Is Meritocracy a Joke for Women in Tech?

From Patricia Arquette's passionate Oscars battle cry about gender pay disparity to the recent ruling against Ellen Pao in her gender discrimination lawsuit lobbed at Kleiner Perkins, how women fare in the workplace has been a big and often controversial topic recently.

Many people who believe women are treated fairly in the workplace throw out the word "meritocracy" to explain discrepancies in pay and presence in leadership areas. However, that's becoming a flimsy, throwaway excuse aimed at a complicated issue. In many pockets of American business culture, the very definition of merit may be biased and flawed.

Going negativeThe current situation in the tech industry has taken the issues of women in the workplace to new levels of controversy recently. For starters, the number of women in Silicon Valley has been falling precipitously over decades' time.

For an industry that greases the wheels of human progress, it seems counterintuitive to see such social regression. More and more women have entered the workforce in recent decades, but they're falling out of techie jobs or appear to be disinterested in entering the area to begin with. There are likely a variety of reasons, some benign, but the brogrammer culture certainly has to be part of the problem.

Regardless of Ellen Pao's loss in her discrimination lawsuit against Kleiner Perkins -- which really aimed smack dab in the middle of Silicon Valley mentality -- the trial highlighted how females are often treated differently in workplaces with boys' club attitudes, sometimes on a constant, grinding basis. Because, hey, having women around might "kill the buzz" (an actual buzz phrase revealed in the trial).

The trial also pointed out common problems that women face, such as the dichotomy between being blocked for being too aggressive versus knocked for not being aggressive enough. Plenty of women feel they have to walk a constant tightrope in monitoring and adjusting their professional behavior so that they can succeed or even be taken seriously, in ways that most men probably couldn't even dream of.

Women naturally approach things with different temperaments, perspectives, and skills -- and as it turns out, their contributions to cognitive diversity tend to be a good thing that shouldn't be tamped down or altered. Research has shown that diverse groups make better decisions than homogeneous ones, including studies showing higher smarts in teams with more women.

Merit and how you define itWe all know smart females and studies even back that up, so it's strange that so many women continue to struggle, getting us back to that "meritocracy" argument. In many cases, maybe it's that we're dealing with a cookie cutter merit "ideal" in our general business culture -- one that has some major flaws.

Take the collective obsession with short-term gains and risk taking (sometimes ridiculously excessive risk taking) in our marketplace. Some business strategies and outcomes look great as big numbers splashed on quarter-to-quarter paper -- until they fail, sometimes catastrophically.

Take the period that led up to the financial crisis and the Great Recession. The financial industry (like tech, male-dominated) absolutely incentivized excessive risk taking. In other words, in the near term, dangerous business behaviors that ended up hurting our entire economy had looked like merit at the time.

Some people have theorized that if more women had influence or were able to exert it on Wall Street, the financial crisis may not have happened, or at the very least, its ill effects may have been reduced. That's because women are known for their more patient approach to business and investing -- and their tendency to avoid excessive risk taking. (My colleague LouAnn Lofton covered this topic extensively in her book Warren Buffett Invests Like a Girl.)

I suspect that in many industries and companies, some people who take different and sometimes more prudent approaches could be relegated to the dump of "mediocre underperformers" instead of appreciated for their abilities -- which could even include offering checks and balances.

The difference in perspective may also be part of the reason why so many women's talents go unappreciated -- and they end up frustrated with their compensation not to mention their future opportunities.

Minding the gapsThe issues aren't going away, and the biggest tech companies are dealing with them as we speak.

The first-ever shareholder proposal regarding gender pay equity has been filed at a tech company, for example. Arjuna Capital recently filed a proposal at eBay , requesting that the tech giant publicly disclose the pay differential between male and female employees and set goals to close such a gap.

Shareholders will be able to vote on the proposal prior to the annual meeting on May 1. While Arjuna Capital's announcement was quick to point out that the tech giant's board of directors recommends shareholders vote against the proposal, the truth is, the chance a board would recommend voting for just about any shareholder proposal is about the chance of getting hit by lightning.

That said, the proposal is timely and does speak to a legitimate issue in the workplace. Speaking of gender and compensation, Ellen Pao's posttrial news headline is her decision to eradicate salary negotiation at Reddit, where she is now CEO. The difference in how men and women negotiate for salary explains some of the pay discrepancy in the marketplace.

EBay got to be the lightning rod for the controversial shareholder proposal, but it actually has one of the highest numbers of female employees when compared to several large tech peers, at 42%. However, they only make up 28% of its leadership and fill only 24% of its actual tech positions. The Atlantic covered breakdowns for a slew of tech giants that -- to their credit -- have voluntarily made these disclosures on gender and minorities, such as Google , Facebook , Twitter, and LinkedIn.

The figures certainly tell the tale. Many of the companies' managements are aware of the problems in the area and are looking at ways to try to tackle it, but there's a way yet to go and an overall mentality to shift.

The win-win mentalityIt feels more polite to talk about things like how we define merit and unconscious bias, but there is still a woolly mammoth in the room. That is that there are pockets of real misogyny out there. Recent coverage of situations like last fall's Gamergate and other troll campaigns targeting females on the Internet show that the worst kind of sexism still exists, and it threatens technology's greatest gift: giving voice and opportunity to increasing numbers of people of all kinds.

It may be a real sign that women are making so much progress that some men do feel very threatened, and people who feel threatened and afraid can get ugly and hateful. But now is not the time for women to lose hope; it may signal that it is indeed a brighter time than ever for women making headway and smashing glass ceilings.

The truth is, if women start gaining more ground in the workforce, it doesn't mean men have to lose out. The zero sum game mentality, implying someone always has to lose -- which has also permeated our marketplace, in more areas than this -- has got to go. If we tackle issues like diversity, innovation, businesses with strong, robust strategies, and overall value creation should skyrocket.

As Warren Buffett said in May 2013, "Fellow males, get on board. The closer that America comes to employing the talents of all its citizens, the greater its output of goods and services will be."

In other words, that's a win-win for everyone -- and for true meritocracy.

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Alyce Lomax has no position in any stocks mentioned. The Motley Fool recommends eBay, Facebook, Google (A shares), Google (C shares), and Twitter. The Motley Fool owns shares of eBay, Facebook, Google (A shares), Google (C shares), and Twitter. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.

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