Meritocracy: the myth that prevails in the technology industry


Guest writer: Mariana Valenzuela Silva is Co-founder of @masmujeresux #UX Manager. Fierce journalist and lover of project management. Head of Product @ Prey. Member of IxDA Santiago. 

They say that justice is blind, and so is merit. It does not see race, religion, tastes, origin, or gender. But the data in our industry says otherwise: it is one of the least equal and most discriminatory industries against women, and one in which merit is not enough to get in or stay in the game.

Gender biases at work (illustration: Rafael Varona)

"Meritocracy is a myth." With this truth, Caroline Criado Pérez begins one of her essays in the book "The Invisible Woman" (2019). The revelation is: meritocracy is full of biases and institutionalizes those same hidden biases, behind a concept that has a very good reputation.

As an idea, there is nothing wrong with meritocracy. It refers to the effort and value that people can make beyond where they come from or who they are. And I really like that concept. In spite of coming from a family full of privileges, I always felt that it was a perspective that I applied to my reality, having grown up far from the capital city. I thought that my merit would always prevail over my origin.

However, by doing a little research and opening the conversation, it is very easy to realize the risks involved in embracing this flag.

What information struck me the most about Criado Perez's analysis:

1. Space, where most people talk about meritocracy, is in the technology industry, of which I am part of through my work in and as a member of +Mujeres en UX. Silicon Valley fills its mouth with looking at people beyond their gender, religion, or race, but it is one of the industries with the least equality. And the problem is that the more you say you don't have any biases, the more likely you are to have them; that's where our industry screws up, and where, as a community, we see an opportunity to contribute with a more inclusive vision from being women experts in User Experience.

2. The academia — and particularly the STEM areas — a group that I am also part of, also has noticeable biases and makes very little effort to change them. According to several studies - including one from Nature magazine and another from the Journal of Applied Psychology - women students and academics are more likely to not get funding, recommendations, citations from their publications, mentoring, or work, because of their gender. This is something I've seen and heard, and I celebrate every time a woman is called upon to teach in any program; because yes, it's much easier to think of a man who knows more than we do. This is what is called the male default. That is why it is so important for +Mujeres en UX first, to make all women who share their knowledge visible in our activities because all of them could potentially choose to continue training new generations; and second, to build solid relationships with universities and institutes, because we know that the representation of women in academia has a positive impact on students.

The problem is that the more you say you have no biases, the more likely you are to have them; that's where the technology industry messes up, and where we as +Mujeres en UX see an opportunity to contribute with a more inclusive vision.

Gender inequality at work (Illustration: Pelly)

What can we do against the biases?

For one thing, we can assume that we have them. And being aware of that, we can look at them and analyze them, as Google does in this HR talk.

After that, we can start building up actions

  • Introducing quotas for women within companies, it can be within teams and at a general level
  • Implementing more objective recruitment processes: In his book, Criado Pérez tells how the New York Philharmonic applied a blind audition system that increased the rate of women on the team from 0% to 45% from 1970 to the present.
  • Create benefit programs for mothers and also for fathers, so that they also have the possibility and the incentive to become actively involved in the upbringing.
  • Provide professional development and training programs to keep women in the organizations, and
  • Be open and honest with each other about your vision of inclusion and diversity.

When faced with this issue, no one wants to hear the classic "I just didn't know". Communicating this type of decision generates commitment from all those involved and increases the relationship and satisfaction that a person can have with the company they work for. If you take a stance that privileges the merit and capabilities of your team, follow it up with thoughtful introspection, shout it from the rooftops! and continue measuring. As we well know in technology, if it is not measured, it does not exist.

Cover: People vector created by pch.vector -

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