Words Matter – Moving Beyond “Meritocracy”

Diversity and Inclusion is central to our mission and to everything we do at Mozilla.

In addition to our commitment to a diverse workforce and inclusive culture, we are dedicated to making our governance, our community, and our participation opportunities fully welcoming and supportive of a broad diversity of people. From the beginning of this journey to a more inclusive organization, we have been thinking about the words we use as important carriers of our intended culture and the culture we wish to see in the broader movements we participate in. We have, therefore, taken up a review of our language and practices.

Following a recent  proposal to our governance list, Mozilla has taken steps to discontinue using the word “Meritocracy”, as a way to describe our governance and leadership structures.

“Meritocracy” was widely adopted as a best practice among open source projects in the founding days of the movement: it appeared to speak to collaboration amongst peers and across organizational boundaries. 20 years later,  we understand that this concept was practiced in a world characterized by both hidden bias and outright abuse. The notion of “meritocracy” can often obscure bias and can help perpetuate a dominant culture. Meritocracy does not consider the reality that tech does not operate on a level playing field.

Mozilla’s co-founder and chair, Mitchell Baker accepted the proposal with words we hope will inspire other open projects to similarly evaluate their governance language:

“Sometimes good words and good aspirations get tarnished with history, and need to be set aside. I personally aspire to many aspects of our work being a meritocracy. And the original meaning I took for meritocracy in open source meant empowering individuals, rather than managers, or manager’s managers or tenure-based authority. I still long to develop these things.

However, it’s now clear that so-called meritocracies have included effective forms of discrimination. This might be hidden bias, where some aspect of identity causes a person’s contributions to be routinely devalued. It might be over discrimination or harassment. It might be threats that minimize the contributions even offered. Whatever the cause, open source “meritocracies” suffer from these problems – open source projects tend to have less diversity than other software organizations.

Fairly or not, the word “meritocracy” has come to signal systems where there is little effective restraint on perpetuating discrimination. It may even become a code-word for organizations that resist the need to build diverse and inclusive organizations.

I personally long for a word that conveys a person’s ability to demonstrate competence and expertise and commitment separate from job title, or college degree, or management hierarchy, and to be evaluated fairly by one’s peers. I long for a word that makes it clear that each individual who shares our mission is welcome, and valued, and will get a fair deal at Mozilla – that they will be recognized and celebrated for their contributions without regard to other factors.

Sadly, “meritocracy” is not that word. Maybe it once was, or could have been. But not today. The challenge is not to retain a word that has become tainted. The challenge is to build teams and culture and systems that are truly inclusive. This is where we focus.”

Larissa Shapiro, Head of Global Diversity & Inclusion at Mozilla

Emma Irwin, D&I Strategy, Mozilla Contributors and Communities