Why We Need to Bust the Myth of Meritocracy

July 19, 2012One by one, myths about women’s abilities and aspirations in the workplace have fallen by the wayside. Jeanine Prime, PhD, Vice President, Research, now busts one more. Sparked by a surprising comment made at a public forum, and informed by the findings of a recent Catalyst study, Jeanine targets one more pernicious myth for demolition.


The myth of meritocracy is alive and well.

Several weeks ago, I attended The Wall Street Journal’s second Women in the Economy Conference. I was pleased to represent Catalyst among a group of accomplished women executives from around the world, including celebrities and political figures like Geena Davis and Madeline Albright. This was certainly no group of slackers.

We talked about why gender gaps were so persistent—in so many domains—and brainstormed about how to close them. And at the end of the our meetings, we were addressed by renowned former Fortune 500 CEO, Jack Welch, who offered a reaction to the action items that we’d all been fine-tuning over the course of two days.

He began by telling us quite candidly that we’d wasted our time and that we’d been focusing on all the wrong things. He said that if women really wanted to get ahead, they needed to simply focus on one thing: performance. He advised that women should over-deliver. We were all stunned into silence until one woman called out that she was hoping to regain consciousness soon!

Welch’s comments were indeed sobering. I began to think about how too many women and men, like Welch and those aspiring to be like him, held the view that in business and in life we all get exactly what we deserve—that we are all rewarded in a manner commensurate with our talents. Even though people often claim, as Mr. Welch did, that performance is the key to advancement, it’s difficult to observe the inequities that abound in business, our society, and the world at large, and not argue that in fact it is who you know that gets you ahead, not necessarily what you know, as Catalyst research shows.

But it can be hard for those of us at the top of the hierarchy to admit that we haven’t gotten there all on our own steam—especially when we’ve worked hard to advance. Nonetheless, acknowledging these group-based advantages and letting go of the myth of meritocracy is critical if we can ever hope to address gender and racial gaps in our society. In fact, research shows that biases actually flourish in workplaces that tout the idea of meritocracy.

In Calling All White Men: Can Training Help Create Inclusive Workplaces?, a recent Catalyst study I led with co-authors Heather Foust-Cummings, Elizabeth R. Salib, and Corinne Moss-Racusin, we demonstrated how one courageous company, Rockwell Automation, began dismantling the myth of meritocracy and transforming the work culture. Rockwell started with white men, a group who research suggests may be relatively more attached to the idea of meritocracy. Our study showed that when white men accepted that although they were not personally responsible for creating inequities, it was their responsibility as leaders to help promote inclusion and equity, workplace incivility declined. And in just four months, managers started practicing critical inclusive leadership behaviors more and more, making changes that were visible to those with whom they worked.

If we want to create inclusive workplaces, we all—not just white men—have to face the facts. Even though our individual efforts matter, our group memberships also influence perceptions of our competence and worth. I hope more companies will follow Rockwell’s lead and take courageous steps like these to start dismantling the myth of meritocracy. Busting this myth, once and for all, will go a long way in leveling the playing field for all employees.


Jeanine Prime, PhD, leads studies on leadership, change management, and organizational effectiveness. She has led cross-cultural studies on perceptions of women’s and men’s leadership, as well as diversity and inclusion strategy and practice. Currently, she spearheads Catalyst’s research and programs on engaging men in gender equity initiatives. Dr. Prime has also worked professionally as an organizational development consultant, with specialties including workforce analytics, diversity and inclusion, and talent management strategy. She holds a BA in psychology from Spelman College, a PhD in social psychology from Cornell University and an MBA from the State University of New York at Binghamton.

The views expressed herein are solely those of the guest blogger and do not necessarily reflect those of Catalyst. Catalyst does not endorse any political candidates. The post and the comments are presented only for the purpose of informing the public.