Naïve Meritocracies: A New Spin on an Old Problem
In the most recent issue of ADA: A Journal of Gender, New Media, & Technology, Joseph Reagle published a really interesting article called “Naive Meritocracy and the Meanings of Myth.” Meritocracies are something I’ve been studying since early in my graduate career. They fascinate me, because they should work; yet, they don’t work. A meritocracy is an institution/group/etc where people are selected because of their ability. In theory, this would eliminate gender bias, racial bias, and so on, because each person would be judged solely on the basis of their ability.
However, meritocracies don’t really work like that. Emilio Castilla has made a career publishing numerous well-researched articles debunking the idea that meritocracies “solve” issues of gender and racial bias. His 2008 piece titled “Gender, Race, and Meritocracy in Organizational Careers” and his and Stephen Benard’s 2010 piece titled “The Paradox of Meritocracy in Organizations” pretty much solved the issue in my mind: the research is in; meritocracies don’t work. Managers consistently favor those who share gender and racial characteristics over those who are different.
Tech fields, video game communities and industries specifically, loooooove to think they’re above gender and racial bias because they are a “meritocracy.” I get it; my family motto is literally “don’t like it? Get better.” I desperately want to believe in the idea that I will be judged on the basis of my ability and that the success I’ve had is because of my work alone, free from the influence of things like the color of my skin. Unfortunately, this veil of being a meritocracy has been used and is continuing to be used to keep the games industry and communities homogenized, which leads to, among other things, feelings of superiority for those who are already on the inside, dislike for anyone who threatens the status quo, and downright hate for those who suggest that those in power may be there for any reason other than their own skills.
So back to the article. Reagle posits the idea of a “naïve meritocracy,” where we can simultaneously be critical of the bias produced from meritocracies while still upholding the ideals a meritocracy promises for equal opportunity. While his claim gets a bit muddled later in the article, he is essentially calling for those in tech to stop thinking of a meritocracy as an all or nothing thing that we either have or we don’t. Rather, we can strive for merit-based practices while still acknowledging how a total meritocracy is a myth.
One fascinating case Reagle points to is GitHub. GitHub’s CEO, Chris Wanstrath, responded to feminists who argued that their mission of being meritocracy was disadvantaging women by changing their motto to “in collaboration we trust.” Rather than being dominated by the idea that each person is judged solely on their own skills (the CEO acknowledged that meritocracies do indeed privilege some and disadvantage others), GitHub decided to forefront collaboration, which to me seems like a far more appropriate motto for open source anyway.
Silicon Valley is deeply rooted in the idea of the meritocracy. As some have pointed out, it may be true that tech is more meritocratic than mainstream society, though I would add a very important caveat to that. Tech is more meritocratic than mainstream society for some. Reagle points out that there are ways people are naïve about meritocracies, including being completely blinded by one’s own experience. If a meritocracy has worked out for you, or worked out for the people around you, that person seems to be totally unwilling to accept that the meritocratic system is anything but perfect.
Reagle concludes his article by stating that we shouldn’t “claim to have a meritocracy, only to aspire to have meritocratic methods.” While he never goes into what these meritocratic methods are specifically, I find the idea intriguing. We do indeed need something to rally around as a community, but I’m not sure “meritocratic methods” really is that rally call. I find myself leaning more toward GitHub’s conclusion that collaboration is a more appropriate banner to rally behind. How that might work in organizational structures? I’m not sure. Further, collaboration has its own problems, such as women often not being seen as “team players” for not participating in certain work-related activities and so forth. At any rate, I’m glad to see that the idea that all tech fields are a meritocracy continues to be challenged.