The Poisonous Power of Meritocracy

It’s been an interesting week.

On Monday, I attended the “Conference on Evidence-Based Interventions to Support Women in Biomedical Research Career,” put on by the Office of Research on Women’s Health at the National Institutes of Health. 

On Wednesday, I watched a webinar about the trend toward eliminating annual performance reviews in favor of ongoing feedback to employees, without entirely forgoing “pay for performance.”  

Today (Friday) I read an article entitled “Broadening Participation in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics” by Janet Bandows Koster, CEO of the Association for Women in Science.

That led me to “The Paradox of Meritocracy in Organizations” by Emilio Castilla of MIT, and Stephen Bernard of Indiana University .

Castilla and Bernard’s research provides the very definition of why women and people of color don’t advance in academia. If you are an academic, or you work with academics, go back right now, click on that link, and read their paper. (It’s very well written and relatively easy to read.)

Here’s an excerpt:

“Our work reveals that bias can be triggered by attempts to reduce it, particularly in organizational contexts that emphasize meritocratic values. This paradox of meritocracy . . . provides an insight into why gender and racial disparities persist within job titles and work establishments, especially given the recent shift to employer procedures emphasizing merit and pay for performance. Finally, our study . . . serves as a cautionary lesson about the potential unintended negative consequences of organizational efforts to reward merit. If not implemented carefully, such efforts may prove unhelpful or even harmful.” 

The poisonous power of meritocracy pervades academic performance evaluation, beginning in elementary school. We are raised with the notion that, all other things being equal, the best students will rise to the top of the class. We enter college being told over and over again that our grades, honors, and opportunities are based solely on the work we produce. Through graduate school, postdoctoral fellowships, the search for a tenure-track position, the struggle to get funded and get promoted and get tenure – all of this is, according to accepted belief, based solely on the quality and quantity of our work.  

Except that it’s not. Mingled among all of the grading scales and evaluation rubrics are implicit biases and stereotypes – all of the unconscious rules and regulations about how People Who Look Like That are, or are supposed to be and behave.  Sitting heavily on top of all of this is the pervasive and not always unconscious nor unstated presumption that anyone who is not a straight, cis-gender, white man is not qualified, is not even competent at what they do.

Sitting through that conference on Monday felt like being in some kind of time warp. There were same dismal data about the proportion of women who advance into academic leadership that I heard 25 years ago. The same bandaid approaches to repair the ruptured artery of women and people of color leaving academic research that I heard 15 years ago. The same brief and unsatisfying glances at the double bind that women of color face on a daily basis.

At least we are no longer talking about this as a problem with women and people of color - that if only They would figure out how to be more like Us (i.e. straight, cis-gender, middle class white men with stay-at-home wives) then They might make more progress.

At least we are saying words like “organizational culture” and “intersectionality” and “microaggression” out loud. Finally.

And yet we still dance around the biggest, scariest questions.

How do we change the culture of academia? How do we dispel the myth of meritocracy, blow up the promotion and tenure system, ensure that grant review processes and editorial decision-making are as free of bias as we can make them?

How do we change a culture that worships tradition and that has its roots in the 1,000-year-old system of ascetic monasticism and the classist exclusion of guildhalls and "enlightened" aristocracy that gave rise to universities and the scientific tradition in Europe?*

Recognizing that the culture is the problem is only the very tiniest of first steps.


*For more on the monastic origins of universities, see David Noble’s book, A World Without Women.