Why the straight, white cis-man’s meritocracy is a fantasy

Joan Westenberg merit

Tech and startups commentator Joan Westenberg. Source: supplied.

Tech founders and investors enjoy the concept of a meritocracy for one simple, innocuous and vacuous reason. Namely, if successful, straight, white men can convince themselves that they deserve everything they’ve got and that they weren’t born into a statistically higher likelihood of ‘making it’, they can feel warm and snug at night, instead of having to face the inequitable power structures from which they have benefited. 

Let me tell you the truth about merit.

I have led a career in tech and startups, doing communications, public relations, marketing and content for more than eight years.

I have won awards for my work, including a platinum Hermes award for a campaign I ran with the team at Zova. I have been the national director of marketing for Fishburners. I have been the director of communications for Flare. I have mentored in the Microsoft Startup Accelerator and the Catalysr program. I have grown the largest Medium blog in the APAC region, boasting millions of readers, and had stories published in SmartCompany, AFR, Wired, The Observer, The SF Chronicle and more than 40 other publications. 

But since I came out as trans, my career in tech has nosedived.

Since I came out as trans, I have been interviewed by only one tech startup in Australia, where I was told the founders didn’t believe I’d be able to communicate with their key demographic, because of my background.

Despite working on pitch decks, story announcements, content, campaigns, automation, internal and external comms and crisis management for a startup that had raised $21 million just the year before, I couldn’t even secure a phone interview at a dog food startup. 

Any merit that I had collected over the course of my career seemingly vanished with one tweet announcing to the world that I was a transgender woman. I have had to fight for every piece of ground that I’ve gained in my career since then. 

In the Australian startup ecosystem — and I use that term with no small sense of irony, considering that it definitionally refers to a community of organisms who interact with their environment, rather than a collection of Patagonia vests who destroy it — meritocracy does not exist. We lack diversity at the angel, fund, founder, senior leadership, development, engineering and acquisition levels. 

This was no more clear than in a heated argument in the Sydney Startups Facebook page last week, extreme enough in its vitriol and obsolescence that it was widely reported throughout Australian media.

The argument was split between people such as Alan Jones, a leading advocate for diversity and inclusion who believes that we have a systemic problem, and others including reality TV personality and investor Steve Baxter, who believes that people who look, sound and live like him are successful solely because they deserve it. 

Baxter wrote: “I invest money and expect a return, I don’t do quotas as they are a bloody silly way to get a return. We do merit. Forcing gender is just rot.”

“Its [sic] seems you women need positive discrimination to get a look in. I imagine people getting roles under those circumstances must feel super about it.”

The debate had no clear winner, because no online debate ever does.

But the moral winner is a choice between people who believe that privilege exists, and people who believe that those who do not succeed in life fail because they are lazy or unworthy. The latter also believe that somehow, there is a higher percentage of people who are lazy or unworthy in marginalised communities of non-white, non-cis, non-straight, non-male humans. To believe that, to me, smacks of racism, sexism, transphobia and homophobia to a degree that should sicken any observer. 

I’m fortunate enough that the strength of my personal network has allowed me to slowly build up a stable of clients through my creative studio, and that my work as a writer has not suffered for my identity. But I have friends who are trans and trans non-binary who do not have my privilege or connections, and their unemployment is an ongoing crisis. 

If you think an unemployed trans or non-binary person with a dedicated background in tech has less merit than someone born into privilege, your inability to grasp the basic statistical unlikelihood of your proposition staggers me, but I will not give it currency by acknowledging any part of it as a valid worldview.

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