Dear IT industry: “Meritocracy” does not mean what you think it means.

IT culture is so ignorant about how society works that what would be satire in other contexts is actually how most IT people think. IT people in general are not exactly experts on how people and society work, yet too many individuals in IT like to make bold, confident, and unsupported claims about meritocracy.

Vivek Wadhwa of TechCrunch writes:

Is the Valley deliberately keeping these groups out? I don’t think so. Silicon Valley is, without doubt, a meritocracy. In this land, only the fittest survive. That is exactly the way it should be. For the Valley’s innovation system to achieve peak performance, new technologies need to constantly obsolete the old, and the world’s best techies need to keep making the Valley’s top guns compete for their jobs. There is no room for government mandated affirmative action, and our tech companies shouldn’t have to apologize for hiring the people they need. But at the same time, without realizing it, the Valley may be excluding a significant part of the American population that could be making it even more competitive. False stereotypes may be getting in the way of greater innovation and prosperity.

“Meritocracy” means “a society or social system in which people get status or rewards because of what they achieve”. If some people get status and rewards partly because they are white and male, then the system is not a meritocracy. Such a system would have a racial and gender bias, just like every other industry.

“Meritocracy” is not a synonym for “highly competitive” or “subject to natural selection“. A population can be subject to both natural selection and artificial selection; the presence of one does not exclude the other. The fact that there is natural selection for a specific set of (functional) traits does not eliminate the possibility that there is artificial selection for a different set of (superficial) traits. If some individuals are given seed money because they are white and male, then there is artificial selection for the superficial traits of whiteness and maleness.

If there are “false stereotypes” that are “getting in the way”, then these are examples of race and gender bias, just like in every other industry. It’s called implicit bias. Affirmative Action is about keeping track of implicit bias in hiring. It is not about hiring people to fill race and gender quotas, which is illegal. If you feel that an industry with mostly white men looks more meritocratic than an industry with more women and people of colour, then you have an implicit bias. You unconsciously believe that white men are superior to women and people of colour.

You keep using that word—meritocracy. It does not mean what you think it means.

4 Responses to “Dear IT industry: “Meritocracy” does not mean what you think it means.”

  1. Jadey Says:

    One of the things that gets me is, well, merit is subjective! I mean, ascribed statuses (e.g., being born white) are generally considered to be separate from achieved statuses (e.g., years of training and mastery), but I could totally see someone turning around and saying, “Yes, but whites as a race have achieved more, and thus continuing success is their due!” Which would be stupid and racist, of course, but that doesn’t seem to have deterred people in the past.

    But, yeah, this whole “meritocracy as ultimate holy grail of objective standards” is crap on all accounts. I think the idea of a meritocracy is a complete red herring. People’s achievements can’t be separated from their identities and their experiences in so simple a way.

  2. Russ Says:

    This blog entry is simply the writer’s attempt to promote his/her racist and sexist attitudes toward White men. Far from having some secret “skin privilege” White men are openly scorned and discriminated against in post-modern American society.

  3. urbia Says:

    I think what most people scorn is not the fact they’re white and male, but the fact they’re able to benefit from unearned advantages, while oftentimes truly convinced that their successes are due to natural ability over people of other races and the opposite gender.

  4. urbia Says:

    During my job search, I’ve noticed that a lot of game companies themselves openly put on their homepage that ‘who you know’ is important and suggest using Facebook and LinkedIn. That, right there, shows that IT is not a meritocracy.

    Furthermore, they’re promoting dependency on other white male-dominated IT companies that build and maintain these social networks. The game industry is feeding people to these social networking sites.

    And yet racial and gender discrimination are illegal, so we need to break the cycle of dependency on these social networks.

    It should be made illegal to hire someone if you didn’t first post a job ad that has been made available to the public for a certain amount of time. These IT companies like to invade our privacy, so it’s about time that we felt entitled to transparency ourselves.

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