The Myth of Meritocracy – Lessons from the 2019 CloudNOW Event

At the 2019 CloudNOW event, the why of diversity, equity and inclusion was a central theme. The audience sat immersed in the differing dialogues and schools of thought – talks of high growth, relevance, and equal opportunity. Celebrations of progress and a call to “lean-in” were interspersed with cold data on disparities. Then, the conversation moved to a different question of why.

A female founder approached the mic and asked a panel of female investors why. Why she wanted to know, is it so difficult to raise funds from female investors? Female investors, she exclaimed, exact excruciating standards on her – standards they do not demand from her male counterparts. Her words, half-question, half-exacerbated vent, broke the otherwise celebratory, optimistic mood.

Though her question did not find a satisfactory answer from the panel, perhaps the question had already been answered in a prior presentation by Dr. Caroline Simard. Dr. Simard charted out the dangers of a culture of false meritocracy layered against a backdrop of implicit bias. Implicit bias, she explained, impacts us all, and demands action from each of those it impacts.

Recognizing bias as systemic, free space to tackle the issues, moving the conversation from one of fault to one of action. It also serves as a catalyst for understanding the consequence of inaction. Implicit bias necessarily means that diversifying investors will not automatically lead to greater inclusivity if the same measures of thinking that allow for the status quo are continuously employed.

Of the guidance Dr. Simard provided, the following rang the most salient to the problem that female founder faced in securing funds from female investors:

  • Educate, educate, educate: Bias is an equal opportunity problem, and buy-in requires recognizing it as one so that each of us works towards more inclusive and equitable decision making.
  • Clarify and question criteria: Being clear on criteria, and the merit of those criteria, interrupts and prevents unconscious patterns, and helps ensure that decision-making is thorough and fair.

Combating bias, as Dr. Simard explained, necessitates confronting the myth that protects it – the myth of meritocracy. The myth of meritocracy permeates tech. It tells us that those who get ahead are those who deserve it, that tech is an equalizer, that it, in and of itself, levels the playing field for all. But tech, like any other industry, is made of people, actors who bring with them the bias that is endemic to society. Dr. Simard showed how a quick Google search for the word “CEO”, for example, leads to images of predominantly white men. That simple use of tech not only reflects society’s collective bias but also reinforces the bias as the very images displayed solidify stereotypes.

Holberton, a school whose work and scholars were highlighted at the event, aims to increase pathways to tech. Creating alternative pathways is one way to create external pressure to question the often implicitly bias criteria that hold the doors of opportunity closed, and, one that appears necessary in the world the female founder described.

Though the task of DEI is difficult, it is not one from which we should coward because of its difficulty, Dr. Simard reminds us. After all, only through questioning the status quo – of bias, of doors closed, of no’s to funding – can we hope to near the promise of meritocracy in tech.

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