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Opinion: Meritocracy is a Bad Word


According to Merriam-Webster, the word meritocracy has two definitions: a system in which the talented are chosen and promoted on the basis of their achievement; and, leadership selected on the basis of intellectual criteria. However, given the amount of times I’ve heard this word used (improperly) to describe the tech industry over the past couple of years, I think Merriam-Webster must have gotten it wrong. I think they actually meant to define it as “nonsense; especially foolish insolent talk;” also known as b&llsh*#.

Silicon Valley has been rocked by the announcement that a female partner at Kleiner Perkins sued the prestigious venture firm for sexual harassment. And while I actually have nothing to say about the case, I do have something to say about the response. Greg McAdoo, a partner at Sequoia Capital, said in response “This business is a meritocracy by and large. I have no doubt that there are pockets of issues, because in humanity you’re going to have that.” McAdoo said this on stage as a member of an all-male panel of venture capitalists at the Techcrunch Disrupt conference when he was was questioned on the state of sexism in the industry. Does that sound familiar, almost like an all-male congressional panel being convened to discuss the legality of birth control for women? Don’t get me wrong, I have an immense amount of respect for Greg McAdoo. The one time I pitched him, I found him to be a sharp individual with some piercing questions and extremely deep insights. But on this issue, he’s wrong.

Last fall, after CNN’s Black In America did an hour-long segment on race in Silicon Valley, it raised a debate about how the tech community was a meritocratic society; only that time it was in response to racial bias instead of gender bias. Michael Arrington (creator of the TechCrunch Disrupt conference and founder of TechCrunch itself) famously tweeted, “there’s zero race or sex bias in Silicon Valley.” Violet Blue encapsulated the problem of the Valley’s racial bias well in her ZDNet column. That was the last time we started bandying about the word “meritocracy” like it was a lifeline to our virtue.

Do you want to know the truth? We in the Valley hide behind the word “meritocracy” because we don’t want to confront our pernicious underlying issues. According to a New York Times article from several years ago, women graduate with a disproportionate number of honors degrees at universities all over the country. Fifty-five percent of the women from Harvard in 2006 graduated with honors while nearly half the men struggled to graduate with honors. At some universities, 75 percent of the honors degrees handed out were given to members of the fairer sex. I’m looking back at the definition of meritocracy and wondering why the most intelligent don’t have greater presence in the finance side of an industry that prides itself on hiring the smartest.

Hell, why don’t we have more women in this industry period? While the number of female graduates with engineering degrees has declined over the last 15 years (Jolie O’Dell has an excellent breakdown on the reasons why this may be the case), the numbers from universities tech usually likes to recruit from are sharply different. Forty two percent of MIT’s engineering graduates in 2010 were women; 27 percent of Stanford engineering grads are women; and 21 percent of Berkeley’s engineering grads are women. Fully half of all the top students at each of those universities are women. And yet only an estimated 20 percent of tech is female; even less are engineers.

It’s clear that women are succeeding in greater numbers than ever before from an academic perspective. Why then is that success not translating into greater numbers in our own industry? When are we going to confront our issues with gender and race inequality? Why do our tech luminaries like Michael Arrington continue to deny the problem even exists? We pride ourselves on looking at the numbers when we’re building our companies using the lean startup method, but when the numbers tell us that just 6 percent of tech CEOs at the top 100 tech companies are women, we hide behind the word meritocracy. When the numbers tell us that just 14 percent of venture capitalists are women, we hide behind the word meritocracy. When the numbers tell us that 56 percent of women leave their tech jobs halfway through their careers, we hide behind the word meritocracy.

We can’t acknowledge that we’ve created an industry with some intolerance towards minority groups because then it would be our fault. We barely blame ourselves when our companies fail, we just embrace the failure so we can iterate on it. By hiding behind the flawed concept that we’re a meritocracy we’re shifting the blame to those groups who are already dramatically under-represented in our industry. We’re not solving the problem and we’re definitely not iterating. The next time we run into an issue about race or gender, it won’t be our fault because that’s foolish and insolent talk. It won’t be our fault because if it was our fault we’d have to find a way not to smell our own b&llsh*#.

This story was originally published on TurnstyleNews.com on June 5, 2012.