September 3, 2008

It’s Not a Meritocracy

Posted in Careers, On the Job tagged , , at 8:56 pm by Katelyn

Hannah Seligson’s book “New Girl on the Job: Advice From the Trenches” has long been on my to-read list, but after reading her article in the New York Times on Sunday, it has moved to the top of the queue.   She very realistically presented her query into why females perform circles around their male counterparts in an academic environment, but can’t seem to do the same in the workplace.

Aside from the typical outside forces – men who can’t see past appearances, women who undermine other women instead of helping them, or women who continually take “assistant-like” positions – it is often women who are the ones getting in the way of our own successes.  Seligson realized that in order to match men in the workplace, she needed to “develop a thick skin, feel comfortable promoting [her]self, learn how to negotiate, stop being a perfectionist and create a professional network – abilities that men are just more likely to have already.”

I can relate to wanting improvement on 4 out of the 5 above.  Creating a professional network is something that I have been aware of and something that I try to think creatively about improving on.  Feeling comfortable promoting myself and learning how to negotiate are two traits that I have seen more now that I am in the business world and I would have to agree that males typically have these 2 down.  They love to talk about how well they are doing and they are not afraid to argue or stand up for a point of view and they are often recognized for it.  I definitely need to work on those in order to keep up and surpass.  But ‘stop being a perfectionist’ is not something that readily comes to mind when I think of skills needed to advance or do well at work.  I am somewhat of a perfectionist at work because my job requires me to be detail-oriented and juggle tons of balls at once.  When I actually think about it though, I am always saying that I feel like I am ready to move into a position where I can look at the bigger picture, make bigger decisions, and delegate work.  A person at that level does not have the time or energy to be a perfectionist…I think she has something here and it’s something that I want for my career.

Ultimately, the quote that really drove Seligson’s point home was:

“By and large women believe that the workplace is a meritocracy, and it isn’t,” said Myra Hart.

Meritocracy (noun):

1.) a system in which the talented are chosen and moved ahead on the basis of their achievement.  2.) leadership selected on the basis of intellectual criteria.

If that isn’t reality, I don’t know what is.  For me, this article was motivating and a heavy dose of reality.  I am ready to bring that good old academic environment, where females succeeded above and beyond, to the workplace.


  1. s g said,

    The quote from Myra Hart reminded me of one from Michael Lewis’ book _Liars Poker_: Bad management drives out good management.”

    As a male, Ms. Hart’s comment hit home…. hard. I think I have been pushing meritocracy too hard.

    Bring the academic environment into the workplace – I am ready to follow!!

  2. James Pawson said,

    So, you are equating a meritocracy to an acedemic environment? You must know that in the business world there is more to merit than being an intellectual (such as being effectual.) You seemed to have made a category error; note that the acedemic world is separate from the business world. We are talking about the latter, and I agree (as you can see from my consulting blog) that it would indeed be vastly beneficial if the two could converge more. But that IS NOT the state of affairs, and you don’t explain how and why such a change should be made– besides implying that it would be better for women; again, I don’t see your basis for saying this.

    Fill in you logical gaps, otherwise any calls from you to go the more intellectual route will strike critical thinkers as hypocritical.

  3. Katelyn said,

    @James – Thanks for your comment, I appreciate your perspective.

    I should have been clearer. The purpose of this post was not to fault either the academic or business environments – they are what they are. And I most certainly agree with you that academia is a meritocracy, while the business world places merit on being effectual, as you say.

    What I intended to point out was that I agree with Hannah Seligson in that women more commonly struggle with transferring their successes in an academic environment to success in a business environment.

    A wise friend made a comment to me that was not far off from what you were getting at – “I think female individuals need to realize that intellectual superiority is not the only measure of success in corporate America.” I don’t mean this to understate the importance of intellectual prowess, but simply to acknowledge that more pieces are at work in the complex corporate world and women need to accept this notion.

    In short, women need to understand the difference that exists between academia and business and adjust to succeed in business.

    Perhaps I should have concluded with, “I am ready to transfer the many successes of females in academia to equally great successes in the workplace” rather than the sentence that I did.

    Again, thanks for reading and thanks for your comment!

  4. Lindsay said,

    I completely agree with you (in disagreeing with Seligson) regarding her advice to stop being a perfectionist. Like your job, mine is dependent upon getting every little detail exact and correct. If my work isn’t done perfectly, my company could end up getting sued – yikes. However, in positions that are more big picture-oriented, I can see where being a perfectionist would be a waste of time.

Leave a Reply to s g Cancel reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: