The best candidate for the job? Some real talk about the meritocracy

Ottawa City Councillor Diane Deans recently proposed the creation of a women’s bureau to support greater engagement of women in city politics. When questioned about the initiative Ottawa Mayor Jim Watson said it wasn’t necessary, concluding that: “At the end of the day, when I go into the polling station, I want to vote for the most competent person. If that happens to be a woman, she’ll get my vote. If that happens to be a man, he’ll get my vote.” He went on to argue that a woman politician arguing for the support of more women in elected office is in a conflict of interest.

OK, time for some straight talk about the meritocracy. Let’s just examine the logic of this argument. 1. We all vote for the person with the greatest competence (Trump, anyone?); 2. Therefore, the persons elected to office represent the natural selection of the most competent representatives of our community (because nobody faces any barriers to running for office); 3. In cities in Canada 28% of city councillors are women and 18% of mayors are women; 4. Ergo, men are three times as competent as women (or five times as competent as mayor).

Jetpack titled "Meritocracy 3000"

Do you see where the logic of this is going? The Federation of Canadian Municipalities doesn’t collect data on diversity in municipal politics, but let’s be clear, it’s pretty white out there. The logical conclusion of the meritocracy argument, then, is that white men are more competent than everyone else. That is a racist and sexist conclusion. By definition. Straight out of the nineteenth century.

Now let’s talk about this conflict of interest. Mayor Watson argues that Councilor Deans is in a conflict of interest because she is an elected official supporting the election of a particular group (half the population). This is called representation. This is what we elect our officials to do: represent us. And if we are under-represented in our political institutions, then one of the means to shift that balance is to have support from elected officials. Supporting representation for the underrepresented half of the city is not a conflict of interest. It’s, dare I say it, the sign of a competent politician.

So why do nice guys like Mayor Watson (and so many others, no need just to pick on Jim) make such an appalling argument? Here’s the thing. We aren’t rational. I know, it comes as a blow. But we make all kinds of decisions, including who gets our vote, for all kinds of reasons. Those include the comfort of seeing someone who looks like us in office. Those include the pleasure of being a part of an in-group. Those include the displeasure of hearing a world view that doesn’t match ours, or worse yet, implicates us in discrimination.

On a deeper level the meritocracy argument is about ego. No one wants to hear that their achievements aren’t totally the result of their own virtues. I don’t want to hear that I got where I did for some reason other than hard work and smarts. But here’s the thing. I did. Middle class family. White. I could afford to spend the better part of decade in school. Which meant I got the Ph.D., which is a thing that gives me power. Not because I’m extra smart. But because I could afford it.

It is a pain in the ego to take that in. Live with it. But you cannot hold the opinion that discrimination exists in the world and that relations of power are unequal and, at the same time, hold the opinion that your white male self is in power solely as the result of merit. You just don’t get to do that, Jim.

Kate McInturff is a senior researcher with the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives. You can follow Kate on Twitter @katemcinturff


  1. There are more women than men in Canada. As a majority women could easily take control of Canada’s democratic institutions. The Charter assures any person, male of female, is qualified to serve as member of parliament. Ontario and Alberta currently have female premiers. Clearly, it is POSSIBLE for females to win elections in Canada.

    Perhaps other factors contribute to fewer women holding elected positions than men. Perhaps women choose to do something else with their lives? Why isn’t highly educated Kate McInturff running right now? Is something preventing her from running or is it her own decision?

    Trying to enforce equality of outcome by group membership is an idea, but free choice is a better idea.

  2. “The logical conclusion of the meritocracy argument, then, is that white men are more competent than everyone else.”

    If you look at the demographics in Canada there is another, less cynical conclusion you can draw. Over the last 30 years the population of visible minorities in Canada has more than doubled from 11.2% of the population to 22.3% of the population. Almost 70% of visible minorities are foreign born and 27.7% are children of immigrants. Can you not imagine barriers (besides racism) that might prevent new immigrants or their children from running for office? Or at least why more haven’t started running yet?

    As for the comments of Ottawa Mayor Jim Watson- do you not find it demeaning to women to suggest that they need special allowances in order for them to compete effectively with men in the realm of politics?

    Finally, Kate- while it is doubtlessly true that you have enjoyed many privileges that others have not, they don’t just hand out PhD’s to those with money and time. You are obviously extremely intelligent, but- like being white and middle-class- really this is just another, far better, advantage that was a gift of fate.

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