Is Meritocracy A Myth?

Oftentimes, hard work and accomplishments don’t result in promotions, strategic projects, or raises.

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Meritocracy is a fallacy that we continue to believe in. I grew up believing that I lived in a meritocratic world, and I felt confident that, if I did a great job, the world would naturally reward me. I lived more than half my life believing that meritocracy exists. Deep down, I still believe that. It’s hard to break free of the belief because it is so ingrained in our society that everything is based on impact and merit. We want to believe that everyone truly has an equal opportunity.

Here is a good example. At an event at the 2014 GHC celebration, Satya Nadella was asked to offer advice to women who are reluctant to directly ask their bosses for raises. His advice was, “It’s not really about asking for the raise, but knowing and having faith that the system will actually give you the right raises as you go along.” Without using the term, he was asking women to have blind faith in meritocracy. Fortunately, the interviewer, Maria Klawe, the president of Harvey Mudd College, immediately contradicted his statement. Nadella’s viewpoint caused an uproar, and people were quick to judge him. He ended up retracting his statement on Twitter, saying “[I] was inarticulate regarding how women should ask for raise. Our industry must close gender pay gap so a raise is not needed because of a bias.”

                                                                 ~ ~ ~

I grew up in Hyderabad, India, and went to a school that was close to the one that Nadella attended. I can relate to his mindset around meritocracy. Like me, he truly believed that the tech world was a meritocracy and that hard work and merit would naturally be rewarded by the system. At the GHC celebration, he had his ‘aha’ moment.

My enlightenment came more gradually. The belief that I live in a meritocratic world kept slowly being chipped away at; it took me a while to accept the fact that meritocracy is mostly a myth – especially in the tech industry. We would all like it to exist, and we pretend that it does, but it doesn’t. Why is it a myth? It’s a myth because of the bias that we all harbor. A lot of this bias is unconscious, but it still affects our perceptions. Because we have these biases and are constantly judging the world around us, it is hard for us to be fair and provide the same opportunities for people so that we can truly judge them fairly.

All of the women I interviewed agree that the tech industry is not a meritocracy. Growing up, most of us trusted that we would be rewarded based on our skills and our efforts. My experience, and the experience of the other women in this book, is that this is mostly not true. Our trust was misplaced.

Occasionally, there are women who, with a combination of skill and luck, are rewarded based on merit. I’ve heard a few such stories. Some talented women, although reluctant to advocate for themselves, had the good fortune to be managed by individuals who could see their worth and offered them promotions based on their merits. Unfortunately, such experiences are the exception rather than the norm. I have heard many stories where hard work and accomplishments doesn’t result in promotions, strategic projects, or raises. It’s difficult in these circumstances to figure out what is the obstacle, but it could be both conscious and unconscious bias in our organizations.

Fortunately, there are things we can do. First, work hard and be exceptional at your work. Second, recognize that chances are meritocracy alone will not reward your efforts. Finally, it is important to be savvy about your surroundings and take initiative in a variety of ways so as to showcase your work and impact. 

This extract, adapted from Nevertheless, She Persisted: True Stories Of Women Leaders In Tech by Pratima Rao Gluckman, is ©2018 and reproduced with permission from the author. www.pratimagluckman.com 

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