The Paradox of Meritocracy

We try to focus new material here at Geek Feminism, but I was just reading this study entitled “The Paradox of Meritocracy in Organizations” by Castilla and Bernard, and I think it’s worth highlighting despite being from 2010. (Warning: it is also based on a gender binary model; those of you who seeking more nuanced gender-based research may want to give this one a miss.)

To give you an idea of what’s in this study, here’s a screenshot of the one page that I think contains a lot of highlights:

Page 26 of the study "The Paradox of Meritocracy in Organizations"

Page 26 of the study “The Paradox of Meritocracy in Organizations”

For those who cannot see the image, there’s a few important things in there. I’ll list them here in reverse order vs what you see on that page as I think it tells a more clear story of the paper:

Two quotes that I’ve highlighted:

This article advanced research on this question by empirically testing, for the first time in the literature, whether certain management efforts to promote meritocracy in the workplace may have the causal effect of increasing ascriptive bias


Although these efforts by employers are aimed at improving equal opportunity and linking merit to employees’ careers, recent empirical studies have found that workplace disparities persist

There is also a graph which shows that with their “non-meritocratic condition” (a “control” situation where meritocracy and manager choice were not emphasized) bonuses were fairly similar for men and women but when meritocracy was emphasized in the organization, men received much higher bonuses on average.

In short, the study shows that emphasizing meritocracy appears to increase a tendency to reward men, rather than actually rewarding contributors based on merit. Pretty awkward. Emphasizing manager choice, strangely, resulted in advantaging women over men (possibly due to over-correction?), which is awkward in a different way. But either way, it seems like talking in terms of meritocracy probably makes the choices less meritocratic, and that’s a serious problem if you were hoping that meritocracy would eventually solve your diversity issues.

There’s actually a lot of interesting stuff in there, but I’d like to encourage folk to read the paper themselves. The paper is open access and can be found here (click on the links to download the pdf to get the whole thing). Please feel free to discuss or highlight out other parts of it you found interesting!

This entry was posted in Uncategorized on by .

About terriko

Terri has a PhD in horribleness, assuming we can all agree that web security is kind of horrible. She stopped working on skynet (err, automated program repair and AI) before robots from the future came to kill her and got a job in open source, which at least sounds safer. Now, she gets paid to break things and tell people they're wrong, and maybe help fix things so that people won't agree so readily with the first sentence of this bio in the future. Terri writes/tweets under the name terriko, enjoys making things and mentoring others and has a plain ol' home page at