What does tokenism mean?
Tokenism is a practice and a symbolic effort to be inclusive of members of minority groups, typically to prevent criticism or to the appearance that people are being treated fairly. It often happens in hiring and candidate selection processes as a check the box exercise for organisations to claim they have a diverse representation within the company.
What is an example of tokenism?
Examples of tokenism include a bookstore that adds books by authors from minority communities to be seen as inclusive rather than based on the quality of the book. Another example is an organisation or school having a multicultural celebration day but only highlighting other cultures in a condescending, exotified or primitive way.
What is workplace tokenism?
Tokenism occurs in the workplace when an organisation makes a symbolic effort to show support for diversity in an attempt to avoid criticism or keep up appearances. When workplace tokenism is left unchecked, it can lead to the wrong hiring decisions or hitting diversity targets without engaging the organisation’s diverse employees. Essentially, tokenism in the workplace is discrimination that occurs due to diversity and inclusion mistakes.
Here are some examples of how it can manifest:
- Only hiring a small number of candidates who are diverse. This could be underrepresented groups related to gender, race, age, sexual orientation, disability or neurodivergence.
- Having images on a company website with a diverse workforce that does not accurately illustrate the organisation’s employee population.
- Having people from diverse backgrounds in essential or executive positions without giving them the corresponding influence or authority.
- Asking one member of a minority group or diverse background to be the spokesperson and represent their viewpoint for the entire group when making business decisions.
Tokenism poses risks to both the individual and the organisation. It can create imposter syndrome in employees from underrepresented groups. They make feel like they were only hired because they were a diversity hire. It may damage an employee’s self-esteem and make them feel that they are not qualified to perform their role. They might also experience constant pressure to be a high performer due to perceived scrutiny from majority groups.
However, when it comes to deciding if a company has engaged in tokenism or not, intent is very important. For example, if there is only one candidate from a minority group or underrepresented community within a group, then tokenism could be at play. But it also might be the case that an organisation is at the very beginning of their diversity journey. Maybe the organisation is making a genuine effort to hire more diverse talent and previous efforts have failed.
How do we avoid tokenism?
To avoid tokenism, there are three essential elements which can support this effort- diversity, equity and inclusion. Diversity involves having representation of employees from a variety of backgrounds. The goal should be to have a workforce that is reflective of the societies we live in. Having an equitable workplace means that everyone has equal access to resources to succeed, including mentors, training and development and salary transparency. Inclusivity ensures that every employee feels welcome and valued in the organisation, no matter what their background is. It means that everyone can show up to work authentically.
Here are some key tips to avoid tokenism:
- Do not hire just to tick a box or fit a quota
- Create a transparent promotion process
- Learn about and implement intersectionality
- Do not put pressure on people to be the sole spokesperson for their community
- Make use of consultants or guest speakers
Tokenism is a practice that involves a symbolic effort to be inclusive of members of minority groups, typically to prevent criticism or give the appearance that people are being treated fairly. Tokenism occurs in the workplace when an organisation makes a symbolic effort to show support for diversity to avoid criticism or keep up appearances. When workplace tokenism is left unchecked, it can lead to the wrong hiring decisions or hitting diversity targets without engaging the organisation’s diverse employees. To avoid tokenism, there are three essential elements which can support this effort; diversity, equity and inclusion.
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