you keep using that word

I keep seeing the word “meritocracy” pop up, mostly in discussions that seem to have stemmed from Faruk Ateş’ “A primer on sexism in the tech industry”. Do yourself a favor, don’t go googling. It’s the same shit:
“Sexism isn’t real because I’m a woman and no one did the sexism to me!”
“Women resent being treated as women instead of being evaluated solely on their capabilities!”
“You’re a sexist moron!”
“Some people called me a sexist moron after my moronic sexist blog post and it hurt my little feelings and I’m leaving the internet!”
“You GUYS, remember this is supposed to be a meritocracy.”

Except no. No it fucking isn’t. Because a meritocracy is not a real thing. It is a joke.

The word meritocracy comes from a political satire. It was never meant to be something we should aspire to. It was the opposite, actually, a warning about how we rationalize what we believe we’ve “earned”. If that sentence doesn’t seem to you applicable to the tech industry and our cyclical discussions about sexism, racism, and even occasionally classism, go get yourself another cup of coffee.

There’s some dumb bullshit in one of the current crop of reaction posts waxing poetic about “hacker culture,” and its freedom of speech and lack of PC dogma. Hacker culture was a bunch of white dudes. Hacker culture is a great example of a meritocracy. Some of the most privileged of the privileged got together and formed a community around the idea that they were smarter than everyone else. They created an arbitrary set of metrics for membership and according to their metrics, they triumphed. This was the first time in the history of the world white men had experienced the elation of peer recognition.

A meritocracy is not a system for locating and rewarding the best of the best. If it were, the “best of the best” in almost every goddamned industry or group on the planet would not be a clump of white men. I’m having trouble finding good stats on this, but white men are something like 8% of the world’s population. When you go to a fucking conference and you look around at all the white dudes, do you really honestly think, “Wow! What a bizarre fucking statistical anomaly it is that basically everyone with the special magic gift of computer programming happened to be born into a teeny tiny little demographic sliver of the population”? Of course you don’t. You don’t think about it. You focus on telling yourself that you’re supposed to be there, because you’re so fucking smart, and if other people were as smart or, if you prefer, they were “technically inclined,” they could be there just as easily.

A meritocracy is a system for centralizing authority in the hands of those who already have it, and ensuring that authority is only distributed to others like them or those who aren’t but are willing to play by their rules.

Somebody on twitter told me that when the computer industry was overwhelmingly female, it was due to merit. I think that makes a really good counterpoint to this meritocracy bullshit. Because no, it was not due to merit. Merit didn’t fucking enter into it. Most of those women had no experience in the industry and – even if we accept the lol-worthy premise that merit can be objectively measured – there was no way to evaluate their merit as computer scientists. That’s not to say we shouldn’t use that as a template. We absolutely should. Those women had jobs and were happy to have them. They worked hard. Those who stood out did so because they had demonstrated that their work was good (through their work, not through their savvy) and because standing out and advancing the field was necessary to their work. I would rather work with a roomful of those women than with the arrogant, privileged brats our industry too often recognizes “merit” in these days.

If we met the utopian ideal we toss around in blog posts, we’d still have lots of middle-aged women in this field. We’d have black people. We’d have Asian people – not a smattering, but a majority, cause the world is mostly Asian people. We’d have an even ratio of men and women. Because if there’s one thing I’ve learned after sixteen years in this career, it’s that if a middle-class white boy who literally never had a job before getting a sweet internship at some cutting edge technology company can eventually, through practice, become a passable computer programmer, anyone can do it. If there’s one thing I’ve learned after thirty-three years of being alive, it’s that if you see middle-class white boys flocking in droves to a particular career path, it’s a pretty fucking easy job and you should try and get yourself one like that.

I guess that’s a little mean. Sorry, middle-class white boys. I’m not calling you dumb. I’m calling you soft. I’m calling myself soft, also, and everyone else who works in this field. What a meritocracy really protects us from is challenge. If we don’t even allow most people through the gates, we don’t have to worry that we might pale in comparison to them (pun intended). There will always be a place for us in an industry we keep others out of. That’s why we should seek out diversity – because the lack of it makes us weak.

If you give a shit about this industry’s goals beyond making yourself look smart and cool, for fuck’s sake, stop calling it a meritocracy.


22 Responses to “you keep using that word”

  1. Sarah Says:

    Great post. That was very refreshing!

  2. Eric Says:

    While I agree with the general thrust behind what you’re saying, I think you’re coming up with a strange way of defining “meritocracy.”

    If I understand what you’re saying, people say that the technology field is meritocratic therefore it is a true meritocracy. That’s absurd though. North Korea is the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, does that mean democracy is just like the system in North Korea? Of course not, that’s patently false.

    I fail to see how the idea of a meritocracy, like in the case of the Apache Software Foundation, is anything other than a solution to our problem. I say that with a major caveat though: everyone needs a legitimate chance to participate and succeed. You’ve pointed out that is not the case though. If you’re not a white male of at least moderate means, you don’t have a legitimate chance to participate to succeed.

    Maybe a meritocracy isn’t the right word (it, in a general sense, doesn’t include opportunity) but it’s the closest I have to describing the solution.

  3. kurt wismer Says:

    the thought occurs that meritocracy (as you’ve characterized it) may in fact be distinctly utopian – if you consider that utopia (as it is colloquially understood) is actually a corruption of eutopia. in that respect, the desire to aspire to a meritocracy is very much in line with the desire to aspire to a utopia – both seemingly absurd misunderstandings.

    it also occurs to me (as a developer myself) that of the developers i’ve encountered, both in school and professionally, the largest group actually was asian rather than white. while i can’t dispute that conferences have a lot of white guys, i wonder if that might not be more a matter of culture than a representation of the developer population as a whole. deciding to go to a conference is not the same as deciding to go into a profession, and while the monetary rewards of a profession are ostensibly valued equally by all, the rewards of going to a conference may not be so uniformly valued.

  4. Lindsey Kuper Says:

    Thanks for the great post.

    Someone on Twitter said that meritocracy is about being able to choose who one respects, instead of having an org chart decide it for you. It would be nice if that were true, but it misses the point of this post, which is that the notion of “meritocracy” has done more to prop up org charts (and industries, economies, and empires, as someone else pointed out) than to subvert them.

  5. Stephan Says:

    Good Night Nerd pride!

    Thanks for that post.

  6. eigensinn83 Says:

    What a refreshing read in the morning…! ^__^

    I am a East-German underclass white boy into humanities, also trying to get an easy job, in the long run. My main objective to do so is counterbalanced by my priority on emancipatory discourse and political progress stuff I participate in, among others in the Piratenpartei Deutschland (German Pirate Party).

    I dread the day the party becomes something that mainly works along the lines you pointed out so clearly. But with a chairman who works in the Federal Ministery of Defence as a day job (who publicly “cuddled” with Kissinger, by the way) I’m afraid we already have to deal with full-fledged structures of that sort.

    One more thing: Quotas work!

  7. dch Says:

    A welcome counterpoint to that other recent misogynistic spurt on the internet. Many thanks!

  8. Pierre Chapuis Says:

    I wouldn’t be surprised if the majority of programmers on Earth were actually Asian. We do not hear much about what happens in China for instance, and we tend to see our industry as dominated by the White because we live in countries dominated by the White. When I talk to Chinese people they tell me they are making a lot of things we don’t here about there, for obvious reasons.

    Now Open Source is clearly mostly White people, but I guess it must not be as easy to contribute to Open Source when you live in Africa or most Asian countries (there is a lot of Open Source coming from Japan too, relative to the size of the country). Also, dedicating some of your free time to OSS is easier if you *have* free time and a decent salary…

  9. Keith Braithwaite Says:

    Beautiful stuff.

    Have you read “The Computer Boys Take Over”? It’s very badly written but had a very interesting thesis, part of which is that when the programming (specifically) world was overwhelmingly female that was due to the managers in the engineering companies that they worked for not having realized yet that writing the software was the important part. Once they did, according to TCBTO, programming was turned into a male denominated profession. It also touches on the near impossibility of recognizing programming “talent”.

    I’ll admit to being a white boy (well, 41) but I’m not middle-class by any stretch of the imagination. Education to a level that no-one in my family had taken before lead to programming as an escape route from the farm (or maybe the army). I get quite irate when the sons of privilege (ok, the sons of more privilege than I had) start babbling on about their “vocation” to the “craft” of programming and get all misty eyed about their “calling”. No, programming is a well-payed indoor job with no heavy lifting.

  10. Jessica Kerr Says:

    Best post of the season! Made my day. Thank you!

  11. haliphax Says:

    An oligarchy then, perhaps? (Fantastic post, BTW. Seeing you pop up in my RSS feed always piques my interest, Garann! [Ms. Means?])

  12. garann Says:

    @Sarah, @Stephan, @dch, @Jessica – Thank you. <3

    @Eric – I agree. The goal we’re trying to describe with “meritocracy” is a solid one, and one we should continue to aim for. But we should also be aware that we have only very imperfect ways of measuring merit, and too often our metrics merely reward sameness.

    @kurt – I’d say conferences are another barrier of opportunity, and when we move into those circles of increasing authority, we see a big decline in diversity. How we confer authority is, to me, the crux of the problem. We have more Asian people and women than we see because when it comes time to pick leaders, we frequently exclude those who don’t meet the traditional Western ideal of authority – a white guy.

    @Lindsey – Yeah, totally. Our options as far as who to respect seem to be highly filtered and skewed already.

    @eigensinn83 – Ha, agreed. Quotas may be imperfect, but at least they give people a shot. :)

    @Pierre – I’d like to be wrong about this. I don’t see a lot of authorities in our industry coming from China, even with the huge numbers of developers there. Maybe I’m missing them? I worry that those authorities remain stuck at a regional level, and whatever the world outside China could learn from them, we don’t, because they don’t fit our picture of what an authority looks like.

    @Keith – I have read it, and, exactly. It’s a fascinating – and frustrating – transformation. Also, this quote is awesome: “programming is a well-payed indoor job with no heavy lifting”. For real.

    @haliphax – Ha, oligarchy definitely seems closer to me.

  13. Andreas Fuchs Says:

    This is such a great post, thanks so much for writing it. Made my day (-:

  14. Jens Ayton Says:

    The word “meritocracy” may be from the fifties, but the concept is of course much older. Notably, Plato considered “rule by the best”, or “aristocracy”, to be the most desirable form of government.

    Oddly enough, when we tried it in practice we ended up with a small clique of white guys whose power bore no obvious relationship to their excellence at all. Whoda thunk it?

  15. Tobias Wright Says:

    Brilliant. I’ve been saying forever that you can only maybe have meritocracy in a homogeneous environment. Thank you.

  16. Alex Sexton Says:

    I agree that we’re far from a merit or skill based system, but the solution is to build up the underrepresented, and educate those that are currently overrepresented and encourage them to help make things right.

    At the risk of painting a very backwards picture (read the whole paragraph), many of these posts come off very negatively towards middle-classed privileged white males (such as myself) and therefor don’t necessarily help move the ball forward (because most will just ignore them). I’m not saying that I’m somehow persecuted or hurt or even effected (fairly or unfairly) in _any way_ by this, I’m just saying that it’s not helping move the ball forward, which hurts the groups that we’re trying to help.

    “You are lazier than you think you are and you aren’t as good as you think at what you claim to be passionate about” … “now please do this thing I’m asking” is a hard sell. (negative reinforcement doesn’t work on dogs…)

    I hope you know I’m dedicated to getting things into a respectable state, and I want to help be a driver of that change. I think you’ll find that a huge set of privileged white male developers also want to help effect change. Yelling at them for not denying the care or education or gifts that their rich white parents gave to them is not going to help get them involved and proactive in helping even things out (and, again, it doesn’t hurt them in any way either).

    I totally agree that programming is an _easy_ path for privileged white males, but it seems like you’re advocating for making it harder for them, rather than easier for everyone else. There is certainly no lack of demand for good developers. On behalf of the mediocre privileged white dudes, most of us would be happy to help make sure that the opportunities that were handed to us could also be handed to people who are different than us.

    I’m sure I _am_ ignorant about a lot of this stuff, but I know that I am not _intentionally_ requesting sameness in my environment. I think a vast majority of privileged white dude programmers would whole-heartedly agree. That means it’s up to education and action to actively revert the sins of the past and point out the sins of the present with everyone’s help. We didn’t start the fire, but we took advantage of it (should we have not?). But we’re extremely willing to help spread the fire to anybody, and I think that is what we should write blog posts about and tweet about instead of placing blame on people who are taking opportunities that are available to them (that’s the whole point!).

    (I’m sure there are a million things to pick apart in that comment, but just keep my intent in mind when pointing out all of the flaws, which is to make things better)

  17. garann Says:

    @Alex – You are one of my very favorite people in this community and I *do* know how dedicated you are – you personally in addition to all the guys like you who I have not acknowledged here – to creating more diversity. I don’t mean to yell at white men, I mean to yell about them. About what they represent in terms of truly locating merit, not about them having an innate lack of merit. But I do mean to yell. You can only be told by so many white, male community leaders, “The best will rise up and make themselves known through their hard work and sacrifice, just like I did!” before the staggering number of biases and assumptions you’d have to politely debate, were you to try, just make you lose your fucking shit and yelling seems exactly as useful.

  18. casey Says:

    The NBA is a great example of the sham of the meritocracy, as well as how it’s a much more damaging lie in the geek world than in general society.

    I’m sure the white American guys who were playing in the 40’s and 50’s thought they were playing in a meritocracy.

    And I’m sure the black and white American guys playing in the 60’s-80’s thought they were the best and were playing in a meritocracy.

    Nowadays a huge percent of the league’s best players are foreign-born. There are Latino and Asian guys who are elite players, an idea that probably would’ve got you laughed at 20 years ago.

    They probably think they’re playing in a meritocracy, too. Which is silly, because there are still billions of people around the world who have never even heard of basketball.

    The difference between geeks and pro athletes is that athletes aren’t nearly as scared of a little competition. And even if they were, the fans just want the best product. Geeks don’t have fans. We can do whatever jerkfaced things we want to keep the talent pool from getting bigger, and hardly any non-geek is in a position to call BS on it.

  19. you keep using that word | Geek Feminism Blog Says:

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  20. Daniel Says:

    The word “meritocracy” comes from political satire. The word “silly” used to mean “blessed”. The word “idiot” used to mean “private citizen”. “Impressionist” was originally an insult. A word’s origins don’t necessarily have much to do with how it’s later used, and “meritocracy” seems to be mainly used today as referring to a system where people are assigned positions and responsibilities relative to their skill and abilities, which seems to me like something worth aspiring to, even if “merit” is slightly subjective, and even if we’ll never get all the way there.

    I’ve never seen anyone claim that today’s job market (or the IT world) is a perfect meritocracy. On the other hand, I did spend my (early 90’s) highschool years with a bunch of hacker types (100% male, but ethnically diverse), and I do believe that it was a meritocracy of sorts. By that I don’t mean that women would have been worse at programming, just that the rest of high school was a popularity contest, while among the hackers, you got respect for programming something fun or clever – that was the only metric that mattered. Frankly, the only people who spent time around computers were the outcasts – the ugly and the socially incompetent – and hacking was a way for the losers to get at least some recognition, even if it was from other losers.

    I honestly believe that if any girls had deigned to try out the low-status hobby of programming, they would also have been judged by their programming abilities. Now, I understand that they faced additional obstacles in *entering* the meritocracy, because society had, idiotically, determined that computers were a “guy thing”, and it can be daunting to be the only girl(s) in a male-dominated environment, so people in general would have seen them as weird. Although mostly they would have been seen as weird for voluntarily spending time in a group that was on the popularity level of hobos.

    As one of the guys, I don’t really see what I could have done to welcome girls into the group. Hackers weren’t in a position to make hacking more popular for girls – hackers were the ones with the LEAST social influence. They were unpopular, powerless, and seen as a joke by the rest of the school. We certainly didn’t want to keep girls out – we were acutely aware that no girls wanted to spend any time with us or doing what we loved. Of course, I’ve had the luck of being born in a first-world country, but still I have a hard time seeing the ugly, unpopular, depressed teenager I was as “the most privileged of the privileged”.

    Am I deluded in some way?

  21. Against Meritocracy « Feminist Philosophers Says:

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  22. ERose Says:

    @Daniel – I don’t mean to pick on you, but you aren’t delusional so much as, yeah, privileged.
    The whole concept of privilege is built on the idea that your whiteness or your maleness means you automatically avoid issues people who don’t share them face all the time. You avoid them so completely, you aren’t even aware they happen.
    How much of your day in high school – or even now – is spent wondering if your outfit will be considered grounds for dismissing your work? How often do you contend with opinions of your gender formed solely on the fact that your boss or colleague had bad luck with men socially in high school? How often do you have to deal with an HR director’s opinions about “what men are like” that really have nothing to do with what -you – are like? How often do you deal with someone completely disrespecting your professional time by trying to hit on you while you’re trying to program? And not understanding why you’re upset, even blaming you for it, if you ask them to stop? How often does anything you say get considered an example of the way all men deal with a given situation?
    Or even consider this – the fact that you feel ill-used because you didn’t have influence or female attention in high school indicates that you felt those were things you were entitled to have. The right to influence is assumed by very few people in our society and many of them are white men. Feeling cheated because you aren’t on top absolutely implies that you, and people who look like you, take that status for granted. That is indeed a privilege.