We Live in a Meritocracy (For Straight White Men)


The global percentage of women in parliaments is 26.4%. In the Fortune 100 list, 79.4% of directors are white. People in the LGBTQI+ community are 17–21% less represented in STEM than expected. In this day and age, there is no denying that discrimination and inequality are a reality. Yet, disagreement about the means to repair them is still frequent, especially when it comes to diversity quotas. Quotas refer to a percentage of space reserved for a minority; for instance, a quota in parliament where 30% of its members have to be women. Disagreement on the measure would be fair and healthy if both sides of the argument were looking for the same goal: to end discrimination and inequality. The issue is that most people who argue against quotas do not seem to genuinely care about achieving that objective. That is because they are usually straight white men who greatly benefit from the status quo, therefore claim that quotas are against meritocracy and democracy, and offer no alternative. 

To start off with evidence of the effectiveness of quotas, let’s use Belgium as an example. After the introduction of the Tobback-Smet Act, the number of female representatives in parliament increased from 16% to 25%; by 2007, it was up to 38%, and by 2014, “women made up 41% of the Chamber of Representatives, 44% of the Flemish parliament and 50% of the senate.” On top of that, science proves that companies with diverse boards outperform their competitors: they are “less prone to stock instability, demonstrate increased investment in development, and see higher ROI for investors. […] The evidence has shown that the more diverse a board—in all forms—the better an organization performs overall.”

If there is extensive evidence that quotas work, then why do some people oppose them? Most arguments are on the basis of unfairness. For instance, some say that quotas give spots to unqualified workers which would otherwise belong to qualified ones. That argument is directly linked to the idea of meritocracy, i.e. “being judged and awarded based on your capabilities and past achievements regardless of gender, skin colour, creed, etc.” By definition, that seems pretty good, right? The issue is that unless you believe that people of color, women, and people in the LGBTQI+ community are simply less capable, then there is no denying we do not live in a meritocratic world. 

If, without quotas, most parliaments are composed of straight white men, then one can only believe in meritocracy if one admits to thinking that straight white men are better politicians. If, without quotas, most CEOs in the world are straight white men, then one can only believe in meritocracy if one admits to thinking that straight white men are better businesspeople. If, without quotas, most professors are straight white men, then one can only believe in meritocracy if one admits to thinking that straight white men are smarter. In such a manner, the disproportionately high number of straight white men in positions of power clearly shows that merit is not the sole factor that is taken into account to get people to these spots. 

Meritocracy is a utopian myth – or a bullshit claim possessed by people who are scared of losing their privileges. That being said, quotas do not select underqualified people. Rather, they eliminate the barrier that qualified minorities face. With the world as it is, it’s underqualified straight white men who are being hired at the expense of qualified minorities.

Another common argument against affirmative action is that it’s undemocratic. That argument, however, fails to understand the whole scope of democracy, which in fact encompasses values such as equality of opportunity – which might exist in law, but as has been proven, is far from practice. 

Most important of all, the main arguments against quotas seem to have something in common: instead of talking about how quotas are not the correct means to achieve equality,  people against them just insist on their unfairness. What that tells us is that those who argue against quotas are not genuinely looking to achieve the same end goal. On top of that, considering that almost all arguments one finds when googling “arguments against quotas” come from white men, it is safe to assume they come from a place of fear of losing their privilege. They might not be consciously doing so; they might genuinely think that quotas are unfair. But the root cause of why they think that is fear. 

If both sides were looking for the same objective of ending inequality, disagreement on the means to achieve it would be absolutely healthy, and even productive. However, when we are not looking for the same objective, this fails to be a meaningful debate. 

Some people insist on claiming that quotas are unfair. However, when most of the world has been deprived of equal opportunities for centuries, what is really unfair is expecting that the consequences of that will repair themselves without a push. 

Featured image by: The Guardian

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