Gender and the Economy

This five-part series from the University of Toronto’s Institute for Gender and the Economy at the Rotman School of Management highlights some of the most critical issues related to gender and economic development and offers approaches working to address them.

The idea of meritocracy has long pervaded conversations about how economic growth occurs in the United States. The concept is grounded in the belief that our economy rewards the most talented and innovative, regardless of gender, race, socioeconomic status, and the like. Individuals who rise to the top are supposed to be the most capable of driving organizational and economic performance.

More recently, however, concerns about the actual effects of meritocracies are rising. In the case of gender, research across disciplines shows that believing an organization or its policies are merit-based makes it easier to overlook the subconscious operation of bias. People in such organizations assume that everything is already meritocratic, and so there is no need for self-reflection or scrutiny of organizational processes. In fact, psychologists have found that emphasizing the value of merit can actually lead to more bias in favor men.

Ironically, despite growing recognition of the pitfalls of meritocracy for women and minorities, the concept has been exported to developing countries through economic policies, multilateral development programs, and the globalization of media and curricula. In countries with deep social divisions like India, where the number of women in the workforce dropped 11.4 percent between 1993 and 2012, the mantra of meritocracy has taken hold as a potential means to overcome these divides and drive economic growth—especially in education.

Children studying at Tarima Elementary School in Uttarakhand, India. (Photo by Markus Liebl)

Economist Claudia Goldin wrote in the Journal of Interdisciplinary History that when it comes to education, historically, “Americans equate a meritocracy with equality of opportunity and an open, forgiving, and publicly funded school system for all. To Americans, education has been the great equalizer, and generator, of a ‘just’ meritocracy.” This idea also pervades economic development and policy circles. India, a society once famous for its caste inequality and number of “missing women,” has embraced the value of meritocracy for the modern economy and now touts its success in advancing merit over historic prejudices in education. Since 2010, the Right to Education Act has guaranteed free schooling for all Indian children up to age 14, and by 2013, 92 percent of children, nearly half of them girls, were enrolled in primary school, up from 79 percent in 2002.

And yet equal access to schools does not guarantee that the best and brightest will succeed. During fieldwork in the Indian Himalayas between 2014 and 2015, we observed the poor quality of education available to local children. Teachers were frequently absent from school, buildings lacked proper sanitation, and parents often had to pay additional fees despite government mandates. Rote memorization was a common teaching method, and many children had difficulty answering questions that were not in the same format they learned. Studies by academics and the United Nations Development Programme show similar problems in schools serving poor and rural communities across India. Students at these schools do not receive the same quality of education as their wealthy, urban peers, making it more difficult for them to succeed on merit.

Indians also hold up their exam-based university admission system as an example of meritocracy—university acceptance is based only on exam scores. This belief in meritocracy may allow Indians to overlook continuing disparities in acceptance rates and the underrepresentation of women in STEM fields. To be accepted at elite Indian universities, students must score in the top percentiles of national exams. But achieving a good exam score is not solely based on merit because of differential access to resources. Liberalization in the education sector has created a boom in private schools across India, as well as a thriving educational services industry. Private tutors, after-school courses, test prep centers, and accelerated English programs abound, promising to give children the extra edge they need to pass university entrance tests. Students from privileged backgrounds with expensive private educations, highly educated parents, and the resources to access test prep services consistently score higher on national exams than others.

Gender exacerbates these class differences, particularly in terms of admission to elite STEM institutions—the Indian Institutes of Technology, or IITs. Only 8 percent of students at IITs are women, though a much higher percentage of women study STEM subjects in high school. Fewer women attend coaching classes in preparation for the IIT entrance exam, making them less likely to receive sufficient admission scores. This underrepresentation seems to be due partly to the belief, also common in the United States and elsewhere, that women are less suited to technical jobs, and partly to parents’ greater willingness to invest in a son’s education. In India, sons are expected to contribute to family income over the long-term. Daughters, on the other hand, are not seen as long-term contributors, because they will marry into another family and are less likely to enter the workforce. Because families do not invest as much in women’s success in STEM fields, female students are less likely to achieve the high exam scores required for IITs admission.

Believing in meritocracy has also allowed successful Indians to dismiss the continued presence of bias. In 2006, the government announced plans to set aside additional places in federally-funded universities for students from marginal caste groups. In response, medical students and doctors demonstrated in cities across India, claiming that these quotas would “compromise the quality” of health care and put patients at risk, because there would be fewer seats available to students with the highest test scores. The demonstrators, mostly middle and upper-class people from urban areas, also asserted that higher scores were a mark of higher intelligence. The supposedly objective nature of admissions tests led these people to overlook how money, connections, and parental involvement had ensured that they could do well on the entrance exam.

This story should sound familiar to readers regardless of their country of origin. Whether in the United States or China, the mantra of meritocracy often helps divert attention from ongoing inequalities.

In the United States, wealthier parents can also be more involved in children’s education and provide additional resources that ensure academic success. Studies by Harvard researchers have demonstrated that SAT test questions are unconsciously biased in favor of white, middle class students. Such inequalities have contributed to the growing educational achievement gap between rich and poor Americans. But since success is widely believed to be the result of individual merit, poor students are blamed for their failures.

While there is little gender bias in access to education in the United States, and more women than men earn bachelor’s degrees, gender bias continues at colleges in a surprising way. A smaller percentage of female applicants are accepted to elite colleges than male applicants, because many more qualified women apply to these schools. Universities accept a lower percentage of women to maintain a gender ratio closer to 50-50 and since they are exempt from Title IX—the law banning gender discrimination in the United States—these practices have gone unchallenged. Having fewer women with elite degrees only compounds the well documented discrimination American women continue to face in the labor market.

Like India, China relies on a national exam to determine admission to university. But rural, migrant, and disabled children systematically receive lower-quality schooling than their urban counterparts, resulting in lower exam scores. In fact, students from Beijing with access to better schools are 41 times more likely to gain admission to top Chinese universities than students from poor rural areas. Girls from rural areas are even more disadvantaged as they are less likely to graduate from high school than boys and are consequently underrepresented in the college population. The Chinese government has not made moves to address these issues, because the school system is widely regarded as meritocratic, thus justifying any imbalances as the result of differential ability and not differential access.

This is not to say that we should quit striving toward meritocracy. In its pure form, it is a worthy ideal. But we must recognize that the idea of meritocracy has largely served to entrench the privileges of the elite and justify their success. Claiming to be in a meritocracy is not the same as achieving it, and policies created to improve opportunities, like exam-based admission, may not work as expected. To move beyond the rhetoric of meritocracy to actual merit-based systems will require significant changes to education and university admission including:

  1. Improving educational access to all in order to improve the preparation for students of all genders, races, and socioeconomic backgrounds. Governments could recruit and train teachers from underserved communities, who will be more invested in student success, to address imbalances in educational quality for girls and boys. This has been an important recommendation for achieving better educational outcomes for indigenous peoples in Canada who have been chronically under-served by the current education system. Governments could also collaborate with local NGOs to train new teachers and improve school facilities without dramatically increasing costs.
  2. Changing admission processes to make university education more accessible to all underrepresented groups. Admissions tests could be written by people of all genders from many different backgrounds to ensure that one kind of life experience is not over-represented. Alternatively, some schools are foregoing the use of entrance exams entirely in order to engage in a more holistic assessment of university candidates. A recent study found that high school grades are a better predictor of student success in college than standardized test scores, and an increasing number of American universities are now “test-optional.”

The advantage of exams is that they provide a score that can easily be compared across candidates. The advantage of a holistic assessment is that it can account for multiple criteria of excellence. Neither is a panacea for bias, which can creep in at different points. For exams, biased access to resources or bias in the test may lead to differential test scores. For holistic assessments, the basis of comparison is unclear and therefore prone to bias at the point of decision. Although the more holistic admission system in the United States is also open to manipulation by elites, it can at least attempt to account for the different advantages that individual applicants possess. Given the challenges in education, acknowledging existing inequalities holds more promise for success than believing we already know how to be meritocratic.