The Myth of Meritocracy

Photo by GR Stocks on Unsplash

If you have been working in the tech industry for a long you might have seen the term "meritocracy" highlighted in every performance appraisal related email. When I was in my 20s, I used to believe that all these appraisals based on merit are correct to the dot. Little did I think about what is the basis for measuring merit and who decides this. It is when I am feeling stalled in my career, I gave some serious thought to it.

Do you know that more than 40% of women leave tech companies after ten years? Initially, I thought it might be because family responsibilities get in the way of women's careers. Then I read the chapter on meritocracy in the book Invisible Women and there I found the real reason with statistics.

" A report by the Center for Talent Innovation found that women didn't leave for family reasons or because they didn't enjoy the work. They left because of 'workplace conditions', 'undermining behaviour from manager's, and a sense of feeling stalled in one's career'. A feature for the Los Angeles Times similarly found that women left because they were passed up for promotion and had their projects dismissed. Does this sound like a meritocracy? Or does it look more like institution-aliased bias?" - Invisible Women.

It made me realize that I am not alone in feeling this way. On most days the urge to give up is too strong and I remain in the workforce only because I don't have any alternatives yet. I am sure that if you are a woman in a mid-senior position in any tech company, this would be relatable. I remember one senior lady narrating her maternity leave experience. She was feeling restless at home after the delivery. So she decided to join early from maternity leave and because of this the company has to consider her for the current performance cycle. Since she was on leave for most of that cycle, they put her in PIP(Performance Improvement Plan) because of force-fitting. This sabotaged her growth in the company thereafter. I was speechless when she told me about this experience. Does this sound like meritocracy to you?

A great reward for "meritocratic" performances are bonuses paid out. In the corporate world, the calculation and distribution of such bonuses are so secretive and yet the big boys' circles seem to communicate the percentage payout well before the official emails come out. Whatever is left out after being distributed to men is kept for women. Since we are not allowed to talk to each other about the compensation details, such things rarely come out. I came to know about these things when a junior guy told me that he already knew what his performance bonus was going to be. Such things are usually decided between men in their smoking circles. I stopped caring about the bonus after that. It felt like eating somebody else's leftovers.

Corporates are all gaga about diversity and inclusion. It is all about colourful presentations and posters. Rarely does it trickle down to any impactful actions? In my decade long career, there were only one or two men who have tried to accommodate me in important discussions. Others just dismissed me off. It hurts every time and most days it is so hard not to give up. Fighting every systemic bias while keeping up with the work expectations is a major cause of burnout.

When we all moved to work from home, we saved the commute time to the office. But does it make any difference in our lives? Most of us are working more than 12 hours a day. If you are in a client servicing role, you are expected to work for the client for at least 9 hours, then you have to work on growing the company's assets, training new people and complete the training allotted to you. Men with little or no caregiving responsibilities are ticking off these things. But what about women? Already there are very few women in the workforce and if this is how merit is assessed how many women will be qualified? Suppose you qualified everything and then there are another set of hurdles to pass - getting into the manager's good books and find ways to fight colleagues who try to undermine you? What an easy life!

Women tend to wait for others approvals far more often than men. They also believe what the managers tell them. I have had the pleasure of working with managers who had pushed me to a higher role and their confidence in my abilities was something that made me strive harder. But it becomes difficult in a service company when your projects change every six months. Some rare people would see your light and the rest of the time you have to deal with assholes as managers.

Nowadays when I see meritocracy highlighted anywhere, I wonder whether to laugh or cry. Corporates need to understand that just hiring women for the sake of diversity and inclusion will not make a difference. Women need to be part of the important discussions at every level. Having one woman just for the sake of inclusion is never enough!

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