On Meritocracy

On Meritocracy

I have a lot of feelings. Feelings about technology, the current state of our industry and the claims we make about ourselves. I feel that with such a diverse range of technology communities, employers, open source projects and creative outlets that technology is exceptionally well placed to foster, spotlight and reward talent as it emerges. As I feel pride in our drive to recognise and reward talent, I also feel discomfort when I hear these efforts or our industry described as a meritocracy.

I’ve heard technology described as a meritocracy in a range of hopeful, proud and gently boastful tones. I want so badly to believe that we’ve created a meritocracy, because I want to believe the best in our industry and the incredible people that make up technology. But I have a difficult time resolving claims of a current meritocracy with the struggles of talented people in our industry. I see incredible talent struggle to enter technology, struggle to be recognised in it and too often watch them leave, taking their talents with them.

My feelings for the use of the M-word to describe technology are indelibly tied to my concerns with the rate at which underrepresented talent leave technology. If we’ve already become an industry with solely merit-driven rewards, how is it that we fail to recognise and reward underrepresented talent and keep them working in technology?

I don’t think people declaring tech a meritocracy do so out of malice, though it may read to many as insensitive. Many incredibly talented people enter technology and on seeing their talent rewarded, wish to celebrate an industry which they found deserved success in. As they may be cheering on a system in which many were justly rewarded, those who continue to struggle hear that their failures to thrive are linked to a lack of talent. Through tying success in technology to merit alone, we tell those who are struggling that their challenges are directly connected to a lack of talent.

Because success in technology is often tied to visibility, those struggling to have their talent recognised often do so without a wider industry recognition of their challenges. The invisibility of talented people struggling within the industry is part of a cycle where those who find success are given increasing levels of visibility, which drives future success. In a cycle where success and visibility feed each other, failures to thrive result in matching difficulties spotlighting those challenges. Our eagerness to edit and rewrite the history of our industry tends to leave only tales of success.

Connecting success to merit is incredibly comforting for those who have found success. Questioning technology as a meritocracy creates tangled questions about what structural biases may have influenced our success. To hear attacks against the premise of a technical meritocracy from a position of power often sounds like an attack against your own position and deservedness of your success. I feel it’s important to frame challenges to claims of a meritocracy as a challenge to the systemic issues underpinning technology, over contesting the deservedness of an individual’s position. Similarly, I would love to see more people willing to critically examine the complex systemic issues that may have factored alongside talent to result in their success.

In an industry with highly visible players with incredible talent, it’s tempting to point to these figureheads as a proof that we’ve reached our meritocracy. They make up a tangible, visible basis on which to lay claims of a meritocracy. The talented people who fail to thrive in technology aren’t visible. We don’t know their names. In working to deconstruct the myth of a meritocratic industry we’re tasked with using the unknown, uncounted and amorphous mass of struggling talent to stand against a concept supported by the named and known presence of those who have been rewarded for their talent.