New article by Jean Clarke in Organization Studies.

The belief in meritocracy – that advancement is based solely on individual capabilities and hard work – remains ingrained in organizations despite evidence that it is a flawed concept perpetuatings gender and other social inequalities. Critical streams of research have highlighted the ideological character of meritocracy discourse, its entrenched nature and acceptance as ‘common-sense’. Less is known about how this ‘meritocracy myth’ is maintained, that is, how this hegemonic discourse retains its potency in day-to-day talk in organizations. We argue that leaders, given their active discursive roles and opportunities to establish and control discourses, play an important but underexamined role in the reproduction and legitimization of this seemingly progressive yet ultimately destructive discourse. We conduct a critical discourse analysis (CDA) drawing on qualitative interviews with leaders in higher education institutions in the United Kingdom focusing on their talk about women’s recruitment and progression in academic roles. We identify three discursive interventions through which leaders routinely maintain and reinforce and on occasion challenge the existing system of meritocracy: invisibilizing gender inequality through gender-neutrality; denying constraints through individualization; and problematizing meritocracy to uphold or challenge the status quo. We argue that by uncovering the means through which meritocracy discourse retains its resilience, our paper offers the opportunity to scrutinize and challenge these discursive underpinnings that uphold the ‘meritocracy myth’. We suggest that it is possible to re-imagine what might be considered ‘merit worthy’ in universities, recognizing and centring structural gender and other social inequalities to create more equal institutions.


Jean Clarke, Cheryl Hurst & Jennifer Tomlinson (2024). Maintaining the Meritocracy Myth: A critical discourse analytic study of leaders’ talk about merit and gender in academia. Organization Studies.