What Comes Before Merit?

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Whenever diversity makes the news, conversations always seem to circle back to one question. 
 
It goes something like this: Do you want women and minorities in top roles just because they’re women and minorities?
 
I get it. People don’t want diversity solely for diversity’s sake. That’s no more fair than excluding women and minorities to begin with. But here’s the thing: Judging someone solely on merit can’t be the only criteria because everyone who should be judged isn’t at the table. 
 
Merit has undeniable value but using that as the only criterion often means perpetuating the status quo. In other words, it’s not about appointing those who are not qualified simply because they are a minority. It’s about breaking down the systems that prevent the unqualified from becoming qualified. 
 
If everyone has the same opportunities and resources, merit becomes a viable trait by which to judge worth. But there are direct and indirect barriers that prevent that from happening. That’s why diversity work is so important.
 
In her speech after winning the 2015 Emmy for best actress in a drama series, the first time a black woman has won the award, Viola Davis said, “The only thing that separates women of color from anyone else is opportunity. You cannot win an Emmy for roles that are simply not there.” 
 
Sometimes, you have to make a special effort to level and expand the playing field. When everyone is playing with the same equipment, merit takes on a whole new meaning.