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Diversity has become a priority for many workplaces – but how can you go about it without being tokenistic? A study has uncovered the circumstances that lead to tokenism, and with few women and minority groups in leadership roles, it highlights the impacts of a workplace with low diversity levels. We explore the insights behind this, and the proactive steps some brands are taking.

The article ‘It’s Not Black and White: Toward a Contingency Perspective on the Consequences of Being a Token’ looks at 80 studies about token workers across a 25-year period beginning in 1991. The review found that an employee becomes a ‘token’ when they’re part of a team or organization where 15% or fewer of their colleagues are like themselves. The review also shows that token workers are more likely to experience depression and stress and face discrimination and sexual harassment compared to women and racial minorities working in more inclusive workplaces.

“It’s hard being the only one, or one of a few. It tends to be even more difficult for women and racial minorities to be tokens, compared to men and white workers,” says Dr. Marla Baskerville Watkins, co-author of the review. "Men generally don’t have the same kinds of negative experiences that women do when they’re tokens. The glass escalator is when men are in industries or occupations where they’re underrepresented, they tend to advance quickly to leadership positions. Whereas female tokens tend to have a more difficult time advancing to leadership positions."

In the US, white men outnumber women and racial minorities in C-suite-level roles
@wocintechchat (2019) ©

Despite employees pushing for equality in the workplace, in the US, white men outnumber women and racial minorities in C-suite-level roles. While the number of women in Fortune 500 CEO positions has hit an all-time high of 37 in 2020, this figure only represents 7.4% of businesses on the list. The review highlights the idea that balance is essential to avoid tokenism and champion inclusive workplaces – an important task at a time when 84% of Americans think it's appropriate for brands to take a stance on inclusion and diversity in the workplace.

Some execs are taking proactive approaches to achieve equity – Reddit co-founder Alexis Ohanian, for example, has stepped down from his board role to push for more Black leadership in the company, setting an example for other leaders to follow.

Luana Sambell is a behavioural analyst at Canvas8. She holds a master's degree in consumer behaviour and is passionate about cultural trends and the latest happenings in retail. Outside of work, you can find her exploring different cultures through food or catching live music whenever possible.


29 Jun 20
2 min read

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