The Pipeline Problem and the Meritocracy Myth

Update: An updated version of this post is available at my main blog.

‪In a structurally racist, sexist, and ableist society, hiring strictly from credentialist pipelines is exclusionary and unethical.‬ Overcoming diversity and inclusion pipeline problems requires adopting structural ideology and restorative practices in education and work. Do more than blame pipelines, and don’t propagate the meritocracy myth.

Focus is often given to the “pipeline problem,” allowing tech companies to address diversity without making changes within their own organization.

A huge amount of diversity effort and money is focused on “the pipeline problem.” Not enough young people get interested in technology, so they never enter the pipeline, so they never get CS degrees, so they never are available to hire as programmers, so these tech companies never get their “fair share” of diversity. It is simultaneously the excuse many use for issues with diversity and their best hope to improve it in the future.

The monomaniacal focus on this narrative does a disservice to underrepresented people in tech in the present and future. A pipeline has many entry points and continues on for a distance. Focusing solely on a single entry point leaves the rest to disrepair. The metaphor is so broken that many have added their own sardonic twists: The pipeline is leaky and full of acid. The pipeline leads to a sewage treatment plant. The pipeline ends in a meat grinder.

In popular conceptions of the “pipeline”, the single entry point is the traditional computer science degree. Companies ignore other methods of entry like apprenticeship programs, hiring self-taught programmers, or transitioning staff from related roles like QA and support. Many small and midsize companies aren’t even willing to invest in junior engineers who do have a traditional CS degree. Companies simultaneously claim they care about diversity and hiring the best engineers, yet their “meritocratic” methods for identifying the latter often are in conflict with the former.

Many companies ignore large portions of the pipeline once you leave the beginning. They’re not sharing their attrition numbers. You’re unlikely to hear about how they’re addressing toxic environments. The most you will probably hear about is addressing issues related to babies (e.g. maternity leave, freezing eggs). I’ve heard more than a few stories about leaders largely blaming motherhood for the lack of diversity in tech despite studies to the contrary. Ultimately, it’s easier for people to point at the “pipeline problem,” allowing them to wash their hands of investing in change within their own organizations in the here and now.

Source: Diversity for Sale by Anonymous Author | Model View Culture

Inclusion must be embedded in all aspects of the hiring process, and beyond. “Pipeline” rhetoric has polarized the way tech companies recruit, interview, and hire. Focusing on gender allows companies to temporarily absolve themselves of responsibility with respect to age, religion, race, experience, disability, sexual orientation, and other aspects of diversity. Inclusion training must be included with all new employees from day one, while giving employees from historically underrepresented groups access to internal resources and support.

Technical organizations often struggle with the idea that if they diversify their hiring pipelines, attract candidates from underrepresented groups, and support them in the workplace, this will lead to “lowering the bar” or hiring less-qualified individuals. This assertion has no basis in reality, and is inherently both racist and sexist as it assumes that candidates from underrepresented groups must, by definition, not meet the hiring qualifications.

Source: Employee lifecycle

Several signs point towards the potential for positive change. We now have a deeper understanding of bias and the cognitive processes behind it. We have more technology tools to mitigate bias at scale. We have data that show there is both a pipeline problem (e.g. access to Computer Science classes is inversely correlated with underrepresented students of color and low income students in public schools) and a leaky pipeline problem  —  in other words, the myriad of subtle and not-so-subtle barriers and biases that begin with media messages and teacher expectations and progress all the way through hiring biases. However, companies still employ a check the box approach that prioritizes mitigating liability and improving public perception over building an inclusive workforce. Internal policies have been shaped more by lawyers and risk mitigators, focused on avoiding lawsuits and excluding those who truly understand the ways in which companies can build inclusive cultures and processes.

Furthermore, the meritocracy myth continues to persist. Tinkering with systems predicated on this belief is seen as social engineering or “lowering the bar.” Companies blame the pipeline and unconscious bias for lack of diversity without addressing their own internal failures to be inclusive. We find these behaviors racist and sexist.

Source: Defining culture

Though startups are making an effort to implement diversity improvement strategies, the reality is that most are taking limited, potentially harmful actions, including one-off training,5 blaming the pipeline, using language like “lowering the bar,” and describing the current state of the tech industry as a “meritocracy.” Unfortunately, we have seen tech culture become even more exclusive and less diverse over the last five years.6

Source: About Project Include

In computer science classrooms across high schools and universities, minorities are excluded and exit early in the pipeline. Along with the pressure to keep up with our “exceptional” peers, we face the pressure of being a model minority or a success story. Like it or not, being regarded as exceptional is a privilege, not proof of a meritocracy.

Undergraduate computer science education is the most common and traditional way people enter the pipeline, and the concept of exceptionality is baked into students early. In freshman year, the “geniuses” are separated from the proletarians as there is a huge pressure to assert your talents and capabilities. The exceptional students, the ones that have already contributed to open-source projects or won programming contests, emerge as the people everyone else should aspire to be.

Collaboration is usually not permitted in CS classes, in part due to fears of plagiarism. Although students inevitably collaborate, they submit their work independently. As a result, the pressure to be an exceptional programmer is greater. In the industry, programming is communal and collaboration does not taint intellectual property, and engineering teams thrive when their programmers are able to work well together. Collaboration allows for people to learn from one another and value each other’s work. In contrast, group assignments are often only done in senior CS courses, ensuring that individual achievement and exceptionality are centered over teamwork and collaboration early on.

There is nothing wrong with celebrating talented programmers, but only privileged men and occasionally people who are seen as model minorities are being recognized. Students are entering the industry with false and dangerous assumptions about gender, race, sexuality, success, and education. These assumptions lead to certain groups being treated as exceptional and others being excluded, and eventually leaving. Rather than focusing on discovering exceptional programmers, there needs to be more initiatives to support gender, racial, and LGBT inclusion in the pipeline.

Programming is no longer an exclusive club for computer science-educated men, but capable programmers are still being pushed out of our industry because they lack racial, gender, and academic privilege — and it starts early in the pipeline. Whether it’s a programming contest, bootcamp, internship, or computer science education, many paths into tech jobs are intimidating or unaccessible to beginner and underrepresented programmers. And whether they took a traditional or nontraditional path to the industry, programmers are expected to be ready-to-go with all the necessary skills for employment once they enter the field. This places a huge pressure on programmers to be perfect, which makes the pipeline painfully competitive.

Source: Exclusion and Exceptionality in the Pipeline by Julia Nguyen | Model View Culture

Although there has been a recent call to abandon the “leaky pipeline” metaphor, it gives us a clue of how we think about education and career development: fluids in pipes start somewhere and end up somewhere else. They don’t flow backwards, they don’t stop at some point in the pipe and hang out for a while, and they only branch at predetermined locations. The pipeline models success, growth and end states in a manner that implicitly assumes an unencumbered white male, with access to adequate financial and emotional supports, unharmed by structural oppression, with few external drivers competing for his time, and the ability to progress smoothly ever-forward. And as a metaphor, the pipeline envisions attrition as a one-way, absolute process; the people who leave almost waste material, lost forever.

One of the things that is common across most STEM disciplines is that they are all-consuming. Dedication is proven by sacrificing everything else, or fitting “life” into the niches left after an 80-hour (plus) work week. The training period is long and likely to be supported on student loans, or paid below subsistence level. As we have broadened the recruitment pool at the front end, we have more people in the system who experience real structural conflicts between identities, some of which result in their choosing to abandon their technical careers. “I cannot balance these things. Something has to go, and it can’t be my (aging parents, children, outstanding bills, mental health) any longer. It will have to be the dreams of (science, code, mathematics, a corner office).”

Maybe it is time to abandon the leaky pipeline metaphor, and reclaim our own skills and talents, rather than accept a role as raw materials to be moved around at whim by a system. Or worse, to contort and diminish ourselves in order to fit in the pipes.

Source: Re-Recruit From the Leaky Pipeline by Seonaid Lee | Model View Culture

Creativity – as an expression of originality, experimentation, innovation – is not a viable product. It has been priced out into irrelevance – both by the professionalization of the industries that claim it, and the soaring cost of entry to those professions.

Today, creative industries are structured to minimize the diversity of their participants – economically, racially and ideologically. Credentialism, not creativity, is the passport to entry.

“What the artist was pretending he didn’t know is that money is the passport to success,” she writes. “We may be free beings, but we are constrained by an economic system rigged against us. What ladders we have, are being yanked away. Some of us will succeed. The possibility of success is used to call the majority of people failures.”

 But creative people should not fear failure. Creative people should fear the prescribed path to success – its narrowness, its specificity, its reliance on wealth and elite approval. When success is a stranglehold, true freedom is failure. The freedom to fail is the freedom to innovate, to experiment, to challenge.

To “succeed” is to embody the definition of contemporary success: sanctioned, sanitized, solvent.

To which the 30-something, having spent their adult life in an economy of stagnant wages and eroding opportunities, takes the 20-something aside, and explains that this is a maxim they, too, were told, but from which they never benefitted. They tell the 20-something what they already know: It is hard to plan for what is already gone. We live in the tunnel at the end of the light.

If you are 35 or younger – and quite often, older – the advice of the old economy does not apply to you. You live in the post-employment economy, where corporations have decided not to pay people. Profits are still high. The money is still there. But not for you. You will work without a pay rise, benefits, or job security. Survival is now a laudable aspiration.

In the post-employment economy, jobs are privileges, and the privileged have jobs.

Unpaid internships lock out millions of talented young people based on class alone. They send the message that work is not labor to be compensated with a living wage, but an act of charity to the powerful, who reward the unpaid worker with “exposure” and “experience”. The promotion of unpaid labor has already eroded opportunity – and quality – in fields like journalism and politics. A false meritocracy breeds mediocrity.

Education is a luxury the minimum wage worker cannot afford. This message is passed on to their children.

Young Americans seeking full-time employment tend to find their options limited to two paths: one of low-status, low-paying temp jobs emblematic of poverty; another of high-status, low-paying temp jobs emblematic of wealth. America is not only a nation of temporary employees – the Walmart worker on a fixed-day contract, the immigrant struggling for a day’s pay in a makeshift “temp town” – but of temporary jobs: intern , adjunct , fellow.

Post-recession America runs on a contingency economy based on prestige and privation. The great commonality is that few are paid enough to live instead of simply survive.

In the post-employment economy, full-time jobs are parceled into low-wage contract labor, entry-level jobs turn into internships, salaries are paid in exposure, and dignity succumbs to desperation.

The problem in America is not that there are no jobs. It is that jobs are not paying. America is becoming a nation of zero-opportunity employers, in which certain occupations are locked into a terrible pay rate for no valid reason, and certain groups – minorities, the poor, and increasingly, the middle class – are locked out of professions because they cannot buy their way in.

During the recession, American companies found an effective new way to boost profits. It was called “not paying people”. “Not paying people” tends to be justified in two ways: a fake crisis (“Unfortunately, we can’t afford to pay you at this time…”) or a false promise (“Working for nearly nothing now will get you a good job later”).

In reality, profits are soaring and poorly compensated labor tends to lead to more poorly compensated labor. Zero opportunity employers are refusing to pay people because they can get away with it. The social contract does not apply to contract workers – and in 2013, that is increasingly what Americans are.

American ideology has long tilted between individualism and Calvinism. What happened to you was either supposed to be in your control – the “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” approach – or divinely arbitrated. You either jumped, or you were meant to fall. Claims you were pushed, or you were born so far down you could not climb up, were dismissed as excuses of the lazy. This is the way many saw their world before it collapsed.

They cut and blame us when we bleed.

When people are expected to work unpaid for the promise of work, the advantage goes to those immune from the hustle: the owners over the renters, the salaried over the contingent. Attempts to ensure stability and independence for citizens – such as affordable healthcare – are decried as government “charity” while corporate charity is proffered as a substitute for a living wage.

Faust’s is an inspiring tale – and one beyond the comprehension of most young graduates in America today. “Don’t trust the boomers!” warned Paul Campos in a 2012 article on the misguided advice the elder generation peddles to their underemployed, debt-ridden progeny – including gems like “higher education is always worth the price” and “internships lead to jobs” – and Faust’s rebuke proves him right. What is most remarkable about Faust’s career is not its culmination in the Harvard presidency, but the system of accessibility and opportunity that allowed her to pursue it. Her life story is a eulogy for an America long since past.

Participation in these programs and internships is often dependent on personal wealth, resulting in a system of privilege that replicates itself over generations. McArdle compares America’s eroded meritocracy to imperial China, noting that “the people entering journalism, or finance, or consulting, or any other ‘elite’ profession, are increasingly the children of the children of those who rocketed to prosperity through the post-war education system. A window that opened is closing”.

Mobility is but a memory. “The life prospects of an American are more dependent on the income and education of his parents than in almost any other advanced country for which there is data,” writes economist Joseph E Stiglitz in an editorial aptly titled “Equal Opportunity, Our National Myth”.

This is not to say that hard-working elites do not deserve their success, but that the greatest barrier to entry in many professions is financial, not intellectual.

The “lifetime of citizenship, opportunity, growth and change” Drew Gilpin Faust extolled is something most Americans desire. But it is affordable only for a select few: the baby boomers who can buy their children opportunities as the system they created screws the rest.

While the start and end dates of the millennial generation are up for debate – and the idea of inherent generational traits is dubious – people of this age group share an important quality. They have no adult experience in a functional economy.

Millennials are chastised for leaning on elders, but the new rules of the economy demand it. Unpaid internships are often prerequisites to full-time jobs, and the ability to take them is based on money, not merit. Young adults who live off wealthy parents are the lucky few. They can envision a future because they can envision its purchase. Almost everyone else is locked out of the game.

It is one thing to discover, as an adult, that the rules have been rewritten, that the job market will not recover, that you will scramble to survive. It is another to raise a child knowing that no matter how hard they work, how talented they are, how big they dream, they will not have opportunities – because in the new economy, opportunities are bought, not earned. You know this, but you cannot tell this to a child. The millennial parent is always Santa, always a little bit of a liar.

The children of the millennials have been born into a United States of entrenched meritocracy – what Pierre Bourdieu called “the social alchemy that turns class privilege into merit”. Success is allegedly based on competition, not background, but one must be prepared to pay to play.

“This reliance on un- or underpaid labor is part of a broader move to a ‘privilege economy’ instead of a merit economy – where who you know and who pays your bills can be far more important than talent,” writes journalist Farai Chideya, noting that this system often locks out minorities.

By charging more for a year’s college tuition than the average median income, universities ensure that poor people stay poor while debt-ridden graduates join their ranks. By requiring unpaid internships, professions such as journalism ensure positions of influence will be filled only by those who can pay for them. The cycle of privilege and privation continues.

One after another, the occupations that shape American society are becoming impossible for all but the most elite to enter.

My father, the first person in his family to go to college, tries to tell me my degree has value. “Our family came here with nothing,” he says of my great-grandparents, who fled Poland a century ago. “Do you know how incredible it is that you did this, how proud they would be?” And my heart broke a little when he said that, because his illusion is so touching – so revealing of the values of his generation, and so alien to the experience of mine.

What they are defending is a system in which wealth is passed off as merit, in which credentials are not earned but bought. Aptitude is a quality measured by how much money you can spend on its continual reassessment.

For lower class parents, admissions is a test failed at birth: An absence of wealth guised as a deficiency of merit. In the middle are the students, stranded players in a rigged game.

Namely, they have raised the price of the credentials needed to participate in the new meritocracy by such dramatic measures that it locks out a large part of the population while sending nearly everyone else into debt.

Today’s youth are the best educated generation in US history. But opportunities are reserved only for those who can buy them.

Young US citizens have inherited an entrenched meritocracy that combines the baby boomers’ emphasis on education with the class rigidity of the WASP aristocracy it allegedly undermined.

People go to college because not going to college carries a penalty. College is a purchased loyalty oath to an imagined employer. College shows you are serious enough about your life to risk ruining it early on. College is a promise the economy does not keep – but not going to college promises you will struggle to survive.

In an entrenched meritocracy, those who cannot purchase credentials are not only ineligible for most middle-class jobs, but are informed that their plight is the result of poor “choices”. This ignores that the “choice” of college usually requires walking the road of financial ruin to get the reward – a reward of employment that, in this economy, is illusory.

Credentialism is economic discrimination disguised as opportunity.

Journalism is one of many fields of public influence – including politics – in which credentials function as de facto permission to speak, rendering those who lack them less likely to be employed and less able to afford to stay in their field.
College does not offer a better future, but a less worse one. College is not a cure for economic insecurity, but a symptom of the broader plague of credentialism.
The economic crisis is a crisis of managed expectations. Americans are being conditioned to accept their own exploitation as normal.
Entry-level jobs in journalism have been replaced with full-time internships dependent on other internships. Today people work for the possibility of working, waiting to be considered good enough to be hired by the employers under whom they already labor.
 Credibility is not something that can be bought, but credentials are.

Source: The View From Flyover Country

2 thoughts on “The Pipeline Problem and the Meritocracy Myth

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