“We are true to our creed when a little girl born into the bleakest poverty knows that she has the same chance to succeed as anybody else.” – Barack Obama
Meritocracy, the idea that anyone should be able to ‘rise to the top’ through sheer talent and effort regardless of money or social status, has become ingrained in our lives and social systems. We all write the same exams in schools, and pass the same screening tests to acquire jobs. Ideally, this system should result in equal opportunity for all people.
However, inequalities are still prevalent.
- In 2021, women held only 31.7% of the top executive positions in the US.
- White-skinned people receive about 50% more callbacks than similarly qualified non-white applicants in Western countries.
- The asymmetry isn’t just at the organizational level; 67% of students in Harvard come from families in the top 20% of the income bracket.
- 75/100 US senators are male, and 88/100 are white, despite only 60% of Americans being white.
If meritocracy truly values talent and effort over other factors, why do statistics reveal such disparity?
Firstly, the idea of merit itself is undefined. Spartans, for example, valued aggression, while Western Europeans valued pacifism. People across time and space have had different perceptions of success, meaning that the criteria defining it are never constant, and frequently biased.
Today, meritocratic society has an inherent top-and-bottom structure, because someone has to be at the bottom to create a ‘top’ others can rise to. This divide is made apparent with a glance at the economic system. The top 1% of earners make 26.3 times as much as the bottom 99%!
In a truly meritocratic system, this should not pose a challenge. Everyone should have equal opportunity regardless of their economic status. Unfortunately, this system overlooks exactly what money can buy. In 2005, rich parents spent 8 times as much on enrichment expenses as poor parents. A child with access to high-quality schooling and tutoring will have an advantage in examinations. Not everyone is starting from the bottom together.
That’s not all. Since our current educational and professional systems cherish some kinds of intelligence and competencies above others, occupations that require a different skill set are less valued.
Delivery driving, for example, has been considered an essential job since COVID-19. Despite this, the drivers’ average income is 38,502 USD a year (as of 2023), which is not enough to live comfortably in the US. Only 13% of drivers have a bachelor’s degree, implying that driving is not a desired occupation by the well-educated. Other occupations vital for survival, such as farming, are also not highly regarded.
Meritocracy is a great idea, but in practice, faces limitations, especially because of hierarchies and human bias. While we cannot hope to change world policies, we can make adjustments at the organizational level to ease these limitations! We’ll discuss some of them in the next blog.