Meritocracy favors men over women

The paradox of meritocracy in organizations

From Administrative Science Quarterly

Managers embedded in performance-based merit systems were more likely to award larger bonuses to men than equally-performing women, according to this study. The research examined how managers might divide bonus money among equally performing employees in both meritocratic and non-meritocratic work environments. It found that In the meritocratic environment, managers gave men more in bonus compensation than their equally qualified female counterparts and the outcome was vice versa in non-meritocratic environments. This work reveals that bias can be triggered by attempts to reduce it, particularly in organizational contexts that emphasize meritocratic values,” wrote the authors. “This paradox of meritocracy is of theoretical relevance because it provides an insight into why gender and racial disparities persist within job titles and work establishments, especially given the recent shift to employer procedures emphasizing merit and pay for performance. Conclusions imply that if not implemented carefully, such efforts may prove unhelpful or even harmful. Not to suggest that the pursuit of meritocracy is futile, only that it may be more difficult than it first appears.


In this article, we develop and empirically test the theoretical argument that when an organizational culture promotes meritocracy (compared with when it does not), managers in that organization may ironically show greater bias in favor of men over equally performing women in translating employee performance evaluations into rewards and other key career outcomes; we call this the “paradox of meritocracy.” To assess this effect, we conducted three experiments with a total of 445 participants with managerial experience who were asked to make bonus, promotion, and termination recommendations for several employee profiles. We manipulated both the gender of the employees being evaluated and whether the company’s core values emphasized meritocracy in evaluations and compensation. The main finding is consistent across the three studies: when an organization is explicitly presented as meritocratic, individuals in managerial positions favor a male employee over an equally qualified female employee by awarding him a larger monetary reward. This finding demonstrates that the pursuit of meritocracy at the workplace may be more difficult than it first appears and that there may be unrecognized risks behind certain organizational efforts used to reward merit. We discuss possible underlying mechanisms leading to the paradox of meritocracy effect as well as the scope conditions under which we expect the effect to occur.

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Article details

Castilla, E., & Benard, S. (2010). The Paradox of Meritocracy in Organizations Administrative Science Quarterly, 55 (4), 543-576 DOI: 10.2189/asqu.2010.55.4.543

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