The American dream is built on the notion that the U.S. is a meritocracy. Americans believe success in life and business can be earned by anyone willing to put in the hard work necessary to achieve it, or so they say.
And this very fact – that Americans believe their society is a meritocracy – is the biggest threat to equality, particularly when it comes to gender, as research by myself and others shows.
The meaning of ‘meritocracy’
This myth is so powerful, it influences our behaviors.
Entrepreneurship is an area where the myths and realities of the American meritocracy come to a head.
The assumption is that women aren’t trying hard enough or doing the right things to get ahead, not that the way venture capitalists offer funding is itself unfair.
Another explanation for the lack of funding for women is pinned on the “pipeline” problem. That is, women just aren’t interested in the fields that form the backbone of the industry – science, technology, engineering and math.
Research I’ve conducted with management professor Susan Clark Muntean on entrepreneur support organizations, such as accelerators, shows that they often engage in outreach and recruitment tactics that benefit men rather than women. This is further supported by survey data from Techstars, one of the best-known and respected tech accelerators in the world. About 4 in 5 companies that have gone through their programs are white and almost 9 in 10 are male.
And yet these tech accelerators are guided by an implicit understanding that gender-neutral outreach and recruitment practices rather than targeted ones will bring in the “best” people. This notion is often expressed as “Our doors are open to everyone” to indicate that they do not discriminate.
Yet claiming to be gender-neutral prevents organizations from recognizing that their practices are actually biased. Most outreach and recruitment takes place through word-of-mouth, alumni referrals and personal networks of accelerator leadership, which are predominantly composed of males.
These approaches often bring in more of the same: white male entrepreneurs rather than diverse professionals. As a result, women do not have equal access to resources in entrepreneurial ecosystems.
The first step to solving this problem is for tech startups, investors and accelerators to realize that what they call meritocracy is in fact itself gender-biased and results in mostly white men gaining access to resources and funding. By continuing to believe in meritocracy and maintaining practices associated with it, gender equality will remain a distant goal.
The next step is to move away from gender-neutral approaches and instead adopt “gender-aware,” proactive measures to change unfair practices. This includes setting concrete goals to achieve gender balance, examining the gender composition of boards, committees and other influential groups in the organization, and assessing the tools and channels used for outreach, recruitment and support of entrepreneurs.
The return on investment in gender equality is clear: Supporting and investing in businesses started by half the world’s population will create thriving societies and sustainable economies. And it starts with male allies who want to be part of the solution and recognize that meritocracy, as society currently defines it, isn’t the way to go.