From founders to funders, Silicon Valley prides itself on its meritocratic ethos; however, new research from MIT finds that organizations with meritocratic values are often the worst offenders of bias, specifically as it relates to gender.

Authors Emilio Castilla and Stephen Bernard found that organizations with meritocratic principles favor men over “equally performing women” via higher bonuses and favorable career outcomes. Conversely, when the authors stressed organizational values that emphasized individual autonomy (and not meritocratic principles), they found no statistical significance in the difference of bonus amount awarded by gender.

Their work supports previous research, which finds women and minorities are paid less than white male peers - even when they have the same job, supervisor, human capital and performance evaluation score. Castilla and Bernard conclude, “Merit-based pay practices in particular may fail to achieve race or gender neutral outcomes.”

Why does this happen?

It appears that when managers work for meritocratic organizations, they believe they are more impartial, and thus (unknowingly) give themselves permission to act on their biases. And when people view themselves as unbiased, they are less likely to self-scrutinize. Castilla calls this, “the paradox of meritocracy”.

Biases from beginning to end

We all have biases, and they’re revealed beyond bonus times. In fact, they creep in throughout an employee's entire career - in hiring, retention, promotion and attrition.

When reviewing resumés during hiring, our unconscious biases - or the bias we are unaware of that allows us to gather information quickly - often finds that we prefer male to female candidates and “white” sounding names (like Emily and Greg) to more ethnic sounding names (like Lakisha and Jamal). In fact, both men and women will prefer to hire a male applicant - even when the academic record is the same.

When it comes to retention and promotion, the Clayman Institute on Gender at Stanford University finds large discrepancies between gender when analyzing performance reviews. Their research shows 59% of male performance reviews contain critical feedback, of which 2% is attributed to personality. For women, these numbers jump to 89 percent and 75 percent, respectively. This, of course, leads to additional (negative) reviews and promotional biases.

In terms of attrition, women in Science, Engineering and Technology (SET) fields leave at almost twice the rate of men, with over 52% leaving the profession approximately 10 years into their career. The most cited reasons? According to the Harvard Business Review Report, Athena Factor: Reversing the Brain Drain in SET, the top five are, “unconscious bias, isolation, supervisory relationships, [unclear] promotion processes, and competing life responsibilities.”

It looks like the paradox of meritocracy is something women have been reporting in various ways for years.

What can we do about it?

Fortunately we can work to overcome our biases once we are made aware of them. The Implicit Association Test from Harvard is a free tool for individuals to test personal bias around gender, race, age, skin tone, weight, sexuality - among others. The end result provides insight into conflicts between how we think, how we think we think and how this might inform our decisions. In addition, the Clayman Institute on Gender at Stanford University offers free videos through their “Voice and Influence” program for continuing education.

Greater awareness of our biases allow us to monitor our behavior and language to overcome them. Once we learn how to counter our biases, the paradox can begin to unravel.