We Need To Talk About (In)Equality And Meritocracy
Published on: May 9, 2023

What is my stand on equal opportunities and meritocracy?

Here is one of those examples where it is beneficial to research and get smarter before just airing an opinion. If you had asked me some time ago, I would have answered something like: Of course, equal opportunities for all, independently of gender, age, religion and culture. And I would have added that, as far as I remember, meritocracy means distributing positions in an organisation following individual merit. And therefore, I am in favour. But I was wrong. 

With the growth of Enuda over the past few years, I am currently in the process of rethinking the organisational setup. In that process, I have done a lot of research. And while meritocracy is an ideology praised by politicians and some senior managers alike, I am also starting to understand some of the many downfalls.

I went on a research journey to understand the concepts and arguments. For the impatient folks out there, my summation, and thus, my stand, is this: 

  • Equality is not only a great concept but also the morally right thing to do. We all have an obligation to strive for and work towards a more equal world. 
  • Meritocracy is a lousy ideology. It justifies the status quo. Ultimately, it fuels the inherent idea of not changing anything. And it will lead to more inequality over the long run. 

The moral appeal of meritocracy is based on the idea of an “even playing field.” Everything should be based impartially on your specific merits. In other words, a world where gender, age, religious or cultural background or your financial station in life do not impact your chances in life. 

That may be why meritocracy has such a strong ideological appeal; it feels like we all have a fair chance. We do not judge you by your gender or any other “marking”. We only look at your merits, and we impartially do that. He or she, who comes with the best merits, will get ahead in life. The winner takes it all. That might feel like a fair premise. 

But it is not. It is the opposite. Meritocracy is a rigged game because it assumes we all have equal opportunity to deliver the merits that matter. And that is not the case. Instead, it is a double-whammy of unfairness. Not only does it not consider that we do not have equal opportunity for achieving valuable merits, but it also justifies the status quo. 

Yale Law Professor Daniel Markovits got asked if he thinks meritocracy enhances inequality, and he answered: 

Yes, it exacerbates and reproduces inequalities, so that one thing that’s happened is that because the rich can afford to educate their children in a way nobody else can, when it comes time to evaluate people on the merits, rich kids just do better.” 
– Daniel Markovits

In the following, I will provide ample evidence that we still live in an unequal world. And because of that, any talk of meritocracy is counterproductive. Our focus must be on eradicating inequality. That is a much better proposition.

We have to eliminate the misconceptions before we can do the right thing. 

Professor Hans Rosling, who worked his entire life tirelessly to eliminate misconceptions, put it this way:

“I call them mega misconceptions because they have such an enormous impact on how people misperceive the world.”
– Hans Rosling

As a part of my research journey, I looked into multiple aspects of inequality. There is a strong link between equality and meritocracy. The latter stands on the shoulders of the former. And therefore, it makes perfect sense to start with the state of equality.

More specifically, I wanted to investigate gender equality. The reason is that looking around in our industry, one will swiftly observe how male-dominated it is. Recently, we hosted an Ignition-focused event, and less than six per cent of the attendees were women.

But obviously, things are different in Scandinavia, right? I mean, we all know that the Nordic countries score high on gender equality. And correct, countries like Sweden, Denmark and Finland score high on gender equality. But that does not mean things are perfect. The below figure shows the EU Gender Index for 2022:

Circling back to the above words from Hans Rosling, it is easy to get trapped in a misconception. Maybe even a mega misconception. The fact that Sweden is the best scoring on the Gender Equality Index does not mean things are perfect. On the contrary, I was surprised to learn that Sweden’s index is “only” 83,9. I would have estimated it much higher than that. It is better than the EU average but still below what I expected.

With that “aha moment” registered, I searched for more details. The Swedish National Statistics Office provides some informative graphics: The below figure shows how different types of jobs are distributed between men and women in Sweden.

I am especially interested in the fifth from the top: Software and system developers. It could be that our clients are male-dominated because they are mainly involved in factory floor activities, which are typically male-dominated. But in our world, software and systems development, I assume a much more equal distribution between the sexes. But as indicated by the statistics, that is not the case. 

Humans love putting things into black-and-white boxes. We are suckers for a good dichotomy. Thus, we love to divide the world into equal vs unequal nations. But as the EU statistics clearly indicate, we all still have a long way to go. 

Let us have a look at the core terms

Wikipedia has this definition of equal opportunity: 

Equal opportunity is a state of fairness in which individuals are treated similarly, unhampered by artificial barriers, prejudices, or preferences, except when particular distinctions can be explicitly justified. The intent is that the important jobs in an organization should go to the people who are most qualified – persons most likely to perform ably in a given task – and not go to persons for reasons deemed arbitrary or irrelevant, such as circumstances of birth, upbringing, having well-connected relatives or friends, religion, ethnicity, or involuntary personal attributes such as disability, age, gender identity, or sexual orientation.”
– Wikipedia

The term meritocracy is often described via the metaphor of an even playing field. Wikipedia has this definition: 

Meritocracy (merit, from Latin mereō, and -cracy, from Ancient Greek κράτος kratos ‘strength, power’) is the notion of a political system in which economic goods or political power are vested in individual people based on talent, effort, and achievement, rather than wealth or social class. Advancement in such a system is based on performance, as measured through examination or demonstrated achievement.”
– Wikipedia

Here is another but similar description: 

“Meritocracy requires that positions and goods be distributed solely in accordance with individual merit.”

– Stanford, McCoy Family Center for Ethics in Society

The expression “political system” refers to any time of organisation. “Economic power” refers to salary or other types of remuneration bestowed upon you. “Political power” might sound abstract, but it essentially means any influence. It is an organisation where salary, bonuses, and influence are distributed according to individual merits. 

Sounds great – so what’s the problem?

The main problem with meritocracy is that it sounds so appealing and fair. It sounds like you get what you deserve. That premise sounds like a just and ideal world we all would love to live in.

But the world is not just and fair. We have different opportunities, and luck plays a huge role. For example, I was lucky to be born in a country where education is free. My background and upbringing could never have paid for the horrendous tuition fees most people face. My Master’s degree stands on pure luck – the country where I was born.

Or you can look at Image 1 above, showing the EU gender index. Not even the best-performing country, Sweden, is close to a gender-equal society.

We do not have equal opportunities – far from it.

Merit is (also) a product of luck. The circumstances to develop the necessary merits to get ahead will vary. Some will have more time and opportunity to develop the proper merits to get ahead.

Therefore, despite meritocracy’s moral and ethical appeal, it is a lousy ideology. And it gets even worse. The idea of meritocracy is fundamentally flawed in two ways:

Meritocracy flaw #1
Despite the appeal of meritocracy, it is a bad idea. We do not have equal opportunities to develop the necessary and valuable merits to get ahead in life.

Meritocracy flaw #2
The second flaw of meritocracy is the most significant problem: It solidifies the status quo. Due to the moral and ethical appeal, meritocracy justifies an unequal world. The role played by luck is ignored from the equation. When you experience success, you may attribute it to hard work and forget chance. The result is potentially selfish behaviour. A sense of entitlement can lead you to judgemental behaviour. Which in turn does not reduce inequality. 

What to do instead?

In this post, I solely focus on gender inequality and nothing else. You could investigate inequality based on age, religion, skin colour, etc. With that disclaimer, let us look at what we can do. The goal is clear: a more gender-equal work situation in our heavily male-dominated industry. We must attract and develop more women into coding and engineering positions. And it also means we have to empower some of those women into managerial positions. I offer two suggestions on how to achieve that.

Firstly, it is a commitment to do something about the problem. Most leaders and business owners are busy and lazy people. And in a time-constrained world, the easy choice is to go with the well-known. But if you subscribe to the idea that this is a real problem, then there are no excuses not to act on it.

We do not have equal opportunities, but we all have a chance to improve things. We do not have to stand idly by and accept the status quo. As a business founder, I can proactively commit to decreasing gender inequality. Hans Rosling talked about “mega misconceptions” and how we need to eradicate those. Assuming that gender inequality is somewhere else is a mega misconception. Similarly, assuming it is somebody else’s problem is wrong.

Secondly, following the necessary commitment, we must see some real practical examples. In Enuda, we use the mantra “hire for personality and train for skills”. Because this industry is so male-dominated, the talent pool of trained professionals consists mainly of men. But to get more women into the industry, we can hire and train people with parallel career paths.

That is a fundamental business decision and, thus, an investment. I already hear the roar of protests: “Are you crazy? We can never afford that type of decision”. We both can and should take such investments. Not only because it contributes to a more equal world. But also because it is an excellent investment.

The following figure is from Our World in Data and shows the share of firms with a female top manager. The percentage is meagre. We need to take advantage of a massive potential talent pool. Any significant change to 2020 data will not come by itself. Therefore, if we want a more equal world and better leaders, we can decide to do something about the problem.

Reducing gender inequality is the morally and ethically right thing to do. But it is also the smart thing to do. From a business and investment point of view, it enhances the talent pool. 

Written by Jan Madsen

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