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Debunk the Myth of Meritocracy

Learn why belief in meritocracy can lead to greater inequalities and how to overcome it.

Brief Summary

Meritocracy is a system in which people are rewarded based solely on their talent, skills & effort. In general, most of us desire a world that is meritocratic; the problem arises when we believe that it is fair without examining data that can shed a light on patterns of equity.

Studies show that managers who believe themselves to be fair and objective judges of ability often overlook women and minorities who are deserving of job offers and pay increases; employees from minorities received a smaller increase in compensation compared with white men, despite holding the same jobs, working in the same units, having the same supervisors, human capital & receiving the same performance score. Meritocracy justifies the inequalities by attributing them to the skill of successful people and a lower level of competence to less successful people.


Companies tend to believe that since their talent management processes are designed to evaluate employees based on skills & ability, there is no need for dedicated DEI policy. Often, programs aiming to provide opportunities to under-represented groups come under attack as “reverse discrimination.”

But the “paradox of meritocracy” shows that when a company’s core values emphasize meritocratic values, managers actually reward male employee more than equally performing female employee. When people believe that systems are objective & unbiased then they don’t feel compelled to monitor their own behavior and decisions, which opens the door to unconscious bias. Without monitoring, it is not uncommon to see that those who advance are those who benefit from affinity bias.


Leaders need to acknowledge that unconscious bias exists, that it is very different from discrimination, and increase their own awareness. Then we need to commit to mitigate and addressing inequities in education, in hiring, and in developing and advancing professionals into leadership roles. As a society, we should reassess what we mean when we say our systems are “fair,” “balanced,” or “merit-based.”

As long as "equal" systems have unequal inputs, they won't deliver equitable results. Companies must first do their best to remove barriers and foster equity, then the best skill and effort can be rewarded.

dei progress

Proposed Actions

  • Recognize potential over experience - consider the core attributes of a successful candidate, not a checklist of experiences or learned skills, particularly when there is not equal chance to gain experience.
  • Look for value-adds not culture fit - value collaboration, work ethic, transparency, etc. rather than similar personality/background.
  • Help grow the needed skills - provide training and mentorship for employees who have not had access to them.
  • Set goals bigger than the status quo - set goals that go beyond just comparing yourself to current state - internal or at other companies.
  • Monitor patterns of equity - hiring, advancement, turnnover, pay.
  • Provide training & education to surface and mitigate implicit biases.

Valued Guidance

Implementation Plan

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