Meritocracy not simply a matter of good intentions, MIT Sloan faculty explain at diversity summit

Published: February 6, 2013

MIT Sloan Associate Professor Emilio CastillaMIT Sloan Associate Professor Emilio Castilla presents research at the annual MIT diversity summit



Achieving meritocracy—the idea that people advance in work and life based on ability—is complicated. Well-intentioned efforts to implement meritocracy in schools and the workplace can actually have the opposite effect, MIT Sloan professors explained at the third-annual MIT Institute Diversity Summit.

At the event, MIT Sloan professors Emilio Castilla and Denise Lewin Loyd presented research that details how even simple attempts to instill meritocracy and inclusion in an organization can become fraught with complexity.

Castilla discussed what he calls “The Paradox of Meritocracy in Organizations,” whereby promoting an institution as a meritocracy can actually have some “unintended consequences of increased bias.”

In some of his experiments, he found that managers who were embedded in organizations that emphasized meritocracy actually showed greater bias against women, for example.

“The pursuit of meritocracy is more difficult than it appears,” he said. “We need to define what meritocracy means.”

The concept of meritocracy in the workplace is even more complicated when considering the hiring process, said Loyd, who conducts research on diversity within groups. For example, if there is only one woman on a six-person hiring committee, and that woman favors hiring the one qualified female candidate, she is faced with acting neutral, advocating for her gender, or having to come to terms with the “favoritism threat,” the perception that her colleagues will suspect she only wants to hire a woman.

“She is afraid of being viewed as ‘playing favorites,’” Loyd explained. In her research, Loyd discovered that women would sometimes actually rate qualified female workplace applicants lower, because they are so concerned about the favoritism threat.

MIT Sloan Associate Professor Denise Lewin LoydMIT Sloan Associate Professor Denise Lewin Loyd spoke at the summit



The solution to the favoritism threat is not easy, she added. Keeping diversity front and center is important, but so is inclusion.

“Diversity is not enough,” Loyd said. “When we include individuals and make them feel a part of this institution … then I think we can begin to alleviate some of the concerns.”

MIT Dean of Admissions Stuart Schmill followed up on Castillo and Loyd’s research with insight into the undergraduate admissions process at MIT. His office spends quite a bit of time and resources ensuring that they build as diverse an applicant pool as possible. This means recruiting underrepresented minorities, rural students, women, low-income candidates, and others who may have never considered attending college, let alone MIT.

Every year, the MIT admissions office receives a staggering 19,000 applications.

“Out of this, about 15,000 are qualified academically to do the work here,” Schmill said. “Out of that 15,000, about 9,000 of them are so excellent that if they were here on campus, they would seem like any excellent MIT student. We can pick among 9,000 students, all of whom would be outstanding.”

Schmill said it is a colossal challenge to choose the approximately 1,100 students who make up each year’s MIT freshman class.

“Also, we don’t have a single definition of what merit is,” Schmill said.

MIT strives to accept all kinds of talent, but does attempt to remove the bias in admissions decisions by ensuring every application goes through multiple reviews with multiple committees, he said.

“Any student who makes it all the way through [to admission] has made it through several committees with different makeups,” Schmill said.

The Institute Diversity Summit, which was co-sponsored by the Committee on Race and Diversity, the Council on Staff Diversity and Inclusion, and the Office of the President, opened with an introduction by MIT President L. Rafael Reif, who said meritocracy has been a core value at MIT for a long time, and that it is part of what made him feel welcome when he joined MIT as a faculty member in 1980. Born of modest means in Venezuela, Reif was one of the first in his family to attend college.

“From the beginning, MIT saw itself as a place where people with talent, drive, and good ideas could succeed—regardless of their background,” he said. “That has served MIT very well.”

Following a 30-plus-year career at the Institute, Reif said he still believes MIT offers a hospitable environment, although he’s heard other viewpoints over the years. Meritocracy is not that simple, he stated, and also acknowledged he may not have felt so included had he been a woman or had a different skin color. He encouraged the MIT community to work together to ensure it practices what it preaches.