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No Room For Tokenism

I was lucky to be one of the early subscribers to Ms. Magazine in the 1970's.

When I was in college most magazines assumed that all women were interested in how to find a husband, how to raise a baby, and how to buy the best cosmetics. I was interested in how I would enter the business world and become a successful employee, make an impact and strive for women's rights. For a few years Ms. Magazine became my guidebook on the job and in my life--it also raised my awareness of tokenism and discrimination

From the time I was very young I knew that there would be issues facing underrepresented groups, based on what I saw at school and in my part-time jobs while I was in college. I learned personally over the years more than a little about tokenism, how it expresses itself and what impact it has in daily life.

Tokenism is the practice of making only a perfunctory or symbolic effort to be inclusive to members of minority groups, especially by recruiting a small number of people from underrepresented groups in order to give the appearance of racial or sexual equality. I got a first hand look at this and have seen it with others many times over.

Indeed, on one of my first jobs out of graduate school, I was one of four senior administrators in a local tertiary care center, the only woman with three men. I loved my work although for years I was challenged at finding myself the only woman at strategic planning retreats out of town, attending major meetings in the city, presenting to our board.

One day, I was let in on a secret by one of my close colleagues. Our organization had paid for a salary survey for the senior administrators and everyone was now discussing the changes that would be made for the future. Except, I wasn't included in the discussions. Although there were only four on the senior team, I didn't even know about the survey. When I went to discuss this with the CEO I was legitimately upset. When I asked to see the survey I found out that I was making 40% of what I should have been making based on other organizations the same size and, worse yet, there were no plans to change that. After all, there was only so much money to adjust the salaries, said the person who was making 125% of what he should have been making (so said the survey). As I became more indignant, the CEO told me that was why he didn't want me involved--he knew that I would be upset. What?

Well, of course, everything worked out, but not without significant effort. It wasn't the first time I had encountered such behavior and it surely wasn't the last. Tokenism, marginalization, outright discrimination. All underrepresented groups see this many times in their lives. Many times on the job.

Today women are still fighting for equal pay. The smallest pay gap is for Asian women, who make 87% of what men make, white women are at 82%, black women at 65% and Latino women at 58%. It is difficult for me to believe that this issue is still even under discussion. But salaries are part of a zero sum game and the game remains tilted towards those who generally make most of the decisions.

Being in an underrepresented group means many things on the job.

  • Minorities can be recruited but many times they are not given a favored seat at the table...their work may not be as challenging, may not have the same impact, may not be as influential as those of white males. This stands out at the corporate board level where diverse directors are less likely to be appointed to leadership positions and where female and minority directors experience negative variation in total compensation (1).

  • Being a minority means that everything one does stands out--work is more closely scrutinized, the approach to others is more closely noted. People assign certain values to individuals automatically because of gender or race. Psychology reports that people who feel like tokens experience genuine challenges: it is the perception that others pay a disproportionate amount of attention to their work, there is a hyper-vigilance where they are constantly being examined and most certainly evaluated.

  • Tokenism often masks inactivity...minorities are recruited, but many times they are figures on a masthead, never being given a powerful role. I have a friend who was on 17 boards, rarely attended a board meeting or an event, but no one ever called him on it. He was aware that he was a token on these boards and decided to use it to his advantage--why not?

  • Many times employees from underrepresented populations are marginalized...they may be present formally at meetings, but as any employee knows, a great deal of work is done in informal situations and many times these employees are not included.

Author Helen Kim Ho (2) explains that tokenism gives those in power the appearance of being anti-racist and supportive of underrepresented people and even champions of diversity because they recruit and then use people in their marketing.

Tokenism is simply out of line and we should wait no longer to alter this approach. The pandemic has dramatically shifted people's lives, the way we do business, the way we relate to one another. It is a time for innovation to the max.

This period signals a time for true equality, a time for genuine inclusion and empowerment of the work force.

All of these thoughts are tied to building a fundraising team as well. As noted in last week's blog, there are multiple things that managers can do to ensure that people from underrepresented groups are recruited and feel included in the development field. Fundraising is a difficult includes rejection, frustration, fear of failure. Top it off with unsubstantiated concerns about how others will react to a diverse workforce in the fundraising area. In this case, providing mentorship and championship opportunities are two strategies that anyone would welcome--these should come from inside the organization as well as outside of the organization.

Why? A truly diverse and inclusive workforce is good for business at all levels. It is business-critical to bring a range of voices that can improve organizational performance and create robust pipelines of future leaders. An organization can enhance creativity: novel information fuels better decision making and problem solving, all leading to a better bottom line. That is no more clear than in today's business environment.

Meaningful change takes time...with determination we can change things...the important part is that people at all levels in the organization must stick with it.


(1) Racial and Gender Inequality in the Board Room, Harvard Law School Forum on Corporate Governance, 8-4-16, M. Souther and A. Yore.

(2) 8 Ways People of Color are Tokenized in Nonprofits, The Non Profit Revolution, 9-18-17, H. K. Ho.

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