Tokenism at work is the exploitation of someone’s identity in order to check a diversity box. Companies need to have diverse talent to appear to be inclusive, so they hire only one person of one gender or race to smooth that wrinkle.
But here’s the rub (and it’s a big one): Hiring just one person of any underrepresented demographic is a band-aid "solution" to a systemic problem. It isolates the employee and increases focus on that person’s actions, often making them out to be the representative of their gender or race. Tokenism can lead to imposter syndrome, stress, and further discrimination. And even when there’s more than one woman or one person of color in a company’s leadership, if they don’t have any real power, then that’s tokenism as well.
Let’s explore what tokenism is, its prevalence in today’s society, and how it impacts our industries and workplaces.
What is tokenism?
The Oxford Languages dictionary defines tokenism as “the practice of making only a perfunctory or symbolic effort to do a particular thing, especially by recruiting a small number of people from underrepresented groups in order to give the appearance of sexual or racial equality within a workforce.”
So you’re the one Black woman in a boardroom otherwise filled with white men.
And that’s racism, right there.
Or is it?
If a company’s active intent is to hire a more diversified workforce, then being the sole woman of color can actually represent the beginning of inclusivity, and is not an example of tokenism.
Ruth Bader Ginsberg experienced something similar back in 1972. She said her appointment as the first female tenured law professor at Columbia Law School was “a serious effort on the part [of the school] to hire more women faculty members,” and added: “I know that I am not just a token. I expect that I will be the first of many women professors the law school will have.”
Yes, tokenism still exists—and it’s everywhere
Although there have been inroads, tokenism still exists globally and across industries.
For example, the first in-depth study of cultural diversity in Australian television news found in 2020 that there was only one Indigenous person in senior management in the entire industry, according to ABC News Australia.
The gender split is even (and actually weighted in favor of females at one broadcasting company), but 76 percent of reporters and presenters have Anglo-Celtic backgrounds, even though Indigenous and people of non-European backgrounds make up one-quarter of the Australian population.
Back in the U.S., the music industry’s major labels are run by white people, writes Elias Leight at Rolling Stone. While there are Black executives—who are paid less than their white peers—they also “remain concentrated in what are called ‘urban’ departments, which focus on hip-hop and R&B, while white executives are free to move as they please.”
It’s the same in the publishing industry. Photographer Alex Lau said he left Bon Appétit, a Conde Nast publication, in part because “white leadership refused to make changes that my BIPOC coworkers and I constantly pushed for.”
In her 2016 guest column for Deadline, actor America Ferrera says she’s had to think about diversity her “entire career, because, in a way, it’s like the tax you pay for being a person of color in this industry.” It was only after acting for 13 years that she was offered her first part that hadn’t been written as a Latina. The show, Superstore, “went out and found funny people and cast them regardless of their skin color.”
In film and television, Ferrera says “tokenism is about inserting diverse characters because you feel you have to; [whereas] true diversity means writing characters that aren’t just defined by the color of their skin, and casting the right actor for the role.”
You can even find tokenism in the nonprofit world. And as in most instances of tokenism, you see the multiple effects of intersectionality, which is when a person is discriminated against on more than one level. So not only does a woman of color have to fight gender bias, but she also faces racism.
As one nonprofit executive explained: “The issues of bias and racism are as pervasive here as in the corporate world. The top of nonprofits is predominantly white and male, as it is within the private sector and government; most worker bees are women (of color).”
Read more: What Is Intersectional Feminism?
What’s the true impact of tokenism?
We asked Ludmila Praslova, who is director of research and professor of organizational psychology at Vanguard University of Southern California, how tokenism impacts people.
She tells InHerSight: “We all react to tokenism differently depending on our specific personalities and cultures. But to me, it may also depend on the degree of visibility of our differences—as well as the content of stereotypes. Visibility, along with awareness of negative stereotypes, might create the pressure to ‘represent’ while invisibility may lead to a temptation to ‘mask’ or ‘blend.’”
Representing your race or culture is an enormous responsibility. Nikea Pittman, a structural biologist at the University of North Carolina, puts it this way:
“I’ve been waiting for more than a decade to hear non-Black people be outraged at the way Black people are treated in the United States, and was hopeful that we could collectively mourn. Even though it’s not my responsibility, I want to help make these conversations easier. But I don’t always know how to proceed. We need collaboration in academia to tackle these problems. Black scientists can’t carry the burden on their own.”
Read more: Don't Apologize For Being an Angry Feminist
It’s not just visible minorities that are affected.
Praslova, who is Russian, says in graduate school 20 years ago, she was the only person with a Russian name and likely the only Russian person people around her would ever meet. She was very aware of the “scary and aggressive” stereotype (at the time), and so made an extra effort to be as non-threatening and as pleasant as possible. Although it wasn’t the best strategy in such a highly competitive environment, and one that she says probably hurt her career, she did so because “representing” was so important.
Leadership, business and career coach Susan Kunzler tells InHerSight that tokenism does two things:
First, “it cuts the heart out of work having value. All workers ask themselves this: Am I and my work valued and recognized here? Do I matter and make a difference? Tokenism doesn’t value the work or the person—only what they represent while present and doing it. When work isn’t valued on its merit, absenteeism, and low motivation abound.”
“Secondly, it undermines real relationships and skills like trust and transparency.” So, even if a company is trying to embrace diversity, its own diversity statements along with the one token person of color in leadership will be viewed as hypocritical and dismissed out of hand.
The ultimate result of tokenism, Kunzler says, is that “a real person with talent ceases being a fully contributing member of a team and instead becomes a separated symbol that others only look to when they require a jolt of symbolic input.”
About our sources
Ludmila N. Praslova, Ph.D., (Industrial/Organizational Psychology) SHRM-SCP is the Director of Research and Professor with Graduate Programs in Industrial/Organizational Psychology at Vanguard University of Southern California. Prior to her academic career, she built and led successful intercultural relations programs and facilitated cross-cultural collaboration in global organizations. She uses her extensive experience with global, cultural, demographic, ability, and neurodiversity, and cultural psychology research to help create inclusive and equitable workplaces.
Susan Kunzler, MS, CBC, BCC, is the founder of the nonprofit A-Squared LAMP Groups that brings professional coaching, training, and consulting to communities. As well as providing professional business, leadership, and career coaching, she is an Organizational Development practitioner skilled to streamline design, development, and detox. She is board credentialed by the CCE (Center for Credentialing & Education). She is also certified in INBIA Business Incubation, DISC© behavioral consultant, a Conversational Intelligence® trust catalyst coach, and an Emotional IntelligenceTM people developer. With humor and deeper discovery, she specializes in mobilizing and inspiring others forward, individually, and corporately.