Monday, April 4, 2016

The Myth and Reality of Meritocracy

This guest post is written by Carolyn Brinkworth (she/her/hers), Director for Diversity, Education & Outreach at the National Center for Atmospheric Research. This piece is a modified excerpt from her upcoming Master’s Critique, “From Chilly Climate to Warm Reception: Experiences and Good Practices for Supporting LGBTQ Students in STEM”

One of the persistent and prevalent beliefs affecting STEM fields is the “myth of meritocracy” (McNamee & Miller, 2004) - the belief that science rewards scientists of equal aptitude with equal rewards, completely independent of their gender, ethnicity, race, or any other characteristic not related to their academic ability. The idea of meritocracy is seductive, because we’re taught that it’s the bedrock on which science is based; it’s the belief that good ideas rise to the top, and our community treats all good ideas the same, no matter who develops and presents them. Unfortunately, a raft of research clearly demonstrates that this is not the case, and if we persist in this unsubstantiated belief in meritocracy, it perpetuates an uglier myth - that the lack of diversity in STEM is due to a lack of aptitude amongst those who are underrepresented in our field. It places the blame for the underrepresentation of students of color, white women, LGBTQ students, students with disabilities, and those at the intersections of all of these identities, firmly back on those who are underrepresented, because the myth of meritocracy falsely suggests that if they were good enough, they would have risen to the top along with their ideas. The myth, in reality, creates the opposite effect of true meritocracy - a stifling of the best science and our brilliant young scientists, and a reinforcing cycle, where underrepresented scientists are less likely to be recognized for their research, which restricts their access to professional opportunities, which leads to fewer networks, and less opportunity to prove their merit in the future.

The research busting the meritocracy myth is plentiful. Many of us have already heard about the famous resume studies (Betrand & Mullainathan, 2003; Moss-Racusin et al. 2012; Equal Rights Center, 2014), in which resumes of people of color, women, and now LGBTQ people have been shown to result in fewer callbacks to interview, and a lower assessment of a candidate’s ability compared to identical resumes purporting to be from white, straight men. Alongside these classic examples of unconscious bias, there is a deep body of research that speaks to the damaging effect of STEM departmental climates, which continue to be largely male-, white-dominated, and overwhelmingly heteronormative. These studies show how departments and institutions undermine meritocracy, as they require underrepresented scientists to expend energy navigating “chilly” or hostile work/study environments rather than having the freedom to concentrate fully on their studies and research. In a study of STEM students, Seymour & Hewitt (1997) found that a student’s persistence in STEM was unrelated to their aptitude but instead depended on their ability to tolerate the difficult social aspects of majoring in STEM, and that the culture in STEM was largely oriented towards the needs of the white, male students. In a study of gender experiences in workplaces, Eisenhart & Finkel (1998) found that this cultural streamlining towards the dominant group can be invisible to all groups: both men and women in the study reported equal treatment, despite the researchers’ objective observations of inequality in the workplace in favor of the male students and employees. Johnson (2007) found that this belief in “colourblind” and “gender-blind” meritocracy can negatively affect non-white, non-male students, reporting that:

“This match between Whiteness, maleness, and the characteristics needed for success in science was hidden in this setting by the silence about race, ethnicity, and gender, which was in turn hidden by the rhetoric of meritocracy. This silence prevented students and professors from seeing how ethnic, racial, and gendered dynamics helped determine which students found it easier to thrive.”

Cech & Waidzunas (2011) describe this phenomenon in more detail for LGBTQ students in STEM, describing how STEM workplaces often, intentionally or unintentionally, promote a “technical/social duality,” with STEM students and professionals sorting characteristics into either “technical,” i.e. related to subject matter and technical expertise, and therefore highly prized, or “social,” i.e. not related to technical expertise and therefore dismissed as irrelevant. Climate and workplace issues related to gender, race, sexual orientation, gender identity, disability, and any other personal characteristic, are therefore relegated to a secondary issue, and are rarely discussed in STEM environments, despite the significant effect they can have on the well-being and persistence of students who do not fall into the white, male, heterosexual, able-bodied “norm.” In fact, any attempt to discuss issues of diversity and equity within historically white, male, heterosexual spaces can be met with significant resistance, or “blowback,” with faculty, staff, and students questioning the relevance of the topic to their workplaces (Hill, 2009). This refusal to discuss social aspects of the STEM culture can be extremely stressful to underrepresented students, who are already being required to do extensive emotional work to navigate these “chilly” climates (e.g. Seymour & Hewitt, 1997; Yosso et al, 2009; Fouad et al. 2012). In many cases, the silence leads to worse academic and mental and physical health outcomes for those we should be nurturing and celebrating as they start their science careers (Meyer, 1995; Meyer, 2003; Huebner & Davis, 2007; Nadal et al. 2011; Bockting et al. 2013).

The best way to support these students is to talk about these issues, educate ourselves about our biases, look closely at our existing mechanisms and policies to ensure that they are equitable for all, and to advocate for policies that can level the playing field for those who are underrepresented in our field. I’m proud of the way that the astronomy community has increased its efforts to tackle these issues head-on, through the work of the Equity in Physics and Astronomy Facebook group, the Inclusive Astronomy 2015 conference, the work of the CSWA, CSMA, SGMA, and the newly-formed Working Group on Accessibility and Disabilities (WGAD), through the increasingly strong response to the sexual harassment incidents that have plagued and continue to plague our field, and through the many ways in which individuals are working in their own departments to create spaces for all students. It is also not enough. I encourage everyone, especially those in positions of power in our field, to read the upcoming, extensive recommendations from the Inclusive Astronomy 2015 meeting, which outline myriad ways to improve access, retention, and climate in our workplaces for underrepresented groups. It is only through taking a critical look at ourselves, our own institutions, and the climate of science as a whole, then working to affect real change, that we will be able to achieve the reality of meritocracy in the sciences, in place of the myth.

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Cech, E. A. & Waidzunas, T. J. (2011). Navigating the heteronormativity of engineering:
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John Johnson said...

Thanks so much for investing your time and effort into this essay! Your central point is right-on: If we believe that all people are created equal, then we cannot view the current state of STEM as the result of a meritocracy. Either we have a meritocracy and people are not equal, or people are equal and the system is rigged. Other combinations are mutually exclusive given the lack of diversity among our staff, students and faculty (and the extensive literature you cite).

Also, this line stood out to me:

"In fact, any attempt to discuss issues of diversity and equity within historically white, male, heterosexual spaces can be met with significant resistance, or 'blowback,' with faculty, staff, and students questioning the relevance of the topic to their workplaces (Hill, 2009)."

See the Astronomers Facebook group for perfect examples of this, with (mostly) white cisgender straight dudes complaining by asking "Can we go back to discussing science?" whenever "societal" topics are raised, despite how these issues affect everyone's ability to conduct and enjoy the results of high-quality scientific research. Claude Steele's research demonstrates that underrepresented students perform better if afforded the opportunity to discuss their lived experiences at the intersections of race, gender and sexuality (his book Whistling Vivaldi). These are the Safe Spaces we need to create and protect within our departments and institutions if we actually prioritize excellence and diversity.

audra said...

This also shows up in the issue of trying to hire more women (and I'm guessing any minority) when people say "But I don't want to be hired into a special position", and the underlying assumption is that people hired into "regular" positions are being hired because of how "good" they are at what they do. We don't know how to judge quality (we have barely started the discussion of what the word means) when it comes to potential graduate students, and the fact that tenure decisions are most easily sped up when another institution suddenly want to hire the individual means that we have no idea (other than "well, if they want her/him, they must be better than we thought") how to judge quality higher up. I think the fact is that the people who currently have jobs got them through a mixture of hard work, luck (right research at the right time, or right advisor giving the right letter, right graduation date, higher ranked candidate said no to the job, etc.), networking, and a host of other variables. No one was hired because of "how good they are". Because not only do we not know how to judge that, it is probably a faulty, one-dimensional, construct in the first place.

Unknown said...

John, yes - Steele's work is great, and has also been backed up by this study in SF high schools, which required ninth grade kids with GPAs less than 2.0 to take an ethnic studies class.

They compared results from kids just below the cutoff who took the course to kids just above, which didn't, and found stunning results: "The researchers found that attendance for those encouraged to enroll in the class increased by 21 percentage points, GPA by 1.4 grade points and credits earned by 23."

Proof that culturally relevant pedagogy and explicitly talking about identity can have enormous effects.

See for the paper.

Anonymous said...

It is clear that meritocracy as a principle is a laudable goal and that bias in favour of anyone or any group of people (whether under the misnomer of meritocracy or otherwise) is unacceptable. Equal rights, opportunities, choices and respect for choices are the basis of equality.

There are many egalitarian approaches to minimise bias including those you describe. I was impressed that you do not advocate approaches such as 'positive' discrimination, tokenism, quotas or directional pressure which seem to be rife on the internet and are simple prejudice and ultimately self-defeating.