Tokenism: How Diversity Efforts Go Wrong And What You Can Do To Avoid It
Welcome to my weekly Q&A roundup. (Scroll down to find the Q&A.)
If this is your first time here, welcome. I spend a fair amount of time speaking at events and conferences. At the end of my presentations, I leave space for audience members to ask questions — tough questions, brave questions, you name it. The level of candor and curiosity always inspires me, and I want to share that sentiment with you. So each week, I pick one question that I believe others would find most instructive and publish my response to it here.
The purpose of this weekly tradition is transparency and inclusivity.
- Transparency: a behind-the-scenes look at my day-to-day.
- Inclusivity: bringing others along in the journey.
Tokenism: Diversity Gone Wrong
My Latinx co-worker was promoted to a managerial role, which I’m very happy about because she works harder than most and deserves it. But I noticed that she has no new responsibilities other than managing a small team of three — the smallest team in our department. Isn’t this tokenism?
The situation you’re describing sounds like tokenism. Why? Because tokenism happens when companies make pro-diversity talent decisions that do little to change the balance of power. Tokenism undermines DEI, so it’s worth our time to explore this topic further.
What Is Tokenism?
Think of tokenism as gilded DEI. From the outside, your workplace appears to be “doing” diversity, equity, and inclusion well. But look inside and you’ll see inequities and microaggressions continue to go unchecked by those in positions of power.
Tokenism is like an optical illusion.
It jeopardizes progress toward diversity, equity, and inclusion. It tarnishes the company brand. It frustrates the employee experience. And, it nullifies the economic gains of achieving intersectional gender equity.
Examples Of Tokenism
Here are some examples of how tokenism might manifest in your workplace:
- Your Black colleague is invited to attend a meeting, but no one asks for her opinion, her research, or her thoughts on the issue at hand
- Your marketing team posts photos of the only two diverse employees to show how woke your company is
- Your boss frequently mentions having a lesbian and an Asian woman on his team — but doesn’t call out the identities of his other employees
- Your colleague is promoted to a managerial role — but her budget, influence, number of direct reports, or pay doesn’t increase
A Package Deal: Diversity + Equity + Inclusion
Diversity without inclusion and equity often perpetuates tokenism. That’s why we talk about diversity, equity, AND inclusion for a reason. These three elements are a package deal. We need all three of them to avoid tokenism and reap the benefits of a more equitable workplace.
We know this, and yet we still have difficulty integrating all three elements into our workplaces. A sentiment analysis of employee reviews found that:
- Sentiment on company diversity was 52% positive and 31% negative
- Sentiment on inclusion was 29% positive and 61% negative
In other words, companies excel (relatively speaking) at diversity but lag on inclusion.
Steps You Can Take Right Now To Move Toward Inclusion
If employees don’t feel accepted, if they can’t bring their whole selves to work, and if they aren’t given enough power to wield influence, then your company has an inclusion problem — and by extension, potentially a tokenism problem. Use these questions as a starting point for measuring inclusion at your company:
For each of these statements, do you agree, disagree, or are neutral?
- I don’t have to hide who I am at work.
- Administrative tasks are distributed fairly.
- I am given enough resources to do my job.
- My opinions are valued and taken seriously.
- I have a buddy at work that I can go to when things get difficult.
- I believe my company is committed to diversity, equity, and inclusion.
- I am comfortable having conversations at work about bias, inequity, and injustice.
- I can go to the leadership team when I have questions or feedback, and they care about what I have to say.