The Meritocratic Lessons of Spelling Bees

The struggle for gender equity in the workplace goes on in fits and starts, with women now boasting better educational credentials and holding a majority of managerial and professional jobs–but still earning just 77 percent of every dollar earned by men.

But is there a measurement of what a pure gender-neutral meritocracy would look like? Perhaps, suggests James Maguire, an expert on the history and culture of spelling bees, at Ten Miles Square:

The National Spelling Bee has run annually since 1925. Cloaked in a hallowed aura of schoolmarm appropriateness, from its beginning the contest has suggested something deeply subversive: that boys and girls are equally equipped to do intellectual combat.

Back in an era when men by default held all the intellectually demanding jobs while women were consigned to home and helper roles, the Bee pitted boys and girls toe to toe in a true meritocracy. Regardless of gender, the winner has been the one most equipped with the work ethic, smarts and chutzpah – it takes courage to step up to that lone microphone – to navigate the torturous intricacies of the spelling of the English language….

So which gender wins in a completely fair contest? Since 1925, the score is: 46 wins for girls, 41 for boys. So there you go. In a meticulously refereed contest (fittingly held in Washington DC, the nation’s seat of power) girls hold a clear edge.

Maguire goes on to note that each gender has posted winning streaks in the National Spelling Bee, with girls dominating prior to 1950, boys in the 1950s and early 2000s, and girls winning the last three years. Here’s his bottom line:

The bottom line, really, is that in a purely meritocratic contest, neither gender holds a definitive lead. Sure, the numbers alone tell us the girls have a slight advantage, but each year’s tally is merely a snapshot in time, with every handful of years enabling the lead to change. The great battle of the sexes, if looked at purely as a contest of intellectual ability, rages on with no clear winner.

If we apply this truth back to the workplace, it’s good news for women. As the depressing legacy of sexism fades, women will continue to make overdue gains in an increasingly gender-blind and meritocratic workplace.

We can only hope. Gender equality is only a few millennia overdue, at least in the histories that make it into most American textbooks.

Support Nonprofit Journalism

If you enjoyed this article, consider making a donation to help us produce more like it. The Washington Monthly was founded in 1969 to tell the stories of how government really works—and how to make it work better. Fifty years later, the need for incisive analysis and new, progressive policy ideas is clearer than ever. As a nonprofit, we rely on support from readers like you.

Yes, I’ll make a donation

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.