Meritocracy and horizon bias
I read this article yesterday about racism in Silicon Valley. It’s interesting, written by an interesting guy named Eric Ries, and it touches on stuff I’ve thought about like stereotype threat and the idea that diverse teams perform better than homogeneous ones.
In spite of liking the article pretty well, I take issue with two points.
In the beginning of the article Ries lays down some ground rules, and one of them is that “meritocracy is good.” Is it really good? Always? And to what limit? People are born with talent just as they’re born rich or poor, and what makes talent a better or more fair way of sorting people? Or are we just claiming it’s more efficient?
Actually I could go on but this blog post kind of says everything I wanted to say on the matter. As an aside, I’m kind of sick of the way people use the idea of “meritocracy” to overpay people who they justify as having superhuman qualifications (I’m looking at you, CEO’s) or a ridiculous, massively scaleable amount of luck (most super rich entrepreneurs).
Second, I’m going to coin a term here, but I’m sure someone else has already done so. Namely, I consider it horizon bias to think that wherever you are, whatever you do, is the coolest place in the world and that everyone else is just super jealous of you and wishes they had that job. So you don’t look beyond your horizon to see that there are other jobs that may be more attractive to people. The reason this comes up is the following paragraph:
What accounts for the decidedly non-diverse results in places like Silicon Valley? We have two competing theories. One is that deliberate racisms keeps people out. Another is that white men are simply the ones that show up, because of some combination of aptitude and effort (which it is depends on who you ask), and that admissions to, say Y Combinator, simply reflect the lack of diversity of the applicant pool, nothing more.
I’d like to offer a third option, namely that only white guys show up because that’s who thinks working in Silicon Valley is an attractive idea. I know it’s kind of like the second option above, but it’s not exactly. The qualification “because of some combination of aptitude and effort” is the difference.
Let’s say I’m considering moving to Silicon Valley to work. But all of my images of that place come from movies and my experiences with my actual friends in the dotcom bubble era who slept under their desks at night. Plus I know that the housing market out there is crazy and that the commute sucks. Finally, I’d picture myself working with lots of single, ambitious, and arrogant young men who believe in meritocracy (code for: use vaguely libertarian philosophical arguments to act ruthlessly). I can imagine that these facts keep plenty of non-white non-men away.
Next, going on to the point about horizon bias. People who already work in Silicon Valley already selected themselves as people who think it’s a great deal. And then they sit around wondering why it’s not a more diverse place, in spite of having everything awesomely meritocratic.
Going back to the article, Ries mentions this idea that diverse teams outperform homogeneous ones. I’d like to look at that in light of horizon bias and ask whether that’s the wrong way to look at it. In other words maybe it’s more a function of what the common goal is, which leads to a diverse team if the common goal is broadly attractive, than how the exact team was created. If goals are super attractive, attractive enough to draw diverse people, then maybe those goals deserve success more.
For example, one of the strengths of Occupy Wall Street has been the diversity of its membership. People of all ages, all backgrounds, and all races have been coming together to speak for the 99%. It’s of course fitting, since 99% does represent lots of people, but I’d like to point out that it is diverse because the cause resonates with so many people, which makes it successful.
Another example. I worked at the math department at M.I.T., which is famously not diverse. And I saw the “Truth Values” play recently which made me think about that experience some more. There’s lots of horizon bias in math, because there’s this assumption that everyone who was ever a math major should want to someday become a math professor (at M.I.T. no less). So it’s easy enough to wring your hands when you see that, although 45% of the undergrad math majors are women, and 40% of the grad students in math are women (I’m making these numbers up by the way), only 1% of the tenured faculty at the top places are women (again totally made up).
And of course there’s real discrimination involved (trust me), but there’s also the possibility that a bunch of women just never wanted to be a professor, they just wanted to get a Ph.D. for whatever reason. But the horizon bias at the top places assumes that everyone would want to become a professor.
On the one hand I’m just making things worse, because I’m pointing out that in addition to the real discrimination that takes place for those women who actually do want to become professors, there’s also this natural but invisible self-selection thing going on where women leave the professorship train at some point. Seems like I’ve made one problem into two.
On the other hand, we can address this horizon bias, if it exists. But instead of addressing it by blotting out the names of candidates on applications (a good idea by the way, and one I think I’ll start using), we would need to address it by looking at the actual company or department or culture and see why it’s less than attractive to people who aren’t already there. It’s a bigger and harder kind of change.