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How to Avoid Tokenism in Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Work

We've all seen the stats that diversity is good for business, but many companies are missing the mark with their diversification efforts. Failed attempts at building diversity are bringing forward a new issue– tokenism.

Tokenism is "the practice of doing something (such as hiring an individual who belongs to a minority group) only to prevent criticism and give the appearance that people are being treated fairly." It's a superficial effort to meet diversity goals or create the appearance of diversity without making effective changes.

Tokenism can lead to hiring for the wrong reasons, lack of representation, and poor retention rates.

So, how do you avoid tokenism in your company culture? What steps can you take, as a leader, to make sure your efforts to increase diversity and inclusion don't become mere gestures?

We sat down with PowerToFly's Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion experts Sienna Brown, Sr. Manager Global DEI Strategy, and Zara Chaudary, Global DEI Strategist & Trainer, to learn more about what tokenism is and how to avoid it in diversity and inclusion work.

What is tokenism and why is it a problem?

"Tokenism is a dangerous concept where folks conflate diversity and representation. I think about tokenism as having a certain underrepresented person be the spokesperson for a group, but also not have any real power to affect any change."

Zara Chaudary

"Tokenism is a problem because companies are trying to attract diverse talent without

creating an inclusive environment. That means when diverse talent comes, they don't actually feel like they belong."

Sienna Brown

What are some of the negative effects that come with being a token employee?

"Employees who are tokenized have higher visibility, because they are often an "only" in the room. If an organization expects an individual to represent and act as a spokesperson for their identity group, that person can't come into work as their full self. They sense increased pressure about how their actions, the way they speak, how they interact with others, the goals that they reach, etc. are perceived.

I think it's really dangerous because tokenized employees get burnt out. They get disillusioned. They feel used and they don't feel valued."

Sienna Brown

There is a fine line between diversity and tokenism. How diverse does an organization need to be in order to avoid tokenism?

"I guess if you were to look at statistics, you would see companies that have less diversity may end up like tokenizing certain identities more, but that's not a guarantee. Often folks assume if a company doesn't have the best representation or diversity that folks who are of a different identity are immediately tokenized, but that's not true.

It's not a matter of numbers, it's a matter of mindset. A company that may not have the best diversity may do an amazing job of not tokenizing certain demographics. And vice versa, there may be a company that has really great diversity that continues to tokenize certain demographics."

Zara Chaudary

What are some specific dangers that tokenism can pose for a workplace's culture and wellbeing?

"I feel like tokenism is an unfulfilled promise in many ways. The danger then is that you start to lose trust from employees, and not just those who are tokenized, but those who see the tokenism happening. It's very difficult to trust my employer if I see them consistently tokenizing certain employees.

On the other hand, from the company's perspective, they're not fully leveraging the knowledge and experiences of people who bring different perspectives to the table. When you're offering a venue to hear them out, but then not doing anything about that, it's a lose, lose situation because your employees are going to start losing trust in the company. And those who are being tokenized are probably eventually going to want to leave."

Zara Chaudary

In your experience, what are the most common mistakes that organizations striving toward inclusion make?

"I think some of the biggest mistakes that we see is focusing only on intention vs action. Someone can have good intentions but still have harmful actions without realizing it. Many companies launch ERGs or have a DEI task force or council with great intention, but never see change because leadership isn't on board. It often means more work for underrepresented talent as well. The mistake is wanting to do great things, but not actually having the strategy to take meaningful action."

Sienna Brown

How can companies go beyond policy to ensure their DEI efforts are truly impactful?

"It doesn't matter what policies you have in place, if your mindset or intention isn't right, things will never properly be implemented and change won't properly happen.

Oftentimes, those who are in the room, making big decisions, are not those who are of underrepresented identities. And so wanting to be mindful of that and pulling in folks from underrepresented groups to be in the room where decisions are being made is one way to ensure impactful DEI efforts."

Zara Chaudary

"You can have policies in place, but if there isn't actually change in the company culture and how individuals think, speak, act — it doesn't matter. Implementing policy is a band-aid and a quick fix instead of actually doing surgery to identity and fix what we need to change or shift."

Sienna Brown

What hiring practices can organizations keep in mind to combat tokenism?

"Hiring is the number one key way that we can shift company culture. Who we let into the room makes a big impact on how the company will then continue to function moving forward. To combat tokenism, it is about looking at how people identify and being more mindful of which groups we are targeting.

Let's say a company is hiring and they don't have representation of neurodivergent folks, so it's determined that they want to bring on more folks who identify as neurodivergent. The problem with that is, assuming that if they bring on one person, they check a box and the issue of not having a neurodivergent perspective is solved. We have to remember that, just because someone identifies as part of a group doesn't mean that their experience is representative of everyone else in that group's experience. Folks can offer their perspectives based on their lived experience as a member of that group– and it's vital that we listen to those perspectives– but no one can speak on behalf of an entire group."

Zara Chaudary

What role does belonging play in DEI work?

"When you think about diversity, equity and inclusion, that sense of belonging is important to really focus on. You might be the only person of color or LGBTQIA+ person in leadership, but if you feel like there's actually a sense of belonging from the allies in the room then it makes coming to work a lot more exciting.

Think about being invited to a dinner party as a vegan. There's a difference between being invited although you're a vegan, having a salad prepared because it's easier than creating something specific or being able to have the same access to options as the non-vegans even though you're the only one in the room."

Sienna Brown

What piece of advice would you give to managers and execs who are looking to avoid tokenism, but aren't sure where to start?

Check in on your employees. "Take a pulse check of your employees from underrepresented groups to see if they feel like they're being tokenized. That can be done through an anonymous survey or externally facilitated discussions. Focus on any feedback you'd like to be brought up to leadership."

Sienna Brown

Provide education around tokenism. "Oftentimes, those who are being tokenized may not even know what that concept is, but they know how it makes them feel. Educate folks on what tokenism is so that folks who aren't directly experiencing it can also understand the concept and see where it might be playing out in their own company."

Zara Chaudary

Work with a DEI specialist. Hire experts to focus on DEI initiatives from a holistic point of view. Your teams will save time, energy and stress being led by an expert instead of trying to figure it out on their own. Attracting and retaining a diverse employee base, won't just help with retention but also business growth. The good thing about having a DEI specialist is that it's someone who's coming in with an external, holistic and unbiased with the experience and expertise as thought-leaders in the field. DEI specialists can help audit everything from recruitment and hiring processes, to company culture, bias in promotions and understanding how to strengthen support networks and resources available to employees, especially those who are from different identities.

Sienna Brown

Be humble. Too often, folks are shocked or disappointed or upset about the fact that their employees aren't having the best experience possible. You have to recognize that you are going to make mistakes and you have to be humble and take it with grace. If you are finding out that employees are not necessarily experiencing what you think they're experiencing, that requires a high level of humility. Sometimes folks really struggle, especially leaders, and they start taking it personally, which doesn't help address the underlying issue.

Zara Chaudary


Looking to avoid tokenism at your company? Learn more about PowerToFly's DEI services here.
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