obviously open to doubt from others.

  6. M.L Gupta says:

    The term is so common here in India that you can find enough material to write a whole book on the entire gamut of the subject of meritocracy versus reservation (which has been equated with the American idea of positive discrimination), ignoring the meritocracy of the disadvantaged groups or individuals. There are only two days when the day and night are equal. When the universe exists in great diversity, injecting equality is a fantasy like the unicorn. You know, the best cracy or government is the total absence of governance. As it is, there is too much intruson in personal life , whether under monarchy or aristocracy or democracy, that people have all kinds of justified grievances or even imagined ones. See the debate on equal pay for equal work, especially when it enters “gender” arena. You can go on debating issues endlessly and produce millions of pages of laws that neither judges nor lawyers understand, but you will find solutions eluding you. Think coolly, calmly, quietly. At times you don’t want what you are agitating for. At least meritocracy promotes knowledge even if it doesn’t produce Plato, Aristotle or Sophocles every day!
    M.L.Gupta, @

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