Calling out tokenism: 9 thoughts

Tokenism, the practice of doing something only to prevent criticism and give the appearance that people are being treated fairly, comes in many forms.

News of Goldman Sachs' decision to refrain from investing in companies unless one board member is "diverse" may raise questions about the difference between the beginning of a meaningful effort toward diversity and inclusion and its less productive alternative: tokenism.

Here are nine thoughts, findings and real-life situations deemed as tokenism across industries, pulled from international headlines. This compilation is meant to spark conversation on the topic. Reactions you'd like to share? Please email Molly Gamble:  

1. Tokenism affects all minority groups and overemphasizes representation at the expense of inclusion. When it comes to gender, nearly 20 percent of all women reported regularly being the only woman or one of the few women in work settings, according to and McKinsey & Co.'s Women in the Workplace 2018 report. Seven percent of men reported the same. "We're seeing signs of a one-and-done mind-set, and still seeing signs of tokenism," Rachel Thomas, founder and CEO of told The Wall Street Journal. Companies talk up diversity and consider it an accomplishment if they hire or promote a single person of an underrepresented group.

2. Two women on a board may be the number needed to avoid negative press, coining a spinoff of tokenism called "twokenism." Two-women boards are overrepresented among more visible companies. Authors of a 2019 study published in the Academy of Management Journal tracked 9,989 board member additions in S&P 1500 companies from 2004 to 2013 and conducted four supplemental experiments to find "significantly more boards include exactly two women." They also found that decision-makers are less likely to add a woman to a board once it includes two women, which is deemed the social norm.

3. "Being the minority in a group — whether that be for your gender, your race, your sexual identity or something else — can be more than just lonely. It can mean that everything you do stands out, or that you are viewed as a 'token' or an 'other,' and that your successes (or failures for that matter) aren't simply perceived to be one-offs but wholly representative of your identity," Dolly Chugh wrote for The New York Times in 2019. "(Think of  Indra Nooyi, the former PepsiCo chief executive who is an Indian-American woman, or Ursula Burns, the former Xerox chief executive, who is African-American. Their race and gender are often mentioned in the same breath as their names.)"

4. "The danger in tokenism is that it masks inactivity," Tonie Snell, principal and founder of Diversity Forward Talent Solutions, wrote for Medium. "On paper, it looks as though companies are making progress. When 20 percent of the board is female or 15 percent of leadership is Hispanic, the numbers are motivational. But the telltale sign of success is what these hires contribute. Are they making presentations? Are they introducing big ideas in important meetings? Are they spearheading major company initiatives? Do they truly have a seat at the table, or are they just there as figureheads for 'diversity'?"

5. The co-director of the Glasgow Film Festival, Allison Gardner, told The Times in January that festivals should avoid "tokenistic" attempts to gender-balance film lineups, which can reduce the quality of the program. Instead, female filmmakers ought to be championed based on the artistic merit of their work. Ms. Gardner said she intends to raise the profile of talented women by giving them headliner slots. "I look for great films by women, but I tend not to put them in just because they're directed by women," Ms Gardner said. "It has to be about the quality."

6. All seven co-chairs of the World Economic Forum in Davos were women in 2018, a representation that raised criticism from at least one member of academia. "I think it's a perfect example of tokenism," Alton Harris, adjunct professor of law at Northwestern University Law School and co-author of Breaking Through Bias: Communication Techniques for Women to Succeed at Work, told NBC News. "What would have been a more powerful message of equality is to have women and men involved." In 2018, 21 percent of the conference's attendees were women.

7. Some hiring managers at creative agencies have said the #MeToo movement raised a new dilemma in their hiring choices and raised tension over tokenism versus hires made for merits. Others argue that companies have dug this hole for themselves by not diversifying their hiring and leadership teams in the first place, and concerns of tokenism can't serve as an excuse to let imbalances persist. "We would be doing diversity a huge disservice, and it would only serve to patronize women, the LGBTQI community, the disabled, the socially disadvantaged or people from BAME [black, Asian and minority ethnic] backgrounds to hire people who aren't up to the job simply because of their gender or background," one creative agency CEO told Digiday. A peer disagreed: "Where [agency] CEOs are leaning into the [gender inequality] issue and asking if [headhunters] can provide shortlists that are filled by at least 50 percent of female candidates, I think that's a good instruction because it makes us look harder and be more conscious of the differentiation on those shortlists."

8. In the world of media, June brings dilemmas for queer writers.  Pride Month "can be a welcome boost in income and an opportunity to get bylines in prominent publications. But some assignments reek of tokenism; in many cases, straight editors think of commissioning queer writers only during the month of June, and mostly for stories of personal trauma or cultural appropriation," Jake Pitre wrote for Columbia Journalism Review in 2019. "No marginalized person wants to be invited to talk only about their marginalization or explain the validity of their existence to the nonmarginalized."

9. In the world of nonprofits, tokenism often involves matters of pay and messaging. "I can think of several nonprofits principally serving one or more minority groups with all-white communications staff that solicit POC (people of color) to share their stories of success, hardship or trauma for the financial benefit of the nonprofit without pay," Helen Kim Ho, attorney, activist and diversity life coach, wrote for Medium. "While not every storyteller can be compensated (we are talking about the nonprofit industry, after all), recruiting POC to support an organization that doesn’t value POC enough to hire or pay them is the ultimate in tokenizing."

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