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The Question & The Myth of Meritocracy

In the early days of COVID lockdown and virtual meetings, I had a casual conversation with a new colleague. Yet it has stuck with me through all that’s been happening since. Despite our different areas of expertise, that chat with John stands out not only because we were both passionate about our work and connected immediately, but because of a question. One small question. John wondered aloud why, after 22 years with huge project experience and hard won credentials, I didn’t have a VP title. At the time of our chat, I brushed it off. My internal monologue went something like this: “It’s a big company with enormous projects and I didn’t actively seek the title. My passion has always been to work with great teams solving challenging problems.”

Several months later and still this conversation sits with me, but now I am beginning to connect the dots to see the myth of meritocracy. At first glance, my lack of promotion to a VP seems like a condemnation of my skills or an indication that I wasn’t trying hard enough. However, during COVID I am consuming books and articles at a shocking pace (it’s replaced my commute), and I’ve come to understand some interesting things about merit and promotion.

Inclusify, by Stefanie Johnson, has an entire chapter on “How Can Merit Be Bad?” She discusses the recent college admissions scandals, which provide an example of a flawed process enabling some to end up with credentials that have not been earned. As we look deeper into these circumstances, we realize that in that process others have been unfairly blocked from achieving those same credentials on their merits. Johnson recounts a conversation where a meritocracy manager claimed he didn’t want to “lower the bar,” then went straight on to discuss how the “bar” is usually much higher for women than it is for men looking to achieve senior positions.  

More recently, writer Jennica Webster published a Forbes article titled “At My Company We Treat Everyone Fairly (And Other Fairy Tales),” examining how our faith that a flawed system is actually a meritocracy allows us to believe that if someone can’t get ahead they are lacking skills or drive instead of questioning the system we question the person.

Now don’t get me wrong - the people I’ve worked with throughout my career have been hard workers, and I’ve been blessed to work with and learn from them. It’s also never been a secret that the Energy/Oil & Gas/ Construction sectors are historically male-dominated. And remain so today. I knew that from day one of my career. Women and men are working to make incremental changes and celebrating successes. For one, I am thrilled that my former company has a women’s resource group and an Inclusion & Diversity Council – those are great steps and should be celebrated. They’re signs that there’s the beginnings of the system being remade. But: how far have we really got?

Which brings me back to those authors, and how they changed my take on my conversation with John and my initial brush off of his question. It is a good question to ask: “Why, with all this experience and these hard earned credentials, aren’t you in a senior leadership position?” What I’ve learned is that the answer isn’t an indictment of my experience or capabilities. Instead, it’s indicative of a broken system – the very same system where a leader once told me he really would like to have more women on the leadership team, but the men were already there and he just didn’t want to displace them.

With all of this I’d like to share my key takeaways on inclusion, culture, and the myth of meritocracy:

  • Build the strongest team, which means inclusion and diversity must be a top priority. Homogeny is an innovation killer.

  • Put aside the idea of culture fit; the culture needs to change. Look for people to build the culture you want (and need), not make people fit the culture you have.

  • It happens in corporate worlds, academia, everywhere. “Like me” bias is true for everyone, even me. Actively seek to promote someone that isn’t like you, to round out the team.

And of course – don’t assume that because someone didn’t get a fancy title that it has anything to do with their talent or drive. Pay attention to their accomplishments and passion, not their title. In this way, we can continue to bring change about together.


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