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  • Writer's picturedjacksoncole

Rethinking Meritocracy

Meritocracy, that is to say, the act of setting certain requirements (merit), seems almost inevitable in choosing who to appoint for a particular position. However, how and what is set as merit can be questioned and changed. Below, I wish to present some ideas for diversity, equity and inclusion practitioners to challenge meritocracy, based on a chapter I wrote with my colleague Dr Gabriel Goldmeier in a 2023 book: GENDER DIVERSITY, EQUITY, AND INCLUSION IN ACADEMIA: A Conceptual Framework for Sustainable Transformation (Edited by Melina Duarte, Katrin Losleben, and Kjersti Fjørtoft). In this chapter we argued that the hegemonic assumptions of meritocracy should be unfollowed in order to help the efforts towards social justice and the common good.

Fair over formal equality

Meritocracy, we argued, should be based on the so called fair (or substantive) rather than the formal equality of opportunities (Rawls, 2001). Formal equality principle stipulates that as long as one's structural identities are not taken into account, everyone has equal chances in the meritocratic race. If no one is prevented from buying a Rolls-Royce because of their gender or race, if anyone who has the cash is allowed to buy it, then everything is ok. Formally everyone has a chance to own a Rolls-Royce. But we know that most of us cannot afford it. So this equality is, as its name suggest, only formal, as we say only on paper. On the other hand, proponents of substantive equality argue that in a society unequal by gender, race, class and other structural categories of difference, formal equality is not enough. As such, categories of difference that impact our chances of accessing quality education, housing, healthcare and more should be taken into consideration during the assessment of merit. One way that this could be done is through affirmative action. However, in many countries, positive discrimination is not allowed. Which requires us to think about another concept…

Journey travelled

Assessment of merit is intimately connected with the effort it takes to achieve it, and currently, is mostly conceptualised as the achievement of a particular standard or grade. However, there is an alternative way to think about it. We can define effort using the concept of ‘journey travelled’. Take two individuals applying for university. Person One achieves a very good final grade after attending a school that provides quality education and where many pupils achieve very good grades, whereas Person Two achieves a good final grade after attending a school that does not boast a supportive learning environment and where very few students achieve high grades. It can be argued that Person Two had to put in considerably more effort (i.e., longer journey travelled) to achieve a good grade than Person One did. Therefore, it may be just to award Person Two with extra points during the admissions/ recruitment process, as they have shown to be exceptional against the odds. Some may feel an immediate sense of scepticism, thinking that the above change would simply lead to a different form of injustice, i.e. a system that penalises students for their privileged background. And so we have to think of another concept…

Common good

To avoid that injustice, admissions and recruitment should not be considered in isolation and purely individualistically, but rather collectively, with the common good in mind. I will stick with the example of higher education, but this principle can easily apply to any socially beneficial profession, institution or company. Higher education plays a significant role in knowledge production, which contributes to the advancement of society as a whole, therefore, it serves a common good. We know that there is a moral case (i.e. it's the right thing to do) and a business case for diversity (e.g. diversity of thought/ intellectual progress, greater productivity, bigger financial gains, social integration and more). Thus, greater diversity and inclusion also contributes to the common good. So what do we do with that? Let's introduce another concept…

Collective recruitment

Combining these two factors (common good and the case for diversity) we can see how university places (for staff and students) could be distributed based on a principle of biggest benefit to whole society, in particular those from the most disenfranchised groups. Thus, admissions and recruitment systems that deal with each round of assessment in a collective way, with the common good and diversity as key elements of the equation, could guarantee a mix of all backgrounds entering higher education. This means that the socially and naturally lucky (privileged) who can work for for the improvement of society would also have a chance of being selected, due to their potential for achieving socially desirable outcomes (common good). In that new system, some applicants from majoritarian (privileged) backgrounds would be disadvantaged compared to the current system (which presently disadvantages minoritised groups), but overall more people, and in particular more people from disenfranchised groups, would have better access to higher education. In turn, this would lead to greater fairness, social progress and common good. This idea has been tested in other fields, such as health care. For example, batch-recruitment for nursing positions has been shown to increase the diversity of successful applicants (Kline, 2021).

Questioning objectivity of merit

In addition to challenging how we define effort to achieve merit, we can also question the merit itself. Investigating who set the merit, why they set it to be what it is, and what consequences these choices have, can tell us a lot about the true nature of merit. That is, merit is not objective, but rather serves to maintain the status quo. For example, one's strength used to be the main physical criterion for choosing firefighters. In most cases women would not be able to compete with men. However, once that merit was redefined to also include agility, women started getting jobs as firefighters and have shown their extreme utility. Another example of a biased barrier dressed as merit is the world's (well, definitely my academic world's) obsession with written forms of expression (e.g. assessments such as exams or essays), deeming oral forms of expression as secondary. While there are clear benefits to written text, the focus on it means that certain groups are disenfranchised, for example those stemming from non-Western, orally based traditions of knowledge production or people with dyslexia. The ability to write and read was for a long time reserved for the privileged few and accompanied by discourses of supposed intellectual superiority. Until today, access to quality education that allows for the development of good writing and reading skills is heavily dependent on one’s background. Thus, it can be argued that the privileged few set the standard (merit) as supposedly objective, but in reality it disenfranchises many groups.

Scrutinising adherence to meritocracy

Finally, I encourage DEI practitioners to interrogate to what extent meritocracy is actually followed at their institutions/ companies. For example, are men or white people more likely to receive a promotion than other employees despite having less education, fewer years of experience or inferior outputs? Some studies suggest that may be the case (e.g. Santos, G. and Dang Van Phu, S. 2019 - Gender and academic rank in the UK). In my own research, I found that white people without higher education were a lot more likely to be in jobs that required a university degree than people of colour (Jackson-Cole, 2019).

Demonstrating how meritocracy functions as a discourse that protects the privileges of majoritarian groups, rather than an actual practice of equalising opportunities, can be a powerful impulse for institutions to rethink it.

Questions to you

  • Could a form of collective recruitment, with a common good and diversity in mind, work in some instances in your company/ institution?

  • Who at your company/ institution has set the merit to be what it is for each position? Why did they set it that way? Is it really objective or does it perpetuate inequalities? How could it be redefined? 

  • Does your company/ institution actually stick to meritocracy for the privileged groups or does it use meritocracy as a barrier for disenfranchised groups?

Adapted from: D. Jackson-Cole and G. Goldmeier (2023) 'Meritocracy', IN: Duarte, M., Losleben, K. and Fjørtoft, K. (Eds) GENDER DIVERSITY, EQUITY, AND INCLUSION IN ACADEMIA: A Conceptual Framework for Sustainable Transformation. London and New York: Routledge. Text and references available here

Blog post irst published on DEI Club here

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