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21407 Jen Causey: Why Meritocracy is a False Ideal

Why Meritocracy is a False Ideal

Article by 21407 Jen Causey

I’ve written a lot recently about diversity, gender equality specifically. I grew up as a minority, often the lone female or one of a few females in a male dominated activity. I was always one of two girls on my minor soccer team, I wrestled and did Tae Kwon Do, army cadets, and then upon high school graduation I enrolled in the Canadian Armed Forces and pursued a career as an Artillery Officer. Like most high achieving, competitive, and driven people, I only ever wanted to be recognized for my ability, and resented any sniff of favoritism or special treatment because of my gender. Allow me to get there on my own merit, or let me fail, that was my philosophy. While I believe somewhat in the philosophy behind a meritocracy, I am not so naive to believe that complete elimination of subjectivity and bias is possible. That said, while subjectivity may be unavoidable, obliviousness to the fact that bias and advantage exists is avoidable, and it is why I cannot fully embrace the mantra behind a meritocracy.

I think you’ll find that most reasonable people would find it difficult to argue that the concept of individuals earning something based upon their talent, effort and achievement is wrong or unfair. In the past I have certainly climbed up on my soap box and argued in favour of it. Reflecting more upon it however, I now have a more measured attitude towards the concept. At face value, I fully embrace the idea that a person should merit their reward, be that reward income, position, power, etc. But, the shortcoming of that philosophy is that it fails to account for the fact that not everyone has the same start state to begin with. The question then becomes, are we okay with that in the workplace, or in government, or in society as a whole? Is that fair? Is that equal? How much should we reasonably try to account for in terms of addressing the fact that certain individuals or segments of society are disadvantaged? I don’t profess to have the answers for those questions, save this: we should at least be willing to recognize the disparity that exists in terms of advantage or start states.

We should be adult enough to recognize and remember that fair does not mean equal.

This article may seem like a contradiction to some of my prior articles, specifically, the article titled, “I Am Equal.” Perhaps it is, or perhaps it is me questioning my own ideas and beliefs out loud. I think one of the most powerful things we can do as a human, let alone as a leader, is to make an effort to see things from the perspective of others. We all have been influenced by the environment in which we were raised and our experiences, and that colours the lenses though which we now see things. Likewise, those lenses can blind us, and render us unable to see certain gradations that we may not have experienced personally. Just because I never felt like I needed an advantage, or an extra push, maybe there are others who do. Just because others may have received an extra push or an advantage, doesn’t automatically mean that their achievements have less value. Just as it is wrong to assume that the white male who has experienced success is the product of white male privilege, it is equally wrong to assume that the black female has been catered to or given her position without merit.

I owe a thanks to the authors of the article, “Do You Have ‘Advantage Blindness’?” I encourage everyone to read it. If you are like me, it will prompt some small degree of introspection, and perhaps make you consider a perspective you may have been otherwise blind to. For me, it was the shortfall in my utopian view of a meritocracy in that I didn’t fully appreciate that sometimes being given the opportunity isn’t enough. It isn’t fair, nor does it necessarily mean or lead to equality.

 Previous Jen Causey Articles in e-Veritas:


  • Graham Keene 10700

    January 21, 2019 at 12:33 pm

    Jen very thought provoking comments as usual. I was discussing this very subject with my wife this morning over coffee. The conclusions we made was that life is not fair and that is just the way it is. The absolute best generally rise to the top because we want the best. It is not a relative world that in general gives a handicap to those that started with less and worked just if not harder to get to where they are. What are the current qualifications and ability full stop with no consideration of where you came from, sex, color or otherwise. Where does this discussion end… do we imposed less of a penalty on those incarcerated because they came from an abusive childhood and didn’t have the same opportunity in life? Do we compensate at all for mental illness? You tell me. What we do need to do is be empathetic along the way to help those that have had a slow start and/or ongoing struggle in life giving them the opportunity to be the best they can be.

  • Michael

    January 23, 2019 at 9:20 pm

    I submit that we don’t, and have never, used merit as a metric for advancement in the forces. Merit, as you point out, is almost impossible to identify. It could be described as containing the total sum of a person’s relative worth, but who/what measures? I contend that we are left with two solutions: competence and productivity. Both qualities exist in a space that, in my opinion, transcends politics, race, background, starting position etc.

    My suggestion would be for us to promote those who pursue and achieve these qualities. Institutional equality should never be the end goal of an effects-based organization like the CAF.