Women in tech suffer because of American myth of meritocracy

Banu Ozkazanc-Pan, Brown University.

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Will they disrupt the tech sector? (Reuters/Eduardo Munoz)


The American dream is built on the notion that the U.S. is a meritocracy. Americans believe success in life and business can be earned by anyone willing to put in the hard work necessary to achieve it, or so they say.

Thus, Americans commonly believe that those who are successful deserve to be so and those who aren’t are equally deserving of their fate – despite growing evidence that widening inequalities in income, wealth, labor and gender play a major role in who makes it and who doesn’t.

And this very fact – that Americans believe their society is a meritocracy – is the biggest threat to equality, particularly when it comes to gender, as research by myself and others shows.

The meaning of ‘meritocracy’

Gender inequality is pervasive in American society.

Women in the U.S. continue to experience gender bias, sexual harassment and little progress in relation to equitable wages. Top positions in government and the business sector remain stubbornly male.

At the same time, 75 percent of Americans say they believe in meritocracy. This belief persists despite evidence that we tend to use it to explain actions that preserve the status quo of gender discrimination rather than reverse it.

This myth is so powerful, it influences our behaviors.

‘Work harder’

Entrepreneurship is an area where the myths and realities of the American meritocracy come to a head.

In the U.S., women own 39 percent of all privately owned businesses but receive only around 4 percent of venture capital funding. Put another way, male-led ventures receive 96 percent of all funding.

Yet the meritocracy myth, which my research shows has a stronghold in the world of entrepreneurship, means that women are constantly told that all they have to do to get more of that $22 billion or so in venture capital funding is make better pitches or be more assertive.

The assumption is that women aren’t trying hard enough or doing the right things to get ahead, not that the way venture capitalists offer funding is itself unfair.

Ellen Pao, center, sued her venture capital firm for allegedly discriminated against her because she was a woman. (AP Photo/Jeff Chiu)

‘Pipeline’ problem

Another explanation for the lack of funding for women is pinned on the “pipeline” problem. That is, women just aren’t interested in the fields that form the backbone of the industry – science, technology, engineering and math.

Thus, if more women entered STEM fields, there would be more women entrepreneurs, and more money would flow to them. Pipeline explanations assume that there are no obstacles preventing women from becoming entrepreneurs in technology.

Yet, we know the opposite is true. According to technology historian Marie Hicks and her book “Programmed Inequality,” women in tech were pushed out by men.

Research I’ve conducted with management professor Susan Clark Muntean on entrepreneur support organizations, such as accelerators, shows that they often engage in outreach and recruitment tactics that benefit men rather than women. This is further supported by survey data from Techstars, one of the best-known and respected tech accelerators in the world. About 4 in 5 companies that have gone through their programs are white and almost 9 in 10 are male.

‘Gender-neutral’ myth

And yet these tech accelerators are guided by an implicit understanding that gender-neutral outreach and recruitment practices rather than targeted ones will bring in the “best” people. This notion is often expressed as “Our doors are open to everyone” to indicate that they do not discriminate.

Ironically, many organizations in the tech sector adopt this idea because they believe it is gender-neutral and, thus, unbiased.

Yet claiming to be gender-neutral prevents organizations from recognizing that their practices are actually biased. Most outreach and recruitment takes place through word-of-mouth, alumni referrals and personal networks of accelerator leadership, which are predominantly composed of males.

These approaches often bring in more of the same: white male entrepreneurs rather than diverse professionals. As a result, women do not have equal access to resources in entrepreneurial ecosystems.

And all this is despite the fact that data on returns show venture-backed tech startups with women at the helm outperform those led by men.

Being ‘gender-aware’

The first step to solving this problem is for tech startups, investors and accelerators to realize that what they call meritocracy is in fact itself gender-biased and results in mostly white men gaining access to resources and funding. By continuing to believe in meritocracy and maintaining practices associated with it, gender equality will remain a distant goal.

The next step is to move away from gender-neutral approaches and instead adopt “gender-aware,” proactive measures to change unfair practices. This includes setting concrete goals to achieve gender balance, examining the gender composition of boards, committees and other influential groups in the organization, and assessing the tools and channels used for outreach, recruitment and support of entrepreneurs.

The ConversationThe return on investment in gender equality is clear: Supporting and investing in businesses started by half the world’s population will create thriving societies and sustainable economies. And it starts with male allies who want to be part of the solution and recognize that meritocracy, as society currently defines it, isn’t the way to go.

Banu Ozkazanc-Pan, Visiting Associate Professor of Engineering, Brown University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

15 thoughts on “Women in tech suffer because of American myth of meritocracy

  1. This article touches upon a lot of points with respect to women in work. Recently, we all have seen that women from all walks of life are coming forward and taking steps to end this. In fact, US Census Bureau reported that women earn 80 percent of their males counterparts (link – https://www.aauw.org/aauw_check/pdf_download/show_pdf.php?file=The-Simple-Truth). Mary Brinton, a sociology professor at Harvard University points out the fact that women now actually surpass men in educational achievement! Even after such statistics, movements and numerous studies, people are sometimes oblivious to the fact that women actually have to go through these things. Even if “meritocracy” is present at work places, women are judged differently. Whether its STEM industries or politics, women have critics passing harsher judgements all the time. Culturally, the society has formed a certain mentality and established roles of man v/s woman. This has to change. Institutions and governments can implement policies, but I believe that before we begin to see real changes at work places, society as a whole needs to come out of its shell and embrace the truth. They need to realize that women can be, are, and sometimes even better, as good as any male counterpart. We do not need to judge them critically, we just need to accept them reasonably.

    — MBA 689 Strategic Management —

  2. I completely agree with this article. As woman, we are expected to ‘do more’ or be ‘more assertive’ in order to get a job or the same salary as our male counterparts, despite having similar experiences, education and qualifications in a sector. By not allowing ourselves to realize there is a problem with that, we’ll never be able to get ahead. I worked in the healthcare sector, and I can attest one at least one occasion where I interviewed for a job, and the starting salary offer turned out to be way less than the male counterpart in the same position prior to me. Now before you say anything, I’ll confirm this gentleman shared with me his education level and job experiences were equal as mines. Of course he took a big risk telling me this, but he had already left said company at that point and coincidently moved to my neighborhood a few months down the line! Upon finding out about this new information, I took it upon myself to have the talk with my supervisor with all the facts. At the end of the meeting, my salary was increased by the 4% that was owed to me. I understand not everyone will achieve this end-result. I was proud of myself for speaking up. Going back to post, pay gap is a real issue across genders, it’s time we start admitting this to move towards a resolution of some sort. Great article !!

  3. This is not the first article I’ve seen that criticizes gender inequalities. There’s no doubt we should fight for women’s right in every field. I personally stand for the equality between men and women. However, we should not make irresponsible and injustice statement judging by the result without looking at the root cause.
    People doubt meritocracy and accuse gender inequality in the society because they see the inequalities in income, wealth, labor and management role in a company.
    It is a truth that men and women received a different wage for the same job in some companies. It looks like there is an obvious inequality between genders. But think about this, a different wage for the same job in the workplace is quite normal, isn’t it? It didn’t only between men and women but different individuals. Companies pay their employees differently based on their expertise, ability, experience. Isn’t it all meritocracy about?
    It is also a fact that there is a gap between men and women in average income. I don’t deny there are gender bias reasons in it. But one thing needs to pay attention to is the choice of occupation can be quite different between genders. It can be a result of culture different, for example, the construction industry is more likely to have more men, nurse has more women than men, etc. Industry and the choice of occupation has a big difference in average income.
    One more example here. The price for men’s Wimbledon championship award is $150 while women competition’s first price is only $70. As a result, people started criticized about the gender bias in this matter. However, the difference in price amount is determined by the advertising value of the competition, and obviously, men’s competition received more attention in this game.
    Personally, in nowadays, men and women are treated quite equally in essential part, regard of human rights, welfare, chance in work and the respect they gain etc, especially in developed countries and cities. Men and women are treated differently in other aspects, is because men and women ARE different.
    Yes, there are inequalities and bias for gender. But we should not exaggerate it and create biases by looking at evidence from the appearance without thinking in deep.

  4. Thanks Banu. Nice article!!! I totally agree with your opinions that gender inequality is still an issue in the United States of America. There are two example to elaborate that gender inequality, one is that women are given positions such as CEO far less than men. Another is that men are still not granted paternity leave for a child’s birth. In order to reduce gender inequality, I recommend THREE points: (1) Increase public consciousness of the reasons for, extent of, and consequences of rape and sexual assault, sexual harassment, and pornography.(2) Increase enforcement of existing laws against gender-based employment discrimination and against sexual harassment. (3) Increase funding of rape-crisis centers and other services for girls and women who have been raped and/or sexually assaulted.

  5. Gender equality is a topic that has been discussed year after year. Unfortunately, as stated in the article “women own 39 percent of all privately owned businesses but receive only around 4 percent of venture capital funding. Put another way, male-led ventures receive 96 percent of all funding.” To today, there still has not been a female to represent the U.S. as president – this means a lot. Perhaps, this is the culture that was carried on from many previous centuries, but it is something that needs to stop. A research that professor Ozkazanc-Pan conducted “shows that they often engage in outreach and recruitment tactics that benefit man rather than women”. Again, this is something that needs to stop because everyone should be benefiting just as equally. Everyone should be given the same opportunities regardless of their gender.

    Moreover, the equal pay act will eliminate some of the unfairness happening once the regulation goes into effect July 1, 2018. Companies will need to run an internal analysis to make sure that everyone in their company is being paid fairly no matter their gender. I believe this will change a lot of the dynamic and injustice currently happening. Although it will take years, eventually everyone will be treated as equal.

    Overall, I think this article mentioned a lot of great points that we should all be mindful and aware of.

  6. Great article! Meritocracy is such a powerful thing in society, working hard to get where we want to go is what Americans live by. But we don’t take into consideration gender inequality and the tolls it has on Woman Entrepreneurs. I’m in ‘aww’ with the statistics that Women owned businesses receive 4% of venture capital, makes me think that venture capitalist funding is granted unfairly. I agree that being ‘gender aware’ and setting concrete goals, gender balance, and examining the composition of boards, committees, and influential groups within the organization can help grant opportunities to Women Entrepreneurs who are as prepared to male professionals.

  7. What a great article!!! I totally agree with the point of the author. As an international student studying in the United States, I found that the gender inequality is more severe than Taiwan. Even I am the MBA student who possesses the higher education and professional skills than others man in here, I still cannot have the opportunity as same as they have. I had been read the case study about Audi AG, a German automobile manufacturer. The Board of Directors also is organized by 90% of the men, and 10% of the women, but the women are the relative of those 90% men. In the German culture, they also genuinely believe in meritocracy. Although the increasing women are taking the STEM career, they still stuck in the gender discrimination. The problem of meritocracy should be solved not only by the government but also the corporations, the employers, and the power owners.

  8. I’m glad I read this article as I often find myself in a difficult position when I express my thoughts on gender inequality to those who so genuinely believe in meritocracy. I think the reason I feel that I get stumped is because I lay somewhere in the middle of being a feminist and believing in meritocracy. This might be because of how I was raised and being told the mantra of ‘if you work hard you can achieve anything’ and my now older understanding of the gender inequalities that exist today. This article gives light to something that I did not think of… the fact that the belief in meritocracy is alone a threat to gender inequality and that statement makes so much sense to me! Women are told to do better and only after they have done better will they get the job over a man… but they are given unequal opportunities. The tech world is one that I am admittedly not as familiar with but I do know that it is still predominantly male dominated. These articles raise so many questions…. Could women be more assertive? If women were given equal opportunity, do you think that these tech companies would hire them? If outreach and word of mouth and everything were in fact equal, would these tech companies truly open their doors to everyone? It just “boggles” my mind that inequalities exist because I do believe that the person that is the best fit for the job should be the one to get the job… and I know that there are job openings that are typically held by men that women have applied for and been the superior candidate for but the man was still hired. Companies need to hire the superior person for the job which requires being truly unbiased and open to all genders.

  9. Amazing Article!! I agree with what Adam mentioned; “many very talented people only want to be associated with companies who are fair and equitable”. Now, regarding the disrespectful comments made by Vaidyanathaswami represent the epitome of a sexist individual. It is people like that who contribute more to the problem every day rather than a solution.

  10. Woman should learn to work hard.There should be NO special treatment for woman.If someone does not succeed it means they are lazy.Woman can stay away doing domestic work or cooking.They can be done by robots or by people who earn low wages.If a robot can do a job we should discourage men or woman who does it by paying low wages.Everybody is expected to be Einstein only.Society does does NOT need carpenter,plumbers and electricians.Those work should be done by robots.AI should replace even doctors,engineers and lawyers who do any repetitive jobs.Woman should stop men from blaming if they are NOT successful in career.Highly qualified and career oriented men should refuse to marry woman who wants to domestic work..Those woman who does not have ambition of successful career must be prevented to enjoy luxury life.Highly successful men in career must refuse to marry such woman.Again those woman interested in domestic work are LAZY.They should suffer in life.No
    special treatment for woman.They should be told work hard or perish!

    • Vaidyanathaswami Muralidharan – women aren’t looking for special treatment. Women are fighting for equality…. Big difference. You may benefit from re-reading this article more closely to understand how your arguments fall flat. I could actually write a book in response to your comment, but I won’t. You go off on a tangent even within your own post, so for 2 seconds I will do the same: Sure, a robot could do the job that a carpenter does… but if you were to think about it for a few more minutes you would realize that there is more to a carpenter than simply doing the physical labor. Say someone was doing over their kitchen…. these hard working men and women doing the construction have expertise and more knowledge than a home owner might have and can tell them why something may or may not look right/be actually feasible or can give sought after advice on what would look best. Or take a construction worker who works outside and is digging the road up to service a gas pipe… sure a robot could do the digging but does the robot have the ability to stop when something goes wrong and can they speak to the homeowners that were affected and address each individual need? No. Don’t get me started on doctors and lawyers. So while your post doesn’t relate to gender inequality or the article, I caution you to think through your arguments of getting rid of extremely necessary jobs in society. (PS there are SO many lazy men out there.)

  11. This is a very interesting and powerful article. You hear time and time again people trying to make the case for why women are paid less or are not in high positions in many companies. However, the arguments don’t seem to pass an unbiased test. Assuming everything is always fair is not a constructive attitude. People need to understand it is important to bring society’s values into industries and organizations and make adjustments if there is inequality found. This helps advance equality in society, and it also tends to benefit companies in the end. By widening the pool from which a company draws talent, it is bound to attract higher caliber employees. Additionally, many very talented people only want to be associated with companies who are fair and equitable. Thank you for adding this to the argument for more positive change!

    • Adam, thank you for your thoughtful comments and views–indeed, it is hard to change when we believe what we’re doing is merit-based but hopefully, we can assess our practices and ideas to see if they are truly meritocratic!

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