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Misconceiving Merit

Paradoxes of Excellence and Devotion in Academic Science and Engineering

Misconceiving Merit

Paradoxes of Excellence and Devotion in Academic Science and Engineering

An incisive study showing how cultural ideas of merit in academic science produce unfair and unequal outcomes.
In Misconceiving Merit, sociologists Mary Blair-Loy and Erin A. Cech uncover the cultural foundations of a paradox. On one hand, academic science, engineering, and math revere meritocracy, a system that recognizes and rewards those with the greatest talent and dedication. At the same time, women and some racial and sexual minorities remain underrepresented and often feel unwelcome and devalued in STEM. How can academic science, which so highly values meritocracy and objectivity, produce these unequal outcomes?
Blair-Loy and Cech studied more than five hundred STEM professors at a top research university to reveal how unequal and unfair outcomes can emerge alongside commitments to objectivity and excellence. The authors find that academic STEM harbors dominant cultural beliefs that not only perpetuate the mistreatment of scientists from underrepresented groups but hinder innovation. Underrepresented groups are often seen as less fully embodying merit compared to equally productive white and Asian heterosexual men, and the negative consequences of this misjudgment persist regardless of professors’ actual academic productivity. Misconceiving Merit is filled with insights for higher education administrators working toward greater equity as well as for scientists and engineers striving to change entrenched patterns of inequality in STEM.

232 pages | 15 line drawings, 9 tables | 6 x 9 | © 2022

Education: Education--General Studies, Higher Education

Sociology: General Sociology, Occupations, Professions, Work, Race, Ethnic, and Minority Relations


Written for nonexperts, the book reports on a comprehensive study of STEM faculty at an anonymized US university that is large, prestigious, and research intensive. Complex phenomena are explained in an easy-to-grasp fashion, and rigorous data are used to provide evidence for the authors’ assertions.

Researchers will likely see their own experiences in the book’s rich descriptions of the priorities and pressures of a competitive academic environment. These descriptions, paired with ample quotes from interviewees, make for compelling reading, painting a portrait of STEM faculty who work all the time, are highly engaged with their work, struggle to balance personal and professional obligations, and feel that they are always behind and never enough.


“This well-written, persuasive, and important book analyzes an important paradox: why is an institution focused on merit-based evaluation so unsuccessful at promoting meritocracy? It will be read widely by those studying gender and racial inequalities in higher education and STEM.” 

Joya Misra, University of Massachusetts Amherst

“Extremely well-written, and their findings ring painfully true. The authors are very compelling in pointing out the many inconsistencies that otherwise smart people don’t or won’t see. All faculty interested in promoting diversity will engage with this insightful and compelling scholarship.” 

Cathy Nagler, University of Chicago

"The meticulous attention to detail and argument these authors show is essential for potentially disrupting the habitual deflections about the objectivity of scientific merit. This book is required reading for academic administrators, leaders of STEM equity programs, and STEM department chairs. Highly recommended."


Table of Contents

List of Tables and Figures
1 Misperceiving Merit, Excellence, and Devotion in Academic STEM
2 The Cultural Construction of Merit in Academic STEM
3 The Work Devotion Schema and Its Consequences
4 Mismeasuring Merit: The Schema of Scientific Excellence as a Yardstick of Merit
5 Defending the Schema of Scientific Excellence, Defending Inequality
6 The Moralization of Merit: Consequences for Scientists and Science

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