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  • Writer's pictureAbbey Salvas

What is Tokenism and How to Avoid It

Updated: Apr 25

Originally posted on the Mattingly Solutions Blog.

Organizations seeking to become more diverse, equitable, and inclusive might stumble into the common trap of tokenizing their applicants or employees from underrepresented or historically disadvantaged backgrounds. What does this mean?

What is tokenism?

Tokenism is “the practice of doing something (such as hiring a person who belongs to a marginalized group) only to prevent criticism and give the appearance that people are being treated fairly. It occurs when ONE person unfairly represents an ENTIRE group” (Mattingly et al., 2022).

Why does tokenism happen? Often when organizations seek to increase diversity without also considering inclusion, it leads to tokenism. Employees from marginalized backgrounds feel undervalued, over-pressured to perform, and that they are only there for who they are (checking some demographic box) rather than the skills and experience they bring to the table.

Why is tokenism a problem?

Feeling tokenized can often lead individuals to not perform their best. One potential explanation for this is stereotype threat.

Stereotype threat is “a phenomenon that occurs when there is the opportunity or perceived opportunity for an individual to satisfy or confirm a negative stereotype of a group of which they are a member. The threat of possibly satisfying or confirming the stereotype can interfere with the subject’s performance” (Rutgers). In other words, if you feel that you’re in a situation in which others expect you to do poorly because of your identity, you are more likely to perform poorly because of that stereotype.

Being the only member of a particular group in a situation, such as being the only Black or LGBTQ+ person in the room, can trigger stereotype threat. Being the “only” can result in:

  • Imposter syndrome, or doubting your abilities and feeling like a fraud at work

  • “When employees from marginalized backgrounds try to hold themselves up to a standard that no one like them has met (and that they’re often not expected to be able to meet), the pressure to excel can become too much to bear.” (Tulshyan & Burey, 2021)

  • Unconscious self-sabotage, or negative beliefs about your abilities negatively impacting your performance outside of your conscious awareness

Another negative outcome of tokenism is that tokenized individuals may simply choose to leave the organization in search of one that makes them feel included and valued. In order to maintain a diverse workforce, it is important to avoid tokenism.

What can you do to avoid tokenism?

The key to avoiding tokenism is practicing inclusive behaviors. Some examples include:

  1. When a person from a marginalized group is hired or promoted, let them know how excited you are for them to bring their skills, expertise, and lived experience into the organization. Prioritize their skillset over their identity, although celebrate both as valuable assets to the organization.

  2. Practice micro-affirmations, or small, otherwise innocuous actions that we can take to make others feel valued, respected, seen, and heard.

  3. Be inclusive in your choice of role models for employees and make them prominently visible. Elevate people who look like those who are otherwise underrepresented so people can see themselves in others.

  4. Be an ally. An ally is someone who uses their power and status to advocate and support for someone who is different from them in some meaningful way.

Being a part of an organization that prioritizes inclusion will naturally lead to a more diverse workforce. Further, embedding inclusion into daily practices and organizational policies increases equity, which breaks down barriers to increasing diversity. As you can see, it is crucial not only to have Diversity, but also Inclusion and Equity.

Looking to advance DEI through data-driven insights in your organization? Contact us at Plan to Action today to drive meaningful change, together.

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