Skip to Content
Author's profile photo Jamie Langskov

If you want to build a meritocracy, diversity is the tool.

In my recent blog post, I suggested that one of the best ways to promote greater diversity is to create formal sponsorship programs for women and underrepresented minorities. This led to a conversation about the belief that creating programs that specifically support (or exclude) groups of people will undermine the natural order of meritocracy that exists within the status quo or the “no one gets special treatment” model.

Meritocracy, or the belief that those who deserve to succeed will, as an argument against diversity initiatives is founded in the belief that the current system adequately reflects a true meritocracy. Given the lack of representation of women and minorities in higher level management throughout the business world, this defense of the status quo, by its very nature, assumes that women and minorities are somehow universally less qualified and, therefore, less deserving of success than their white, male colleagues.

The interesting thing about this argument is that it doesn’t actually serve the idea of meritocracy. We already know that competition in a free market increases the overall value to the consumer, either via better quality product, faster service, or cheaper delivery. However, we also know that the labor force, like most capitalist markets, is not a true “free market” in that there are barriers to entry that are greater for some (women and underrepresented minorities) than others.  If we were to remove or reduce those barriers, a true meritocracy would cultivate the best of the best talent without regard to skin color, gender, sexual orientation and identity, age, etc.  Increased competition in the workplace actually increases the overall value to the business, the quality of output, and the more efficient delivery of innovation.  Therefore, it’s safe to posit that diversity initiatives that help reduce barriers to advancement for women and minorities are good for business and support the concept of a true meritocracy.

However, this concept of increasing fairness via “leveling the playing field” is only valid if you accept that women and underrepresented minorities are actually disadvantaged by the existing system. There are still those who refuse to believe even the most solid data and peer-reviewed research studies that clearly show a pattern of discrimination and systemic oppression affecting these groups.

So, why does this happen with otherwise reasonable and logical people?

“Statistically speaking, just being male will automatically give you a leg up. And no one wants to believe that they achieved their success, even in some small part, based on their gender or ethnicity. We all want to feel that we deserve the success and accolades that we have received based on our own merit.”

Why Men Don’t Believe the Data on Gender Bias in Science, Alison Coil, Wired Science, 25 August 2017

In large part, this is due to a natural instinct for self-preservation. When faced with a new program that does little for you as an individual, it can be difficult to find a reason to support it. We know that a limitation of resources (let’s say, open positions within a company) means that this increased competition will lead some men who otherwise may have been offered one of those roles in a system that favored them, to now be beat out by better-qualified women and minorities. This can be particularly daunting for men just starting out in their careers, who previously would have benefited from existing systemic biases. For example, we currently operate in a system where women are required to already have a record of success and to prove themselves before they are offered opportunities, whereas men are evaluated instead for their potential to succeed. Therefore, an unproven male candidate may be assessed as equally or more qualified than a female candidate with the same or more experience.

This is particularly prevalent in the venture capital industry, where women received 2.2% of all annual VC funding in 2017.  In that same period, women received 4.4% of all VC deals. What this means is not only are women receiving an embarrassingly small cut of the total funds, but their deals aren’t as big as the ones for all-male teams. “The average deal size for a woman-led company in 2017 was just over $5 million. For a man-led company, that number is a little less than $12 million.” (Female Founders Got 2% of Venture Capital Dollars in 2017, Valentina Zarya, Forbes, 31 January 2018)

And yet, studies show that women-led companies perform better and 38% of businesses in the U.S. are owned by women.

So, why does this funding imbalance happen? In part, because of the major lack of female VC investors. (Remember that conversation we had about how people support others who are like them?) Only 8% of partners at top VC firms are female. As mentioned, female founders are more likely to be judged on their past experience and achievements, as compared to male founders who are assessed based on their potential for future success. In fact, research conducted at a 2017 funding competition indicated that women were more likely to be questioned on their potential for failure than their male counterparts, who were more often questioned about their potential for success.

“According to the psychological theory of regulatory focus, investors adopted what’s called a promotion orientation when quizzing male entrepreneurs, which means they focused on hopes, achievements, advancement, and ideals. Conversely, when questioning female entrepreneurs they embraced a prevention orientation, which is concerned with safety, responsibility, security, and vigilance.”

Male and Female Entrepreneurs Get Asked Different Questions by VCs — and It Affects How Much Funding They Get, Dana Kanze, Laura Huang, Mark A. Conley, E. Tory Higgins, Harvard Business Review, 27 June 2017

Things aren’t looking much better for entrepreneurs of color.

“87 percent of Internet startups founded by black entrepreneurs receive no outside funding (compared to a national average of 63 percent), yet 23 percent generate operating revenues—6 percent more than national average.”

Winning the Future: Eliminating Racial Imbalance in Innovation, Garren Givens, Huffington post, 8 October 2011

And, the argument that there just aren’t enough women or people of color in tech – which leads to lower rates of representation in tech companies – is baloney.

“Black and Hispanic computer science and computer engineering students graduate from top universities at twice the rate that top tech companies hire them. And at UC Berkeley and Stanford University — located in the heart of Silicon Valley — half of introductory computer science students are women.”

The Unsettling Truth About the Tech Sector’s Meritocracy Myth, Tracey Ross, Washington Post, 13 April 2016

Meritocracy doesn’t exist in today’s system and to claim that it does is to be inherently ignorant of the barriers that exist for women and underrepresented minorities. Will changing the system affect the advantages given to white colleagues and male colleagues? Absolutely. I acknowledge that it can be an uncomfortable idea to reconcile for many who stand to lose those advantages. Ultimately, it’s for the greater good, not only for our female and minority colleagues but also for the overall business and tech industry to ensure that the best talents are given the opportunity to shine and that innovation continues to expand through a blend of different perspectives.

Bonus material:

For those who are math-inclined, this article gives several great, simple examples of how promotional and hiring bias can work in unsuspecting ways against building an actual meritocracy.

I really enjoyed researching this topic and appreciate the chance to discuss it. Please leave your comments and questions in the space below.

Assigned Tags

      You must be Logged on to comment or reply to a post.
      Author's profile photo Joao Sousa
      Joao Sousa

      “Meritocracy, or the belief that those who deserve to succeed will, as an argument against diversity initiatives is founded in the belief that the current system adequately reflects a true meritocracy”

      Wrong, stop assuming what other people think based on some stereotype of the "white male" that has been burned into your subconscious, because no such thing was even hinted on in the other blog. 

      “Meritocracy doesn’t exist in today’s system and to claim that it does is to be inherently ignorant of the barriers that exist for women and underrepresented minorities.”

      And you end up calling other people ignorant, surely the best way to promote diversity of ideas. 

      PS: "Diversity" seems like double speak right out of 1984. It's supposed to promote diversity when in fact it only allows for a certain behaviour and certain speech pattern. If you don't believe X....

      Author's profile photo Jamie Langskov
      Jamie Langskov
      Blog Post Author

      Choosing to ignore data presented to you that doesn't reflect your personal narrative is, in fact, choosing ignorance. It's not an insult, it's the definition of ignorance. It's not really about differences of beliefs, rather differences in how we approach solving a problem. But you have to acknowledge a problem exists to solve it. One of the most prevalent symptoms of privilege is the ability to choose to be ignorant of the problems of those without privilege.

      It's interesting to me that you read that statement as an attack on 'white men,' as it didn't mention white men at all -- simply a logic statement that if you believe we have a meritocracy today and that a diversity initiative threatens that meritocracy, then you believe diversity initiatives are inherently counterproductive and mutually exclusive to merit-based systems. Is that not what you argued in my other post?

      Author's profile photo Rob Dielemans
      Rob Dielemans

      "Choosing to ignore data presented to you that doesn’t reflect your personal narrative is, in fact, choosing ignorance"

      In your previous blog I prooved to you using only facts that there is an overrepresentation of women in higher level management by 0.5 %.


      Please explain

      Author's profile photo Jamie Langskov
      Jamie Langskov
      Blog Post Author

      Hi Rob,

      I’m bringing over your data so we can continue the discussion. I have some follow up questions:

      In the Netherlands 23.6% of women hold top positions. So you might argue that we still have a long way to go, because 23.6 is not 50.

      However I’ve done some additional research using our Central Bureau of Statistics.

      Average age of a CEO is 53 years.
      90.3 % of Men at that age are employed, women 78.4% (Why are less women in the workplace at age 53 in the Netherlands? What factors drove this dropoff OR is there a dropoff at all or does this trend extend to all age groups in terms of men:women in the workplace?)

      Men work full time (CEO is a full time job) 74% and women 23.6 percent. (What is the breakdown in other age groups? What are the economic factors that allow for only 23.6% of women to work full-time? E.G. in many parts of the U.S., particularly coastal regions where tech companies dominate, a single-income household, particularly with children, is rarely sufficient to meet the cost of living. How does this compare to other countries of similar economic size and development? I suspect one factor would be national policy in the Netherlands being more progressive in terms of maternity protections and family leave that support women taking time to raise their families. How does the cost of living compare to average wages? How do cultural factors come into play — in terms of women wanting to and expecting to be included in the workforce, especially once they have children? There are a lot of details to unpack in these stats…)

      So from a holistic point of view, of the workforce who potentially can become a CEO (and I have not even figured in difference in studies between men and women roughly 37 years ago) 23.1 % women and 76.9% men.

      The only thing you can deduce from these facts is that in the Netherlands more women hold top positions than men when you do the effort to take in all relevant data. (I can agree that given the statistics you’ve shared, it looks like companies in the Netherlands are doing a decent job of ensuring barriers to becoming CEO for working women are minimized. This isn’t the case for many other countries — I’m in the U.S. where this is NOT the case. Moreover, I wonder how much ethnic diversity companies in the Netherlands experience. Women of color in the U.S., for example, have some of the worst outcomes in terms of wage equity and promotion opportunity.)

      Another thing you have to take into account when you are talking about equality is that only pretty recently we are living in a piece of the world where men and women have the same amount of opportunities, the mother of my grandmother wasn’t even allowed to vote for all of her life (since 1919). (I am the first to agree that we have made progress. It’s ignorant and frankly insulting to the women and minorities who have fought for equal rights before me to not acknowledge the progress we’ve made. We have more work to do, but I would not agree that women and men have the same amount of opportunities.)

      Again, thanks for taking the time for a discussion.



      Author's profile photo Matthew Billingham
      Matthew Billingham

      "“Meritocracy doesn’t exist in today’s system and to claim that it does is to be inherently ignorant of the barriers that exist for women and underrepresented minorities.”"

      Of course it doesn't. I'd state that to claim that it does is to be wildly deluded about how the world works - it's nothing to do with ignorance concerning ethnic minorities or woman.

      The world system is fundementally heirarchical and based on power. It is not meritocratic, except in a few narrow areas.

      People who are good at power plays will get to the top. The only way to win the rat race is to be a rat.

      Now, today's world is far more meritocratic than it was 50 years ago. In my more cynical and darker moments I can think of a theory that would explain that.

      Those who actually run the world system have discovered that the more competent and intelligent members of a society there are in work, the richer and more powerful they (the rulers) will become. So diversity and meritocracy will be encouraged to a certain extent. But once you get to a certain level where earnings outstrip any possibility of actual effort or worth of the individual, it will be firmly stopped.

      Of course, you'll still have a few insanely wealthy people who are outside this system and remain decent.

      Author's profile photo Manfred Klein
      Manfred Klein

      First of all: This discussion is good to counter a widespread Kruger-Dunning Effect. This means making people realize, that there’s a deficit.

      Most people are simply not aware (from their limited perspective) that certain groups are predominant in the workforce. Accepting that fact follows the question of the reasons for that? One aspect for that could be nepotism. People in higher positions tend to foster/prefer younger versions of themselves (out of instinct, sometimes). Introduced by Employees, Customers or other business partners.

      So if some groups are predominant, they stay predominant.

      I don’t think this is always out of ill will.

      So it’s good to keep this discussion alive to help HR to look more on skill than on other aspects.

      Author's profile photo Jamie Langskov
      Jamie Langskov
      Blog Post Author

      Good points, Manfred. I like that you raised the Kruger-Dunning Effect. It reminds me of a phrase that's been going around lately, "when you have privilege, equality feels like oppression."

      For those unaware, the Kruger-Dunning Effect (or Dunning-Kruger Effect) is the concept in psychology that people with low skill are unable to assess the actual level of their skill (or merit) and they overevaluate their abilities. It's a lack of self-awareness, which can lead to being discontent with their own progress when their perceived merit is not recognized by others. One of the articles I read in researching this post was titled "Gender Quotas and the Crisis of the Mediocre Man." The concept is similar to this D-K Effect wherein white men who were given positions over better-qualified women or people of color in a system rife with bias were suddenly upset that they were being passed over by those better-qualified candidates once the bias was removed. In other words, when you are used to being given the express pass to the front of the line, being forced to stand in line with everyone else feels unfair.

      Manfred Klein, I think you're right - a LOT of bias is unconscious (and therefore, by no ill will). That's why it's so important that those of us with privilege consciously choose to see the bias as it is and do something about it with our power and privilege (speaking as a person who presents as white, straight, and cisgendered). Thanks for your comments.


      Author's profile photo Matthew Billingham
      Matthew Billingham

      “So it’s good to keep this discussion alive to help HR to look more on skill than on other aspects.”

      Now, some HR professionals are extraordinarily compassionate and decent people who have diligently sought to ensure the welfare of individuals. I could tell you a few stories, from my own experience, that would make you weep. However, that does not detract from the fact that HR’s job is to protect the interests of the company, with respect to employees. It’s also to protect the company against the ravages of executives who might, from time to time, feel they don’t need to adhere to employee legal protections.

      The interests of a company in some circumstances, means simply “protecting the share price”. If promoting a meritocracy does that, then you’ll have one. If it doesn’t, then you won’t.

      Over the years, I’ve encountered so many people made redundant or even forced out of their companies despite their demonstrable ability and competence. Merit does not appear to be a driving factor for many companies. Regardless of ethnicity, gender or tonsorial blessing.

      Author's profile photo Jamie Langskov
      Jamie Langskov
      Blog Post Author

      Valid points all around.

      I'll just leave this here though:

      "As a recent McKinsey study shows, “Companies in the top quartile for racial and ethnic diversity are 35% more likely to have financial returns above their respective national industry medians.” Additionally, a 2015 study from Bersin by Deloitte showed that diverse companies had 2.3 times higher cash flow per employee over a three-year period than non-diverse companies did."

      Author's profile photo Matthew Billingham
      Matthew Billingham

      Please read the following, bearing in mind that I really don't care who I work with or for, as long as they're competent. I also don't actually doubt that certain groupings of people are under-represented, despite being competent, in senior positions. 

      I just question the logic of the argument.

      In a meritocracy, if a man is the best person for a job, then he’ll get the job. If a woman is the best person for a job, she’ll get the job.

      Yet the evidence given to demonstrate that we’re not in a meritocracy is that men are far more represented in the boardroom than women.

      If men have some predisposition to perform better in the boardroom than women, then this gender imbalance would be possible even in the most meritocrous world.

      Consider this:
      Given the hypothesis: decent people are under-represented in the boardrooms of the world
      Coupled with the fact that there are more men than women in the boardrooms of the world
      A logical conclusion is that women are more decent than men.
      An adjunct corrolary is that board members are, on the whole, a bunch of <censored>.

      Evidence: I’m sure we’ve all read that research correlating CEOs with psychopathy! ?

      Author's profile photo Jamie Langskov
      Jamie Langskov
      Blog Post Author

      At first I was mad, then I laughed. Interesting proposition, Matthew Billingham!