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  • Writer's pictureAnthony Roberson

DEI, Politics, and Meritocracy

Originally posted on the Mattingly Solutions Blog.

It is no secret that there is a great political divide today in the US and through many parts of the world. Research suggests that this divide is the worst since political group sentiment was first measured in 1972, especially with the increase of negative ads and campaigns.

While diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) has become a tool for “cancel culture” among some liberals, DEI has also become a trigger word sparking great anger and defensive efforts to stop “wokeness” among some conservatives, leading to the dismantling of any initiative that promotes a multicultural approach. Further, longstanding tools aimed at leveling the playing field, such as race-based affirmative action, have been eliminated.

This divide results in the two sides consistently going at each other’s throats without actually considering the points the other side has to make. This is worsened by the fact that political identity is an acceptable form of discrimination, as it is not a protected class at the federal level.

Though ideology tends to be tied to political affiliation, researchers suggest that ideological beliefs (liberal vs. conservative) and political identity (Democrat vs. Republican) are not necessarily the same. So, while many Republican politicians may publicly disapprove of DEI interventions (e.g., Gov. DeSantis), many conservatives indeed support one of the critical, yet often misinterpreted, tenets of DEI: merit. In other words, there may be a better chance of achieving agreement on DEI interventions when appealing to ideology rather than politics.

It is important to note that ideological differences do exist. For example, liberals value equality and consider contextual factors when judging a person, while conservatives value hierarchy and consider only personal factors when judging others. However, there are points of convergence that can potentially increase DEI buy-in among conservatives. For example, there is common ground between liberals and conservatives when it comes to teaching both the positives and negatives of American history. One point of convergence that has not been investigated is the value of merit.

Myth of Meritocracy

While most people would likely agree that individuals should be rewarded based on their efforts, recent research suggests there are still gaps in true meritocracy that exist in the workplace. For example, research shows that there are gender and race effects for pay and promotion. This is especially true when there is a lack of transparency and accountability for those making salary decisions, even after controlling for performance ratings.

Research also suggests that historically marginalized groups experience harsher punishments. For instance, Gupta and colleagues(2020) found that while male CEOs in a high performing firm have a lower chance of being dismissed than male CEOs in low performing firms, female CEOs have an equal chance of dismissal, regardless of whether their firm performance is high or low. Another study shows that when considering tardiness, Black employees receive harsher punishment than their white counterparts, such as lower performance appraisal ratings and reduced chances for career advancement.

An integrative review by Amis and colleagues (2020) suggests that these issues emerge because organizations tend to hire based on cultural similarity, promote based on informal networks and mentorships, and compensate throughout one’s career based on discrepant entry pay. These inequitable practices are legitimized and persist in part because of the myth of meritocracy.

It should be noted that promoting meritocracy can have detrimental effects, leading to greater and more open discrimination and prejudice. This is in part due to a lack of understanding regarding merit. Ironically, the term meritocracy was originally dystopian in nature as it would be used to justify a system of inequality based on one’s IQ and effort. Yet, as a society, it was widely accepted.

Ideally, a meritocratic society will provide equal opportunity for success to everyone, rewarding those that work hard and act on ambition. What many people do not acknowledge is that merit is inherently based on non-meritocratic factors that start from birth, such as socioeconomic status, gender, race, etc.

Here’s a scenario detailing what we mean:

  • Person A: invited for interview at Yale, prestigious and wealthy family

  • Person B: invited for interview at Yale, poor family, neighborhood, and school

  • While both should be proud of their accomplishments, one can imagine that Person B had to climb a higher mountain to receive an invitation for an interview. That’s not to say Person A had it easy or cheated their way, but when selecting either Person A or B, merit would suggest that Person B is better able to handle both personal and societal headwinds. Yet, because of a lack of resources, such as paid interview prep classes or family members who had also attended the university, Person B may be denied entry despite having the potential to succeed at the university.

What this scenario suggests is that in order to appreciate merit, we need to consider a person holistically, not just their test scores, GPAs, or accolades. Particularly, in order to understand the effort an individual puts forth, we need to bring to the forefront concepts traditionally considered as non-meritocratic, such as family background, wealth, and social capital, all of which can be tied to DEI constructs such as race, gender, and age.

Resembling the work of Kim and Choi (2017), we recommend people view meritocracy as a transparent and impartial system that rewards individuals based on their goal achievement and effort, which can only be fairly assessed AFTER considering their natural ability, access to resources, socioeconomic status, perseverance, resilience.

With this definition of merit, people of all backgrounds, not just historically marginalized groups, will have equitable access to resources, truly leading toward a society that thrives

on the tenet of equal opportunity. DEI is one way to strive toward that ideal form of meritocracy.

DEI Done Right Fosters Meritocracy

DEI has been greatly politicized, with its true goal diminished among fierce verbal (and sometimes physical) attacks between political opponents. Though DEI has become politicized, ideology tends to be avoided in DEI discussions, leading to a missed opportunity of closing the gap between the two ideological ends. Particularly, meritocracy, which is a value held strongly among conservatives, is the ultimate goal of DEI.

The goal of DEI is to achieve the ideal of meritocracy and reduce systemic barriers to success for all groups of people. It is crucial to understand that DEI does not support the selection of those that do not want to work hard, but instead recognizes and rewards those that do work hard but have traditionally been, and continue to be, overlooked for some of the reasons listed above.

It is important to note, however, that not all DEI initiatives are designed with these ideas in mind, nor are all of them based on best practices or psychometrically tested, one of the many reasons why DEI initiatives may fail.

There are also DEI initiatives that are designed to make individuals feel guilty as a way to motivate them toward action. But here at Mattingly Solutions, we believe in the importance of using metrics to inform decision-making around DEI, as well as using an all-inclusive multicultural approach in which everyone is a part of the DEI discussion.

Looking to advance DEI through data-driven insights in your organization? Contact us at Plan to Action today to drive meaningful change, together.

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