Diversity, Equity & Inclusion Insights for Organisations

Unpacking the Impact of Tokenism in the Workplace

Paul Brown
10.08.23

Tokenism is a prevalent issue in today’s workplace, where a small number of individuals from underrepresented groups are included merely to give the illusion of diversity. Despite seeming progressive, tokenism does not tackle core inequalities and hinders sincere diversity and inclusion efforts. Understanding how it affects marginalised individuals and the overall work environment is crucial to move beyond superficial representation and create a truly equitable space where all employees can thrive.

We’ll delve into more detail about tokenism below, including real-world examples of tokenism and how it can occur in the workplace, as well as the mental health impact it can have. We’ll also provide actionable advice for organisations to combat tokenism, improve diversity, and boost overall business performance.

What’s in this article?

What is tokenism?

Tokenism refers to the practice of including a few individuals from underrepresented groups to create a superficial appearance of diversity, while actually failing to address systemic inequalities. A term coined in the 1960s by psychologist Rosabeth Moss Kanter, tokenism emerged as a response to affirmative action policies, with organisations using token representatives as mere symbols of diversity without dealing with underlying issues.

These token representatives often face increased scrutiny and pressure to represent their entire community, experiencing isolation and limited opportunities for growth.

In social structures, tokenism can perpetuate stereotypes and reinforce biases, hindering genuine progress towards inclusivity. Token individuals may be showcased as exceptions, obscuring the broader challenges faced by their communities.

What’s the difference between genuine diversity and tokenistic representation

The distinction between genuine diversity and token representation lies in the depth of inclusion. Genuine diversity embraces diverse perspectives and experiences, enabling equal access to opportunities and decision-making roles. On the contrary, token representation relies on symbolic gestures, often disregarding the valuable contributions and unique voices of underrepresented individuals.

Tokenism examples

Here are real-world examples of tokenism in the context of work, school, and the media.

Tokenism at work

In the workplace, a company might hire a single person of colour to a prominent position while the rest of the leadership team remains homogeneous. This practice gives the illusion of inclusivity without truly empowering marginalised voices.

Tokenism at school

Similarly, tokenism is observable in educational settings, where schools may enrol a limited number of students from disadvantaged backgrounds to showcase diversity. However, if the institution fails to create a genuinely inclusive environment and address systemic barriers, these students may feel isolated and unsupported.

Tokenism in the media

In the media, tokenism frequently appears as the inclusion of a single representative from a minority group to demonstrate diversity. This is common in advertising, TV shows, and movies. By doing this, media outlets may try to appear diverse, but they are actually avoiding genuine representation and failing to show the true diversity within these communities.

What does tokenism look like in the workplace?

Tokenism in the workplace can take many forms, such as symbolic representations, diversity quotas, limited career growth opportunities, lack of inclusivity, token participation, and unvoiced concerns faced by tokenised individuals.

One common scenario in professional settings is token hires, where a company hires individuals from underrepresented groups solely to demonstrate diversity without genuinely valuing their contributions. Token hires often face added pressure to represent their entire community, making it difficult for them to be seen as individuals with unique skills and qualifications.

Token participation in decision-making is another prevalent aspect of tokenism. In such cases, organisations might include a single representative from a minority group in discussions or committees to give an illusion of inclusion, but their perspectives may not be genuinely valued or considered in meaningful ways.

Diversity committees can also become tokenised, with one or a few members representing different backgrounds, but the committee’s actual impact may be limited if their suggestions and concerns are not taken seriously.

The impact of tokenism on workplace dynamics and employee morale is significant. Tokenized individuals often experience isolation, feeling like they are not fully part of the team. This can lead to a lack of trust, low job satisfaction, and reduced motivation. Moreover, tokenism can perpetuate stereotypes and microaggressions, fostering a hostile work environment for those affected.

Tokenism in the workplace undermines the genuine efforts to create a diverse and inclusive workforce. It can have detrimental effects on the morale and mental well-being of tokenised employees and perpetuate systemic inequalities within the organisation.

What are the mental health effects of tokenism?

Tokenism may appear to be a step towards inclusion, but its effects on individuals experiencing it can be far-reaching and detrimental. Tokenism can take a toll on mental health, leaving those affected feeling isolated, undervalued, and grappling with imposter syndrome. The pressure to represent an entire demographic can weigh heavily on their shoulders, leading to a constant fear of not living up to expectations. Instead of celebrating their skills and qualifications, tokenised individuals may have their accomplishments attributed solely to their background. This constant undermining of their worth can have a significant impact on their self-esteem and confidence.

As tokenism persists, the toll on mental well-being becomes increasingly apparent. Feelings of anxiety and depression can take root, making it challenging to navigate both personal and professional spheres. The sense of being unheard and undervalued can leave tokenised individuals questioning their place in the workplace and society at large. Moreover, the fear of speaking up about their experiences perpetuates a cycle of silence, preventing any real progress toward genuine inclusivity.

What can businesses do to minimise tokenism in the workplace?

Now, you should have a clear understanding of what tokenism is, how tokenism manifests in the workplace, and the impact tokenism can have on the affected communities and individuals. We’ll provide you with actionable steps and strategies for organisations to combat tokenism effectively.

5 ways businesses can combat tokenism at work

  1. Create a culture of inclusivity
  2. Diversity leadership and decision-making
  3. Provide mentorship and support
  4. Set clear and fair criteria for advancement
  5. Conduct diversity and inclusion training

1. Create a culture of inclusivity

Embracing an inclusive work culture that celebrates diversity in its entirety is vital for businesses seeking to thrive in the modern world. This means going beyond token gestures and actively promoting open dialogue, where employees feel free to express their unique perspectives without fear of judgement. Respecting and appreciating different viewpoints fosters a collaborative atmosphere that drives creativity and innovation. Additionally, creating an environment where employees from underrepresented groups feel genuinely welcomed and valued boosts morale, enhances productivity, and paves the way for a truly diverse and equitable workplace where everyone can flourish.

Learn more about the top diversity initiatives to get behind this year.

2. Diversify leadership and decision-making

Companies should aim for diverse leadership to blend varied viewpoints in decisions, encouraging innovation. Diverse leaders challenge norms, fostering inclusive and creative solutions. This demonstrates true dedication to diversity, motivating teams and drawing diverse talent.

3. Provide mentorship and support

Establishing mentorship programmes that connect employees from underrepresented groups with experienced mentors is a positive step in addressing the challenges posed by tokenism. Mentorship can help individuals navigate the challenges of tokenism, provide guidance for career growth, and boost confidence in their professional abilities. Mentorship fosters a nurturing environment, where individuals from underrepresented backgrounds feel empowered, valued, and equipped to reach their full potential.

4. Set clear and fair criteria for advancement

To promote fairness and combat tokenism, establish transparent and equitable criteria for career advancement. This ensures that all employees, regardless of their background, are evaluated based on their skills, qualifications, and contributions, rather than being subject to biased judgments. This fosters an inclusive workplace where individuals from diverse backgrounds can thrive.

5. Conduct diversity and inclusion training

Offering regular diversity and inclusion training for all employees helps to raise awareness of tokenism and its negative impact. The training should focus on challenging unconscious biases that may unintentionally perpetuate tokenism and exclusion and encourage employees to actively contribute to an inclusive workplace. In this way, employees can actively contribute to creating a workplace where everyone feels respected, valued, and heard.

FDM is taking a stance against tokenism

In today’s rapidly evolving world, diversity and inclusion are not just buzzwords, but essential values that foster growth and success. At FDM, these principles are at the core of everything we do. Our unbiased approach to recruitment focuses solely on an individual’s skills, qualifications, and potential. We are dedicated to casting the widest net possible to attract diverse talent from all backgrounds. This means that our clients gain access to top talent, ready to make positive contributions to their teams.

We understand that hiring diverse talent isn’t just a checkbox exercise; it’s a strategic advantage that fuels innovation and drives business success. Ultimately, hiring diverse talent and fostering an inclusive work environment will enable you to combat tokenism, solve your biggest business challenges, and  improve business across the board.

Start building your diverse talent pipeline with FDM! Check out our consultant services or get in touch for more information.