Inspired: Meritocracy

As I get back into blogging—and after post-coming-out-as-transgender, and after post-election—I wanted to start writing about people who have influenced me to rethink positions I’ve held, and to help me see a perspective I’d never considered before.

I have a few drafts in mind of incredibly inspirational people to me. I was on the fence about whether or not to name-drop the people who provide the inspiration, as some may not want the attention. However, I also feel like a person should be credited for their influence, as it seems to complete a feedback loop that isn’t always available.

In other words, it’s easy to know that the ideas you are standing up for are effective when you hear from others that it has affected them in a positive way. But for friends and acquaintances, I’ll get consent first.

I thought I’d start with one that rattles around in my brain from time to time. And this is on the concept of meritocracy. Webster’s dictionary defines it as:

an elite group of people whose progress is based on ability and talent rather than on class privilege or wealth.

This term is bantered around a lot in the tech industry, and it’s now so loaded that it’s almost become stigmatized. In essence, the issue revolves around two main positions.

One position believes that meritocracy is real, and that anyone can become a wealthy, successful startup founder, if they just work hard enough and are talented enough.

Another position believes that meritocracy is not real, and in fact there are systemic issues that exist generally in society, and in the technology industry specifically, that prevent marginalized groups from having the same chance at success as those who are not marginalized.

Or, put another way. Meritocracy only exists for those who are not marginalized or minorities. It does not exist for everybody.

The person who first challenged me on this concept is Suzan Hinton, @noopkat on Twitter. Suz and I met several years ago in the Maker community, in the very early days of designing and building Pinoccio microcontroller boards. She is an incredibly talented maker, developer, and author.

She and I attended a Maker Faire in Las Vegas, where we were both asked to be on a panel, talking about the maker community, what it meant for the future of engineering and technology, and the struggles and challenges that lie ahead.

Somewhere in the discussion, we got on the subject of meritocracy. If memory serves, I was asked the question first, and I gave the answer that I thought was correct at the time—that of course meritocracy exists, I see it every day. Being perceived in public as a white, male, cisgender, heterosexual, it made perfect sense to me that yes, anybody can build a company. I was doing it, and I wasn’t living in the Bay Area and hadn’t graduated from Stanford. So it really seemed like the startup life was available to anyone.

She then gave her perspective. While I don’t recall the exact phrasing she used, she kindly disagreed with my position. She described how indeed a meritocracy does not exist when a person is not starting from the same dominant class of individuals within that group. As I remember it, she described that it doesn’t just affect gender or skin color—although those are common. But it also can be found in any marginalized group, such as those that may have lived experiences of a mental health condition, or that live with physical disabilities.

At the time, I thought I understood her perspective, though I couldn’t map the concept to my own life. But this exchange would pop into my head every once in a while over the next few years. Have you ever had experiences that seem somewhat mundane at the time, but only later do you realize they contain large truths that will have major impact for you later? That’s exactly what this was for me.

And it took me going through the process of gender transition in order to really understand what Suz was getting at. The truth is, meritocracy is only really true if you have access to the same resources and background as a starting point. In other words, if you start by being mostly in the same in-group in the first place. This rarely ever happens in real life.

And the truth is, had I not gone through the first 20 years of my career in the tech industry being perceived as a white cis-het male, I likely wouldn’t have had the same opportunities that I have received. Yes, I believe I’m pretty good at some things, and I’ve had to work to achieve them. But let’s be honest. Most of my opportunities were available to me because I had fit a pattern. It was up to me to take advantage of those opportunities to further my career.

If I were visibly trans when I was just starting my career, I’m certain I wouldn’t have been offered even a tiny sliver of the same opportunities. And by the laws of mathematics, I would also not have had as many chances to take advantage of said opportunities.

This is where meritocracy fails to uphold its definition within the tech industry.

So thank you Suz. Because of something you stood up for 5 years ago—while on a panel with me in a very public setting—you helped me to see the broader issue at hand. With this, I can finally begin to make changes in my own life to help increase opportunities to more marginalized groups, so that they can have the same chances as everyone else. Then we can start talking about meritocracy.