There’s a mad dash in the professional world to improve diversity. Every high-profile company is working to boost the statistics in hopes of a favorable public profile — one in which people from all backgrounds and ethnicities are welcome. The tech industry, especially, is at the forefront of this diversity movement as it’s come under fire more than other business categories. However, diversity statistics are just that — statistics. Without inclusion, diversity just creates another problem. That problem is tokenism.Tokenism is defined as the following: “the practice of making only a perfunctory or symbolic effort to do a particular thing, especially by recruiting a small number of people from underrepresented groups in order to give the appearance of sexual or racial equality within a workforce.” There are quite a few definitions floating around out there but this one hits the nail on the head.
Tokenism, and the misguided diversity attempts it stems from, simply gives the appearance of equality without achieving it. Think of the person who tries to prove they aren’t a racist by pointing out their one black friend. Or another person who thinks having a lone gay friend makes them a supporter of the LGBTQ community.
Tokenism is an empty movement with no real impact beyond confusion and frustration. It gives companies a false sense of achievement. Okay, we’ve hired more black engineers. We can check that off our to-do list. But empty movements can’t possibly be considered action. Simply checking an item off a list to protect a company’s public image isn’t enough.
After all, diversity was never meant to focus only on numbers and skin tone or gender. The diversity movement was meant to pull ideas and strengths from a wide variety of workers. Together, these people from different backgrounds could innovate and dream up truly astonishing solutions. It wasn’t a statistics project. Diversity was supposed to have an impact.
The ripples of tokenism are being felt in every direction. In a 2014 Huff Post piece, writer Marilyn Nagel took corporate America to task for using female executives as a way to avoid criticism — instead of hiring them for their talents.
In March of this year, Utah Business published a piece about the importance of creating a welcoming environment for both women and minorities. But it strongly discourages tokenism. Each company should look for the best person to fill an open position — first and foremost. But additionally, they should be open to and aware of the vast options they have to do so.
The danger in tokenism is that it masks inactivity. On paper, it looks as though companies are making progress. When 20% of the board is female or 15% of leadership is Hispanic, the numbers are motivational. But the telltale sign of success is what these hires contribute. Are they making presentations? Are they introducing big ideas in important meetings? Are they spearheading major company initiatives? Do they truly have a seat at the table or are they just there as figureheads for “diversity”?
Tokenism isn’t solving any problems. It’s only making them worse.