Why Meritocracy is a False Ideal

I’ve written a lot recently about diversity, gender equality specifically. I grew up as a minority, often the lone female or one of a few females in a male dominated activity. I was always one of two girls on my minor soccer team, I wrestled and did Tae Kwon Do, army cadets, and then upon high school graduation I enrolled in the Canadian Armed Forces and pursued a career as an Artillery Officer. Like most high achieving, competitive, and driven people, I only ever wanted to be recognized for my ability, and resented any sniff of favoritism or special treatment because of my gender. Allow me to get there on my own merit, or let me fail, that was my philosophy. While I believe somewhat in the philosophy behind a meritocracy, I am not so naive to believe that complete elimination of subjectivity and bias is possible. That said, while subjectivity may be unavoidable, obliviousness to the fact that bias and advantage exists is avoidable, and it is why I cannot fully embrace the mantra behind a meritocracy.

I think you’ll find that most reasonable people would find it difficult to argue that the concept of individuals earning something based upon their talent, effort and achievement is wrong or unfair. In the past I have certainly climbed up on my soap box and argued in favour of it. Reflecting more upon it however, I now have a more measured attitude towards the concept. At face value, I fully embrace the idea that a person should merit their reward, be that reward income, position, power, etc. But, the shortcoming of that philosophy is that it fails to account for the fact that not everyone has the same start state to begin with. The question then becomes, are we okay with that in the workplace, or in government, or in society as a whole? Is that fair? Is that equal? How much should we reasonably try to account for in terms of addressing the fact that certain individuals or segments of society are disadvantaged? I don’t profess to have the answers for those questions, save this: we should at least be willing to recognize the disparity that exists in terms of advantage or start states.

We should be adult enough to recognize and remember that fair does not mean equal.

This article may seem like a contradiction to some of my prior articles, specifically, the article titled, “I Am Equal.” Perhaps it is, or perhaps it is me questioning my own ideas and beliefs out loud. I think one of the most powerful things we can do as a human, let alone as a leader, is to make an effort to see things from the perspective of others. We all have been influenced by the environment in which we were raised and our experiences, and that colours the lenses though which we now see things. Likewise, those lenses can blind us, and render us unable to see certain gradations that we may not have experienced personally. Just because I never felt like I needed an advantage, or an extra push, maybe there are others who do. Just because others may have received an extra push or an advantage, doesn’t automatically mean that their achievements have less value. Just as it is wrong to assume that the white male who has experienced success is the product of white male privilege, it is equally wrong to assume that the black female has been catered to or given her position without merit.

I owe a thanks to the authors of the article, “Do You Have ‘Advantage Blindness’?” I encourage everyone to read it. If you are like me, it will prompt some small degree of introspection, and perhaps make you consider a perspective you may have been otherwise blind to. For me, it was the shortfall in my utopian view of a meritocracy in that I didn’t fully appreciate that sometimes being given the opportunity isn’t enough. It isn’t fair, nor does it necessarily mean or lead to equality.