The Fallacy of Meritocracy

Cathy Lee
7 min readNov 30, 2015

Even as an associate in investment banking, I was often asked to go above and beyond my skillsets and book a car or make restaurant reservations.

The male managing directors I was surrounded by all seemed far more comfortable asking me, the Asian girl, to take care of typically secretarial duties. They very quickly learned how to use Uber and OpenTable — or to ask literally…anyone else.

I Thought I Left This…

A coworker from a completely different department once had the audacity to ask me if I was hired because I’m Asian (so good at math) and cute (because I’m a girl). Senior men around us laughed. The list of racist and sexist microagressions is long enough for me to write a book, start a tumblr page, write a medium post. The last straw was the company-wide women’s symposium I was more or less ordered to go to. This firm was bold enough to hold a women’s symposium that failed to include women as speakers at the main event. Yup, the executive roundtable discussion on women in the workforce featured four white, middle aged men. This careless attempt to ‘comfort’ my desire for inclusion was insulting and alarmingly clueless.

So I left the company and didn’t think twice about my decision.

Unexpected Similar Experiences In A New Industry

Within two weeks of leaving this old boys’ club and joining Glassbreakers, however, I found myself in ludicrous conversations with young women and men at other startups in our coworking space. I guess I had just assumed the start-up world would be filled with much more progressive people — given the nature of the industry. It blew my mind that the insidious sexism and racism remained prevalent outside the world of finance. I realize now that much of our generation still doesn’t understand what diversity and inclusion really means or the history and ensuing psychology that shapes the current state of social affairs. There was a general sense of — “life is fair and thus meritocracy shall prevail” — an almost condescending take suggesting that the lack of diversity is merely a lack of talent issue. And just like my previous firms (which are much more traditional and institutionalized and honestly…seen as old and stodgy), they seemed to think diversity wasn’t a competitive advantage, which would explain the tacit acceptance of teams made up of mirror images of each other.

Diversity, Inclusion & Discrimination

These surprising conversations within a younger startup community opened my eyes to how ill-informed and insensitive an astonishing portion of our generation is on the below matters:

  • equality vs. equity and the ensuing fallibility of meritocracy
  • the prevalence of unconscious bias and its effect on hiring practices
  • diversity & inclusion as a competitive advantage to company culture and bottom line

To provide better context, the question shot at me was: at what point do we stop apologizing and just accept a system based on meritocracy? How long do we have to keep talking about discrimination? Read: for how long do we have to hire less qualified minorities over qualified white males because of this affirmative action-esque social pressure? My initial response was for them to do some research on equality vs. equity. Equality is the idea that everyone is given the same opportunity. Equity is the idea that everyone is given a fair chance at the same opportunity, not necessarily equal. So for those who know basic history, I think we can all agree that women and minorities did not begin the race at the same starting line as white men (you should really stop reading this and educate yourself if you don’t agree).

Another conversation centered around best hiring practices and when asked how/why he had yet to hire a female engineer, a tech startup CEO’s response was simply “I want to hire the best people possible”. The irony of saying that to the Glassbreakers’ team was laughable in its outrageous unawareness. That’s when it hit me. This second conversation made me realize that my reaction to the first conversation had to go one step further. Yes, explain the basics of equality and equity but also have an in-depth discussion on meritocracy.


Let me be clear. We do not currently live in a system of meritocracy. Let’s not even get into the imposter syndrome and confidence bluff (look it up and dive into it if you haven’t — it’s fascinating). Let’s just focus on meritocracy and diversity. When you discuss meritocracy and the “best” as the rationale behind having only white men in the workforce, you daringly insinuate that women and minorities are simply consistently less qualified than white men. Fuck that. That is mathematically impossible. Try that on me twenty years ago and I’d maaaybe let it slide. Not today.

You will always find women and people of color who are qualified. I promise you this. They are out there, despite the unbelievable lack of equity women and minorities have had to face.

Let me repeat. We do not currently live in a system of meritocracy. As Adam Quinton pointed out, we currently most definitely live in an institutionalized system of mirror-cracy. He explains that “a male-dominated tech industry likes to work with others similar to them to the detriment of diversity”. While he specifically points to Silicon Valley, I ascertain that mirror-cracy is flagrant throughout various industries (finance, hollywood, medicine, politics). Because of unconscious biases that we as a society do not press enough emphasis on — like inevitably begets like. We hire, fund and promote based on what is familiar to us, what we understand, what looks…like us (please note each hyperlink leads to a different article). It’s not just coincidence that the women’s symposium at my former company was filled with all white male panelists. White men have had the tenure and the most accessibility to get to that executive suite. And with the continued mentality of meritocracy in silos, protected from the social and cultural context within we actually live, we will continue to see a severe lack of diversity in both established and start-up companies. To their own detriment.

What Can We Do?

I don’t have the answer to how long we have to keep talking about discrimination. What I do know, without a doubt, is that we are currently not nearly at a point where this conversation is irrelevant. We can’t keep ignoring sexism and racism and excuse the choices that our unconscious biases allow us to make. We can’t keep ignoring the history that brings us to the social inequality we face today and scream meritocracy. That’s just lazy. There has to be a concerted effort to consciously look for it, discuss it, search even harder for it, find it, assess it, understand it, act on it.

If you’ve only received ten applications and they were all from the same demographic, open up the pool, use another website, extend the timeline. Do you have diversity with the photos on your website? Does your hiring practice incorporate blind testing? Or simply acknowledge that you never put the effort in. Flippantly passing off the lack of diversity in your hiring patterns as simply a lack of talent is not only highly offensive, it perpetuates a dangerous mentality that white men truly are successful because they are that much more accomplished and hardworking. And the rest of us simply…fill a quota.

It’s Never Too Late to Learn More

This is a human issue. We have studies after studies proving that diversity benefits the workplace, the bottom line, society. Diversity makes us smarter. Companies in the top quartile for gender and ethnic diversity are 35% more likely to have financial returns above their industry median. We really shouldn’t even need these studies but they’re out there. Look for them. Message me directly and I’d be happy to provide links. We should all be paying attention to this. Those who don’t are silently, but actively, perpetuating a system that is designed to benefit one specific group.

I’m still shocked to see the same patterns of indifference to inclusion I thought I had left behind in old institutions amongst the future leaders of tomorrow in startup land. However, in this community of innovators I do see hope that if we don’t settle for the meritocracy excuse and challenge each other to build the best diverse teams possible, the results of those teams will speak louder than we could ever imagine.



Cathy Lee

thoughts that are more or less informing my journey…hoping you find it helpful too