Tokenism is the act of including a few individuals from underrepresented groups in a superficial manner to create an illusion of diversity while not addressing the underlying issues of discrimination and exclusion – for instance, in the workplace. 

What is tokenism? Meaning and explanation

According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, the definition and meaning of tokenism is the policy or practice of making only a symbolic effort.

In other words, the term refers to a superficial effort made by organizations to appear diverse and inclusive by including individuals from underrepresented groups – but without genuinely addressing systemic inequalities of foresting a culture of belonging.

The term “token” refers to the one or few individuals from these groups who are included, often for the purpose of appearing inclusive, progressive, or compliant with diversity initiatives.

What is tokenism in the workplace?

Tokenism in the workplace occurs when organizations hire or promote individuals from underrepresented groups to positions, not based on their qualifications or expertise but primarily to showcase diversity.

These individuals may be subjected to heightened scrutiny and pressure to represent their entire community. They may even find their opinions minimized or discarded, further perpetuating the lack of genuine inclusion. 

1. Superficial representation 

In tokenistic workplaces, organizations may appoint individuals from marginalized groups to visible positions (such as on executive boards or leadership positions) without giving them actual decision-making power.

This form of surface-level representation only serves to maintain the status quo, where genuine influence remains concentrated among the majority group.

2. Diversity as a checkmark

Tokenism is often a result of organizations viewing diversity and inclusion as mere checkboxes to tick off rather than as integral components of a dynamic and inclusive workplace.

When diversity initiatives are treated as a formality, employees from underrepresented backgrounds can feel like they are only there to fill a quota rather than being valued for their unique skills and perspectives. 

3. Lack of voice and influence

Employees who are tokens in their workplace feel hesitant to voice their concerns or ideas due to the fear of being dismissed or ignored.

This lack of genuine influence diminishes their ability to contribute meaningfully to the organization’s decision-making process and hinders the development of a diverse and inclusive culture.

4. Emotional tax on employees

Tokenism can emotionally burden individuals from underrepresented groups, as they might experience feelings of isolation, alienation, or imposter syndrome.

This emotional tax can lead to burnout and diminished job satisfaction, ultimately affecting productivity and retention rates.

5. Impeding real progress

A significant factor of tokenism is that it can serve as a distraction from addressing the real issues of systemic inequality and discrimination.

By focusing on superficial displays of diversity, companies may avoid confronting the root causes of underrepresentation and fail to implement meaningful changes that foster an inclusive workplace.

Who is tokenized – and what are the consequences?

According to a review of research over the past quarter century, it is most difficult for women and racial minorities to be a token compared to men and white workers. But as long as they are part of an organization, department, or team with 15% or fewer people like themselves, anyone can be a token at work. 

Tokenism can have profound and lasting effects on the victims involved and broader consequences for the workplace and society at large. 

The same research also shows that tokens:

Below are more examples of the consequences of tokenism.

The emotional toll on token employees

As mentioned earlier, people who become tokens in their workplace often bear a heavy emotional burden. They may experience feelings of isolation, anxiety, and pressure to represent an entire community, leading to a phenomenon known as “solo status”.

Solo status occurs when a person is the only representative of their social group in a particular setting, making them more aware of their difference and increasing the sense of being an outsider.

The constant scrutiny and feeling like they need to prove their worth beyond their qualifications can lead to imposter syndrome, wherein individuals doubt their abilities and fear being exposed as inadequate. This emotional toll can negatively impact their mental health, job satisfaction, and overall well-being.

Deterrent for diversity and inclusion efforts

Tokenism can harm the diversity and inclusion efforts of an organization. Employees from underrepresented groups who witness tokenism may become skeptical of the organization’s commitment to genuine inclusivity, leading to decreased morale and reduced trust in diversity initiatives.

In turn, this can make it more challenging for the organization to attract and retain a diverse workforce. 

Reinforcement of systemic inequality

One of the most significant consequences of tokenism is that it perpetuates systemic inequality.

Rather than addressing the root causes of underrepresentation and discrimination, tokenism serves as a Band-Aid solution that masks the need for meaningful change. By merely highlighting a few individuals from marginalized groups, organizations may neglect the more substantial systemic issues that hinder equitable opportunities for all.

Overcoming tokenism in the workplace 

To combat tokenism and foster genuine diversity and inclusion, organizations must adopt a comprehensive and sustainable approach.

Here are some examples of things to do:


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