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SPOTLIGHT
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Judging based on accomplishments

Published on -3/24/2014, 10:14 AM

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What's wrong with a meritocracy rug?

Nothing, right? For much of my professional life, I yearned for an opportunity to be judged on the basis of my accomplishments, without regard to factors such as race or sex. In my version of the American dream, the country was a meritocracy that allowed you to succeed even if your mother was a secretary and a lot of people seemed to hate Jews.

So how come so many feminists were angry about the "United Meritocracy of GitHub" rug that they ultimately decided to take it down?

According to Julie Ann Horvath, an engineer at the company who founded the all-female lecture series Passion Projects and defended the company at the time, the problem began on some of the feminist tech talk boards, where women pointed out some painfully obvious questions: If it's really a meritocracy, how come so few of the people at the top are women?

Or more broadly, if you believe we've achieved "equality" and that decisions are being made based on merit, how come the industry's leadership -- particularly in the tech industry, where the leadership is very young -- is so overwhelmingly male?

Some of it, certainly, is the reflection of the stubborn under-representation of women in STEM fields, especially computer science, which Harvey Mudd College President Maria Klawe has taken a leadership role in trying to change, as well as the related problem of the tech "culture," which Horvath herself was tackling with her Passion Projects.

In the meantime, GitHub decided to yank the rug. That was in January. Frankly, I missed it -- the story, not the rug.

I caught up this week when Horvath rather noisily exited (or was asked to leave) and started firing at the company she previously had defended.

You can find the play-by-play all over the Internet, this being a tech scandal of sorts. But Horvath claims she was threatened and intimidated by the wife of one of the founders (using a wife as an agent of intimidation, if that is indeed what happened, is not a feminist act), and also that as a woman she never felt accepted at the company.

Horvath also was having a relationship with a fellow employee, and -- this will not come as a shock to feminists of a certain age -- he still has his job, while she doesn't have hers. (Or as I often pose to my students and former students: One of you is likely to lose your job. Who do you think it will be?)

Meritocracies actually are more complicated than they first appear. They require a common appreciation of what counts as "merit" and how it should be measured. And that appreciation, we learned painfully, can easily be tinged with all kinds of gendered elements without the person who is making the decisions even realizing it.

Most people tend to think that the most qualified person is someone who looks just like them, only younger. Ask them whether they're discriminating, and they'll say you're crazy. Just the merits. And many of the traits we value, and how we value them, also end up being laden with gender overtones.

Too aggressive? When was the last time you heard a young man described that way? Too timid? Say goodnight, Gracie, that girl doesn't stand a chance. Men may have sharp elbows, but the word for such women cannot be printed in a family newspaper.

Getting crosswise with your boss's wife is a career ender that disproportionately ensnares women. Sexist? Absolutely. At first, I couldn't understand why the tech feminists were so worked up about the rug. The answer, as always, is that it's never just the rug.

Susan Estrich is a columnist,

commentator and law and political

science professor at USC.

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