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What is Tokenism?

Last updated on 3rd May 2023

A diverse environment is one made up of people with a wide range of characteristics, beliefs, backgrounds and mindsets. The UK is a diverse environment – it is a country made up of people with a wide range of characteristics, beliefs, backgrounds and mindsets – and yet many groups of people are under-represented in facets of everyday life.

However, when specific people are hired, placed or tolerated strictly to prove that an organisation is not discriminatory, this is where equality and inclusion becomes tokenism. Too often tokenism is a mask for box-ticking, an easy gesture to show that people with protected characteristics under the Equality Act 2010 are represented.

Actress America Ferrera put it succinctly in an interview with Deadline magazine, saying “Tokenism is about inserting diverse characters because you feel you have to; true diversity means writing characters that aren’t just defined by the color (sic) of their skin, and casting the right actor for the role.” This sentiment can also apply to all protected characteristics in all aspects of everyday life.

What is tokenism?

Tokenism is defined in the Oxford Learner’s Dictionary as “the fact of doing something only in order to do what the law requires or to satisfy a particular group of people, but not in a way that is really sincere”.

Tokenism means including minority groups because it is deemed politically correct or, moreover, economically advantageous, to do so. The issue is, however, when this inclusion stops at just token representation, statements and policies rather than implementing full equality and inclusivity. There is a very fine line between equality, diversity and inclusion, and tokenism. Tokenism is a forced form of diversity that creates a superficial appearance of equality without truly achieving it and lacks the inclusive behaviours that matter.

Many of the prominent equality movements such as MeToo and Black Lives Matter sparked action by many organisations, but how many of these were just tokenistic without any real equality or inclusive effects? How many faded as soon as the hashtags did?

Where does tokenism happen?

When people think about the term tokenism, they often think about statistics and representation in employment. However, tokenism can happen in almost every aspect of life.

It happens in, for example, but not limited to:

  • Employment, across all sectors – Most organisations are working hard to improve diversity within the organisation in the hope of a more favourable public image. However, establishing and achieving a quota for under-represented groups is just that, a quota. It is a symbolic effort that does not mean a lot if equality and inclusion is not involved, and without equality and inclusion, it just generates another issue, tokenism.
  • The media – TV, films, fiction etc. – Casting a more diverse representation of people in the media can initially be seen to be inclusive; however, as America Ferrera commented, it should be about “casting the right actor for the role”, and not to fulfil quotas. Media is also not only about visibility in front of the cameras. GMB host Andi Peters called out the lack of diversity on TV, reminding hosts Piers Morgan and Susanna Reid, “Am I, or am I not, the only person of colour standing in this studio right now? Yep, I am.” He added: “This is not a self-righteous condemnation because I’m ashamed to say that I’m part of the problem. I have not done everything in my power to ensure that the sets I work on are inclusive, but I think that it’s more than just having sets that are multicultural. I think that we have to really do the hard work to truly understand systemic racism. I think that it is the obligation of the people that have created and perpetuate and benefit from a system of oppression to be the ones that dismantle it.”
  • Advertising and marketing – The LGBT+ community often feels ignored and invisible when it comes to advertising, a new study has found. 82% of those surveyed also feel that representation of LGBTQ+ people is tokenistic. This tokenism extends to brands’ activity during Pride Month, which is a marquee moment for brands’ inclusivity campaigns in Britain.
  • Politics – User-led organisation Shaping Our Lives was asked to put together important user-led research to influence government, policymakers and local services. However, the initiative was accused of tokenism when it was highlighted that there were many barriers to participation, for example over half the survey respondents said that they have had difficulty getting their access and support needs met. It’s important for organisations to be aware of the barriers experienced by the disabled community so that they can create fair, safe and supportive environments in which involvement, co-production and participation can take place.
  • Sport – Kick It Out’s Chief Executive Tony Burnett has said, “Tokenism rather than substance. Input rather than outcomes. We are handing out awards and offering pats on the back to leaders for simply trying and then we wonder why progress has not been made and the leaders of today make exactly the same mistakes as those of 20 years ago.”
  • Health – There have been repeated calls to better involve patients and the public and to place them at the centre of healthcare. Despite this supportive policy context, progress to achieve greater involvement is patchy and slow and often concentrated at the lowest levels of involvement.
  • Retail – Retailers have incorporated a more diverse range of people into their advertising, particularly on television; however, this diversity is not always reflected in their employees, noticeably at senior levels.
Example of tokenism

What are some examples of tokenism?

Understanding what tokenism is can be made easier when seeing examples of where it is occurring. Here are some examples:

Recruitment at board level

The pressure for diversity on boards is growing, particularly for women and ethnic minority board members. Government scrutiny, regulators and investors are increasingly encouraging it, as well as staff and stakeholders. So, when organisations are advertising for new board members, they will often state something along the lines of the following in their adverts:

“We are committed to providing equality of opportunity and welcome applications from all suitably qualified people irrespective of gender, age, marital status, disability, religious belief, ethnic origin, sexual orientation or whether or not you have dependants. Applications are also welcome from individuals irrespective of gender identity, including those who are undergoing or have undergone gender reassignment. We particularly welcome applications from women, people with a disability, young people and those from ethnic minorities, as these are currently under-represented. Reasonable adjustments will be made to accommodate the needs of applicants with a disability and the principles of the Guaranteed Interview Scheme will be applied for such applicants.”

Very commendable – it appears that the organisation is actively encouraging applications from a diverse range of candidates… but wait. Further in the advertisement is the essential criteria “experience as Board Chair, Chair of the Board, Non-Exec Director, Non-Executive Director, Director, CEO, Charity Chair, Trustee or Charity Non-Executive Director, essential”.

What makes the first equality statement tokenistic is the phrase “…welcome applications from all suitably qualified people”. It is a well-known fact that certain people are under-represented on boards, so how can these people fulfil the essential criteria of experience when they have not been given the opportunity to gain this experience.

However, it is just as tokenistic to dispense with experience criteria altogether or to lower the bar. Not to hire purely on merit, based on skills and experience, and lowering the criteria because the organisation was looking for a woman, for example, is a token appointment. Being perceived as a token hire can be quite a challenge for the new person to make a strong positive start in their new appointment and to become a highly-valued board member.

Organisations need to carefully examine the criteria they are setting in job specifications at all levels to ensure that what they specify as essential, is so, or whether there is an alternative equivalent that will open the role to a more diverse talent pool. Tokenism is toxic for boards and board members.

In goods and services

The tokenisation of minority groups for profit is a prevalent issue across industries and could be seen as akin to greenwashing. Whether it is a brand incorporating the iconic rainbow flag into its logo over Pride Month or ethnically diverse casts in advertisements or event-based marketing efforts such as during Eid or Black History Month, these all can be tokenistic if the brand has not put in place any internal policies to support diverse employees in the workplace, or does not cater for in their goods and services for the needs of the diverse group(s) they are marketing to. An example of this is a supermarket who portrays its “on screen” customers as Black, but does not stock, for example, hair products for the specific needs of people with afro hair – this is tokenism.

Diversity and fashion have always had a complex relationship; the necessity of diversity has often been addressed through marketing and commercial choices of fashion brands. However, the representation of diversity, whether it be in the form of ethnicity, body types, age or gender has easily shifted from an actual change to a mere extension of tokenism, as the industry still conforms to what they perceive to be the “norms” of fashion and beauty. Many “high street” brands do not cater for what they consider to be plus sizes or for skin tones that are paler or darker than a restricted range.

How does tokenism affect the workplace?

Tokenism is being exercised when an organisation is not willing to acknowledge, address and find solutions to fix the diversity imbalance in its workplace at the root. Tokenism is the practice of making a symbolic action by, for example, recruiting a small number of people from under-represented groups to create an appearance of racial or gender equality within the workplace, or having policies in place without ensuring their implementation. When this happens, all other activities are merely cosmetic and will appear as a token gesture or a tick-box exercise.

Feeling like a token can be draining on employees, especially if they are the only female or disabled person or Black person in the workplace, for example. This is why inclusivity is so important; inclusiveness means that each member of staff, no matter their background, feels welcomed and valued within the workplace.

What can businesses do about tokenism?

In combatting tokenism, it is important to appreciate the legal distinction between positive action and positive discrimination. Positive action is allowed under existing discrimination law. It is designed to create a level playing field so that historically disadvantaged groups can compete on equal terms for jobs, or for access to services and so on. It can include advertising in a specific place or publication to encourage applications from types of people who have not in the past applied for a particular job, or additional training to help someone show more effectively what skills they would bring to a role, or providing support networks, or adapting working practices. These balancing measures reflect the possibility that in some cases, to achieve a fair outcome, a difference in approach and methods to encourage may be required. It is essential that the under-representation is clearly established before embarking on positive action.

Positive discrimination in the workplace usually refers to making recruitment and/or promotion decisions solely on the basis of a characteristic someone has, so that their gender or some other characteristic is a deciding factor in recruiting them, irrespective of whether they are in other ways the best candidate for the job. In other words, it ignores merit. This is not generally allowed under UK discrimination law.

For businesses advertising their goods and/or services, they need to ensure the communities represented in adverts or on screen are similarly represented behind the scenes in the team developing the campaign, and they should be prepared to bring in a consultative partner if necessary. They also need to begin the work of diversifying their supply chains to ensure opportunities within production are actively offered to people from the communities being represented. Businesses over the years have engineered inclusion and diversity into their advertising and marketing to appear more attractive to a wider audience. However, diversity and inclusion should consistently be demonstrated in the brand aesthetic, the language, the content, the behaviour, and network, and by continually making an effort to include diversity in all aspects of the business.

The impact of tokenism

What is the impact of tokenism?

In recruitment, the primary issue with tokenism is, if somebody is placed in a position and they are perceived, rightly or wrongly, as being in a token role, the person occupying that role really has their work cut out for themselves and it begs the question, was this person hired based on merit or to satisfy the quota? This can lead to feeling as though they need to constantly prove themselves. This puts the person in a very pressurised situation.

Tokenism is a forced form of diversity that creates a superficial appearance of equality without truly achieving it. The practice of tokenism is not only harmful to the individuals, but it can also negatively influence the whole organisation.

In business, if an organisation is seen to be just tokenising, for example using diverse characters in advertising but not catering for or employing a diversity of people, then their business may suffer adverse publicity and their brand might be damaged. Consumers see through tokenism very quickly and are generally unforgiving.

Can tokenism affect mental health?

Tokenism can have absolutely devastating effects on employees from under-represented groups. It causes minority employees to doubt their talents, leading them to develop serious imposter syndrome. They may begin to believe that they aren’t actually good at their job, and that they were only hired because they were a diverse candidate. When the token employees are not given a chance to get actively engaged in the organisation, they can often feel unmotivated to perform at the best of their capacity.

Being a token is frustrating and individuals may feel the extra pressure to represent their outnumbered group. They may also feel a sense of isolation, especially when their contribution may go unacknowledged or when they do not have somebody to support them if any microaggressions happen.

Another aspect of tokenism that can have an effect on the mental health of a token person is the pressure of the consequences of messing up, because they may feel that by messing up that they might be doing so for everyone else who looks like them.

How can tokenism be prevented?

To prevent tokenism, there must be an integration of equality, diversity and inclusion. If diversity is not accompanied by equality and inclusion, it will always fall into the tokenism trap.

Tokenism can be avoided by asking questions such as, are you including representation in your organisation because you see the value of diversity and what it brings to the table, or do you want to appear as an organisation that understands and is seen to be being diverse? Intention is everything.

Have a look at your business, your workforce and where you operate. If your company has different levels of seniority, do the top ones as well as the bottom ones contain different types of people?

You should also ask yourself:

  • Are we missing out on potential employees or failing to retain key people?
  • Could we understand our customers better or access new markets?
  • Are we experiencing skills gaps which could be filled by people we don’t usually target for recruitment?
  • What can we do to improve?

Many people are still under-represented in the workplace because of the barriers they face. What can you do as an employer to remove the barriers, rather than taking tokenistic action?

Review organisational policies for impact on under-represented groups; organisational policies need to consider the needs and preferences of the diverse or minority employees so that the employment becomes meaningful for them. Successful organisations take a holistic approach to all talent-related processes, including recruiting and hiring, to ensure that all employees understand the business benefit of a diverse workforce and inclusive culture.

Final thoughts

Tokenism does not work for the organisation or the minority group. It is merely a superficial gesture to include members of under-represented groups. Successful organisations make inclusion of under-represented groups at the core of their business strategies, starting with strong leadership commitment.

What then is required is stepping away from tokenistic gestures and laying down concrete frameworks on not just boosting diversity and inclusion, but also holding people to account for behaviours and practices that go against these very efforts. It is only when we eliminate tokenism from representation that true inclusion, equality and diversity will prevail.

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About the author

Megan Huziej

Megan Huziej

Megan has worked with CPD Online College since August 2020, she is in charge of content production, as well as planning, managing and delegating tasks. Megan works closely with our writers, voice artists, companies and individuals to create the most appropriate and relevant content as well as also using and managing SEO. She gained her Business Administration Level 3 qualification over the duration of being at CPD Online College as well. Outside of work Megan loves to venture to different places and eateries as well as spending quality time with friends and family.

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