Is Your Company a Meritocracy?

Is your high tech company a true "meritocracy"? A meritocracy is defined as a system where ability and achievement is the basis for advancement, rather than connections, status, or power. Most high-tech companies pride themselves on having a culture of meritocracy. Sounds nice, but then why are there virtually no women and minorities at the top of these corporations? Consider the recent UC Davis Census of California Women Business Leaders – 48% of California’s largest companies have NO women executives, and high-tech is worse than other industries. There is a long list of Silicon Valley high tech companies that have 0% women executives and corporate officers. Is this the picture of a meritocracy?

In reality, social science research has shown that even environments that appear to be meritocratic and gender neutral favor the work style and backgrounds of the group already in power. In an environment where women are in a minority such as is the case in most high-tech companies, the majority group of men defines the criteria for success and the ensuing organizational structure tends to rewards them disproportionately. Assuming a meritocracy, one would expect to see women represented across positions of power, pay linked to performance with no relationship to gender and race, and no gender differences in the probability of being hired, promoted, and fired across gender. In reality, research shows that women earn less than their male peers given equal qualifications, are less likely to be offered a position than men are for equal qualifications, and are more likely than men to be passed over for promotions, even in environments that appear to be meritocratic. In this economy, we also need to question who is more likely to then be laid off. Gender bias and stereotyping is alive and well.

Consider the differing views we saw in our major study of 7 high tech companies in Silicon Valley – technical men we interviewed described the promotion structure as "It’s not about gender, it’s about what you have done", "it’s about what you know and what you have done and I haven’t seen political positioning and posturing." Women, however, viewed things differently – consider this statement by a mid-level technical woman: "…back in college I thought gender issues were stupid. I always thought, you just go in do your job, and you will be rewarded for that. Boy was I naïve." Women interviewed described seeing women being passed over for promotions if they didn’t have the right connections or if they had children based on a general perception that they wouldn’t be interested in the job or wouldn’t be willing to relocate since they had children. We also heard countless statements about how technical women aren’t perceived as being as technically competent as their male peers.

How, then, does an organization change this unequal playing field? This calls for a shift in the culture of technology. Rather than assuming there is a meritocracy, organizations that have successfully transformed their culture to become more diverse start by questioning this assumption. First, organizations that know their numbers and take a hard look at their employee hiring, retention and advancement, and dismissal numbers cut by gender can start shedding light on the facts. Are technical women less likely to be hired? Are they less likely to get the promotion, and are they disproportionately more likely to leave the organization given equal qualifications? The most effective executives initiate a transparent conversation about the topic within the organization. Consider IBM’s diversity website, which presents the proportion of women and minorities by year in various positions. Very few companies have that level of openness about their own data. Given the data, executive teams can create metric driven goals for the recruitment, retention, and advancement of technical women.

In next week’s blog, Telle Whitney will describe how IBM went through this transformation – from being a company at risk of losing the war on talent to one globally renowned for gender and ethnic diversity.

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