Opinion: Meritocracy in Silicon Valley a worthy goal but not a reality
Marissa Mayer, who is pregnant with her first child, created a buzz this week when she became Yahoo's new CEO.
July 20th, 2012
03:13 PM ET

Opinion: Meritocracy in Silicon Valley a worthy goal but not a reality

Editor's note: Freada Kapor Klein is a venture partner at Kapor Capital , the founder of the Level Playing Field Institute and author of "Giving Notice: Why the Best and the Brightest Leave the Workplace and How You Can Help Them Stay."  She says her career has been devoted to helping create fair workplaces, beginning with co-founding the first group on sexual harassment in the United States in 1976.

By Freada Kapor Klein, Special to CNN

(CNN) - I look forward to the day when a pregnant engineer becoming CEO of a major tech company isn’t news.

Wouldn’t it be great if the hottest deals were done in the nursing mothers’ lounge as often as they were done on the golf course?

If this possibility strikes us as odd, perhaps it’s a sign that Silicon Valley has not yet achieved the perfect meritocracy it claims to be.

Opinion: Silicon Valley is no meritocracy for minorities

Despite the best intentions, Silicon Valley bears little resemblance to the America it depends on for talent and customers.

This gap between aspiration and achievement is worth serious exploration.

Recently, I was part of a panel with Marissa Mayer, the new CEO of Yahoo, and Angela Benton, the founder of NewMe Accelerator who was profiled on CNN’s Black in America 4: "Silicon Valley, the New Promised Land."

If Mayer can have it all, can you?

Their stories reflected two different paths to success.

When Mayer graduated from Stanford University, she had 20 job offers and constructed a spreadsheet of the relative advantages and disadvantages of each.

Benton worried about how to take care of her three daughters as a single mother.

Their pioneering accomplishments ought to be celebrated, while we also look for business models that allow both to thrive.

For all the decades of corporate approaches to balancing work/family, few ask whether women from different backgrounds might have different ways in which they seek to juggle their responsibilities.

Opinion: No one at the top gets to have it all

All of the advantages of diversity - ideas for start-ups born of different lived experience, new approaches to problem-solving and managing - can only be achieved if we loosen the grip of the belief that there is one best way to run a meeting or run a company. Similarly, the belief that there is a clear best qualified candidate for every job holds a grain of truth but also leaves room for bucketfuls of hidden biases.

I founded the Level Playing Field Institute, which recently studied the impact of hidden bias in tech workplaces, both large companies and start-ups.

What was striking was the degree to which engineers and managers in the same companies have day-to-day experiences that dramatically diverge. Even though they’re often are on the same team or in the same department, some feel respected and encouraged, while others feel excluded and ignored.

These views aren’t randomly distributed across the group of engineers and managers - they strongly diverge by race and gender.

A particularly striking finding was that while 60% of men in start-ups believe diverse teams are better at innovation and problem-solving, only 41% would be in favor of a companywide hiring practice to increase diversity.


If 60% believed, for example, that knowing how to code made for better hires, would only 41% be in favor of hiring people who know how to code?

In that same study, women and underrepresented people of color were far more likely to believe in the importance of diverse representation on teams and to support company hiring practices to achieve diversity than their white and male counterparts.

Underrepresented people of color were nearly twice as likely as whites to be in favor of a companywide practice to increase diversity (80% compared with 46%). Eighty-two of men in start-ups believed their companies currently spent the “right amount of time” addressing diversity.

Breaking the 'young white male' tech founder mold

Until our experiences of our shared workplaces converge, we will continue to confuse “style and fit” with merit.

Why does this matter?

Because it undermines fundamental fairness and robs individuals, companies and society of the benefit of everyone’s talents.

Imagine a company whose innovation was focused on figuring out how to achieve bias-free hiring.

Or used to tackle the vexing problems of helping employees balance careers and children, or other life pursuits.

As long as we have one and only one model of success - indeed Mayer spoke of working 20 hours a day at Google and sleeping under her desk - and one view of what talent looks like (either a graduate or a dropout of a top-tier university), we’ll all lose out.

America can’t have a continued high standard of living without finding all available talent, nurturing it and providing opportunities for budding entrepreneurs, investors and employees from every corner.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Freada Kapor Klein.

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Filed under: Ethnicity • Gender • Race • Technology • What we think
soundoff (30 Responses)
  1. Aniz

    The brave troops of WW II did not have cmraea crews following them all over the place. And in WW II the cmraea crews supported the troops and the war and did not go out of their way to embarrass the troops or make them look bad. Today the networks are a bunch of flaming liberals who will do whatever it takes to improve their ratings and further their cut and run agenda.Perhaps you should ask why are new reporters of today such jerks and not professionals like they were in WW Two.

    September 16, 2012 at 1:57 am | Report abuse |
  2. M

    Let's see where Marissa Mayer and Yahoo are at in 3 or 4 years then pass judgement. I bet her severance package is negotiated so even if she gets canned like so many before her she will make out like a bandit. Gotta wonder if the severance packages of all the former CEOs of Yehaw aren't helping to bleed the company dry. I may be a little prejudice here but I've seen pretty women before who have be touted as the next coming fall flat on their face, don't care about her gender or ethnicity because it's about can they get the damn job done!!!

    August 7, 2012 at 9:19 am | Report abuse |
  3. Ron Long

    Does she know anything about Computers?

    August 6, 2012 at 10:50 pm | Report abuse |
  4. andyboe

    If you are a white male over 45 in The Valley, good luck getting hired.

    August 3, 2012 at 6:04 pm | Report abuse |
  5. Song

    Check the fact please: the founder of Yahoo is not white man. Jerry Young is Asian, Chinese, to be specific.

    July 26, 2012 at 8:47 pm | Report abuse |
  6. GoDucks73

    Blah blah blah, women only want to be CEO or president, or queen of everything. Last time someone picked up my garbage, it was a man, last time someone cleared my table at a restaurant...it was a man, the last time someone fixed my broken toilet, a man. The last time I was pulled out of a burning building, it was NOT a pregnant woman. The last time I heard someone complain about just getting the CEO position, then claim they need maternity leave, that was a woman.

    July 24, 2012 at 11:53 pm | Report abuse |
    • IthinkItThrough

      well said.

      July 27, 2012 at 8:26 pm | Report abuse |
  7. John

    The article claims a lack of merit-based recognition but then mourns a lack of gender and racial diversity. Last I saw, young white men made up most of the engineering and computer science programs reflecting they have a passion for technology and engineering. Anyone who wishes can enter these college programs. That passion creates results in the technology fields.

    July 24, 2012 at 10:58 am | Report abuse |
  8. ChuckBrowne

    What an unrealistic spoilt-generation yammer. Many people (F/M) would be very happy to get one job per family, at all, in any branch, under the current crisis.

    July 24, 2012 at 2:58 am | Report abuse |
  9. Silly Valley

    Freada Kapor you distort the reality instead to promote the truth. You don't know anything about Silicon Valley and how the merits are got in Silicon Valley. The CEOs from Silicon Valley have nothing to do with merits that imply promotions by good faith, don't know anything about computers and IT business the only goal they have is to exploit and get very rich very fast. If you want to write something clever write about the lives of programmers and engineers from this area, who they are, how they live, if they have choices and balance in their lives.

    July 23, 2012 at 11:59 pm | Report abuse |
  10. wz

    If you're a black woman and a good engineer you shouldn't have a problem finding work, it's just that there aren't many of them. Couldn't you make the same argument for why aren't there more female garbage truck drivers? Women go to school for nursing by choice.

    July 23, 2012 at 2:04 pm | Report abuse |
  11. Saul

    Did CNN selectively removed some of the comments on this post? CNN censorship!?

    July 23, 2012 at 1:31 pm | Report abuse |
  12. neilgcnd

    The headline asserts that Silicon Valley is not a meritocracy. However, the article is actually about gender and racial diversity in Silicon Valley. Those are two completely different topics. Meritocracy means that the highest performing individuals are rewarded. This has nothing to do with race or gender.

    July 23, 2012 at 1:21 pm | Report abuse |
  13. GenXcynic

    I've seen the results of policies that strive to achieve a diverse workforce. It is exactly the same as it was before, only with more color.

    Some of the new hires were good, others were not. The difference is that when a new "diversity" hire fails, we tend blame the stereotype rather than the individual.

    The problem is not so much a lack of diversity, it is a lack of ability to see things a different way. Unfortunately, the diversity plans I've seen only result in a hiring practice that goes from "like I am" to "like I am but black" (or Hispanic, female, etc).

    July 22, 2012 at 2:59 pm | Report abuse |
  14. SoCalDave

    Meritocracy is an illusion. It's something that dangled in front of employees to maximize productivity at the prospect of advancement when in fact it's nepotism and networking more often than not that advances employees. It's a last ditch effort to instill some sense of loyalty from employees who realize that the company is exploiting them and has no loyalty to them. Companies today have no sense of loyalty to their employees and because of that employees are not loyal to the company they work for. The days of spending your entire career at one company are an artifact of the 20th century.

    July 22, 2012 at 2:56 pm | Report abuse |
  15. Michael

    This article wants to achieve a social construct based on the idea of diversity. "Breaking the young white male", is not diversity. This woman is a clown, not a scholar, my idea of diversity is exposing everyone to math and science but that doesn't mean creating more physicists and mathematicians because it doesn't meet your quota of who qualifies based on your standards of social construct instead of who passed the classes and got the answers correct.

    July 22, 2012 at 2:41 pm | Report abuse |
  16. André

    Sure it makes you sick. Sick of jealousy. No businessman will pay someone more than they are worth. And if those engineers are "exploited" they are free to leave.. if they, or anyone else, could engineer them a better deal, dear worker, they are free to do so. Ramblings like yours is exactly what Karl Marx wrote about...

    July 22, 2012 at 3:17 am | Report abuse |
    • The Call for Truth

      Where is the comment you refer to? In Karl Marx book? I see you studied it.

      July 23, 2012 at 4:09 am | Report abuse |
  17. beth

    I agree with some of your points, but the idea that a "companywide hiring practice to increase diversity" would lead to a meritocracy seems flawed.

    July 21, 2012 at 12:08 pm | Report abuse |
  18. André

    It's time we get Meritocracy in government: Let each voter's vote count proportional to
    * Age (experience)
    * Tax paid (Contribution) and
    * Knowledge (Qualifications and/or a short exam of basic knowledge when voting).
    then elections would harvest the collective insight of the population, not just their ability to breed.

    July 21, 2012 at 2:51 am | Report abuse |
    • erchan2000

      Meritocracy in government voting?

      So are you saying the rich and the wealthy get to decide who's gets to be elected into office?
      Only smart people get to make decisions for everyone else. Doesn't that sound like class system to you?
      (Mind you, we are already do that .... thru unlimited campaign contribution), What you are saying is formalize it.

      This is the most ridiculous proposal in history. No system is perfect, but what you are proposing is full of flaws.

      By that logic, if you should be deemed "not qualified to vote" due to your "IQ Scores" being too low.


      July 23, 2012 at 11:00 pm | Report abuse |
      • André

        Where people have equal opportunities, dear Erchan (I note you are ashamed to use your own name), those who succeed obviously have better ideas and ways than those who don't. So yes indeed, they should donate their insight into helping make decisions for those who obviously failed. Not, as it stands now, vice versa.

        As for your remarks regarding IQ, feeling the need to revert to insults degrade your comments.

        July 24, 2012 at 1:31 am | Report abuse |
    • Fian

      I must be honest, as a fan of Peggy Noonan's I'm emrabrassed for her preening, "look at how great we are, we've selected a black man" rhetoric which is both condescending and subtly racist. As a writer in England suggested in a column I wish I'd saved, they're talking about Obama like he's a dog balancing a biscuit on his nose. "clap, clap, isn't he wonderful."Moreover Noonan, who has trashed Bush for the last three years for not being "conservative enough" is a rank hypocrite if she is now going to gush over Obama, who will do NONE of the things she wanted Bush to do. He won't even try. So, which is it, Peggy, is Bush not conservative enough, or he just didn't hire you for his staff? Because Barack sure won't further your Reagan conservative ideals.

      August 5, 2012 at 6:44 am | Report abuse |
  19. GardenGrl

    ...and getting to be less of a meritocracy all the time. This country is in the midst of a self-imposed brain drain, meritocracy my posterior!!

    July 20, 2012 at 8:59 pm | Report abuse |
  20. Scott

    "A particularly striking finding was that while 60% of men in start-ups believe diverse teams are better at innovation and problem-solving, only 41% would be in favor of a companywide hiring practice to increase diversity."

    Is it really that hard to understand the people answering the first question gave the answer they knew people wanted to hear? The author is correct... its not a meritocracy, as evidenced by the fact the author is employed writing about gender nonsense... but that also doesn't mean men are favored and can do anything they want. We have to navigate an endless mindfield of political correctness while we try to build a business...

    July 20, 2012 at 8:35 pm | Report abuse |
  21. memphisstungunworld

    One of the biggest issues we have in our society is crimes against women. One of the best ways for women to combat this problem is to be serious about self defense. Women have to learn to be aware. They can do things like take self defense classes or carry non-lethal weapons for self defense.

    July 20, 2012 at 3:38 pm | Report abuse |
    • GardenGrl

      You are right about that, I'm trying to do my part 🙂

      July 20, 2012 at 8:57 pm | Report abuse |
    • someone

      Are you serious, the vast majority of violent crime is committed against men. Violent crime is the kind of crime that you can get everyone in the world to agree to be a crime.

      July 21, 2012 at 3:35 am | Report abuse |