Addressing tokenism

This question came from the Ask a Geek Feminist post, which is still taking your questions.

How do you determine if a person has been invited to participate (conference speaker, lead a workshop, blog, etc.) as a token of diversity rather than on their merits?

And, if it is tokenism, what would you do?

I’m going to talk about being a token woman in this post, because that’s what I feel familiar with, hopefully commenters can share their thoughts on being a token representative of other (or multiple) groups.

First, a wee bit of 101. The response to this kind of discussion is sometimes: “Wait, you want more women. But we shouldn’t be selecting women just because they’re women. Feminism is hard, eleventy one 1!11!!1 I quit!”

Yeah, feminism is hard. That’s why we’re still here and frankly expect to be for a long time. Yes, we’d advocate that you have women taking prominent roles in your geekdom in similar proportions to their participation. And this may be a hard thing to do: much harder than having a criteria for a single event that says “at least three women speakers, please, this year for sure.” Likewise for diversity in general. You do this the hard way: organically. You should be striving for diversity everywhere, not just in venues where people are likely to notice and criticise your lack of diversity. You shouldn’t be having to select a woman speaker just because she’s a woman: if there are women in your geekdom at all, there should be women in your candidate pool and then you select some of them as part of your usual process.

Of course, that means keeping in mind that it’s harder to select women even when you have access to women candidates, because essentially everyone (so, me, you) has a set of biases about women that influence how we see individual women. Try and consciously correct for these biases. As an example: she seems inexperienced as an speaker. But on the other hand, we regularly select men on no more evidence than the fact that they asked, don’t we? Are we applying the same standards to women?

As regards bias, once you have your selection pool, at the time of selection, there are various approaches. Blinding the selection process is very effective: if you can hide names, appearances, and everything else that you can aside from the person’s proposal or skill, this is something of the gold standard approach. This is famously true for orchestral auditions. Otherwise, all you can do is try and be very conscious about your choices and remember that you have inherited biases towards privileged groups, and towards people like yourself, from your surroundings.

On to the question itself: someone appears to be a token women. What to do about it?

This is complicated precisely because tokenism isn’t a binary thing, token or not-a-token. When in a sufficient numerical minority particularly, as women are in a lot of geekdoms, I think it’s unlikely that no attention at all was paid to a woman’s gender and its effect on gender balance and diversity when she was selected for a role. It might have come up explicitly in the selection, it might have occurred to individuals privately, it might have influenced them subconsciously, but to some extent she was likely chosen as partly “the person who can best do this task” and partly as “a woman”.

I think there are some indicative but not definitive signs of problematic tokenisation. They include:

  • being the only woman selected among many men;
  • being part of a repeating pattern in which a single woman or the same number of women are selected time after time (eg, a few too many tech conferences currently seem to have a pattern of having exactly one woman selected to give one of the keynotes year after year); and
  • being selected to represent the female side of however the local gender binary fractal divides the space, especially where this is a repeated pattern.

The question doesn’t specify about what to do if you think you yourself are a token, or if you think someone else is. I’ll answer the easier part first: if you think someone else is.

I don’t think it’s a good idea to point this out with respect to an individual woman. Tokenism is a double-bind: tokenism should be challenged, but ‘token’ is a very damaging and hurtful label to apply to someone and this is regularly used as a weapon against women. Calling someone a token woman is a good way of dismissing her and giving other people ammunition to dismiss both her and other women who are in a numerical minority. (Much love to my first year computer science tutor who greeted my appearance in his tutorial with: “ah, of course, our token woman!”)

It’s pretty rare for a woman to be explicitly identified as a token by the people who selected her as one, in these situations where diversity is being genuinely sought. (In the case where people feel diversity is being forced upon them, they often take it out on the tokenised person.) Generally they realise that “we selected Mary to be our woman speaker this year, that’s an infinite improvement on last year” is an admission that their approach to diversity is fairly shallow.

So you don’t often know for sure, and speculating on an individual woman’s selection as a token is a problem in and of itself. Instead, the system needs to be redesigned at a lower level. This is very much a place in which allies in positions of power need to do work. Work hard on having access to diversity through your networks. The idea is that when someone is seeking a speaker, writer, teacher, leader or so on, it shouldn’t be only men’s names that spring to mind. This is the long hard way. Essentially what you need to do is make your diversity efforts an ongoing, continual process. Claire Light wrote about doing this as a fulltime job in Editorial Work Is HARD, Asshole!. Allowing for the number of hours you have available, this is how you should be approaching your geek network when you have power over other people’s prominence. You should be seeking to tunnel for hidden gold all the time, not just keeping to the same old (male, etc) names. It shouldn’t just be your events that are diverse, it should be your personal network. Also have a look at Skud’s ten tips for getting more women speakers and think about analogies in all situations where you are choosing to make someone prominent.

If you do the above, you won’t be stuck at the last minute trying to make sure you have one single woman to desperately avoid looking undiverse.

What if you think you yourself are a token? I don’t think that you have an obligation to challenge what’s going on: requiring that women who’ve been put in a difficult spot do all the work of changing assumptions and practices is a bad approach. We all should, and the more powerful should be addressing their own privileges in proportion to their power. You might decide that the best thing to do is keep your head down this time.

But let’s say that in this instance, you want to challenge the tokenism of your selection. There are a bunch of options:

  • refuse with a reason. Say that you believe you’re only being included in order to have a woman speaker or prize recipient or whatever. Probably this is only going to happen when you have been somehow informed that you’ve been selected explicitly and only as a token, not in the far more common case where you aren’t sure or you’re partly a token.
  • if you’re been included in a way that is below your capabilities: you could either point this out and refuse, or demand a role commensurate with your status and abilities. For example, if you believe your expertise and speaking skills merit keynote slots, ask for them when being offered normal speaking slots.
  • if you feel your offer has been too feminised, ask to change it. For example: “I haven’t done game artwork for the last few years, I’m much more familiar with game design state-of-the-art. I would rather run a workshop on that and I notice that there isn’t one in the program.”
  • use your prominence to promote other women, or other people who you believe aren’t getting enough exposure. Invite them to your workshop, suggest them as alternative speakers, suggest that a journalist speak to them instead, and so on.
  • try and leverage your token slot into a role with power. Ask to be on the organising or selection committee next year. Then you can try and make a more organic approach to diversity right from the start.

If you’re worried you’re a token, it’s also worth keeping in mind that women are trained to underestimate their own worth and significance. Don’t neglect to consider the possibility that your work is just as good as or quite likely better than the required level for the role you’ve been offered. You also do not need to be The Universe’s Single Leading Expert on anything in order to publicly opine, teach or lead it. The fact that you can think of someone who would be better does not mean that you are not suitable. Tokenism exists, but it does not mean that everything you are offered is unearned or depriving someone more worthy.

For commenters: have you been tokenised? Were you able to tell for sure? Did you decide to do anything about it, and if so, what? Have you any experience of the explicit and deliberate tokenisation of someone else?

And again, this post focused on women being tokenised, but have you been included as a token member of another group, or at the intersection of more than one? Do you have any thoughts specific to that?

12 thoughts on “Addressing tokenism

  1. Rebecca

    I was a token invited to a fairly important planning workshop. I think they expected me to just sit around and look pretty or something. Instead I used my place at the table to insert some of my own ideas into the conversation. Don’t know if I’ll ever be invited to another of these workshops, but hey, I enjoyed the opportunity while it lasted. :)

  2. gwyn_bywyd

    This is a great piece, thank you.

    Handily in my work it is pretty obvious when tokenism is operating because not only is it a suspiciously similar number each time (exactly one), also, it is the very same woman each time. A distinctly not-challenging-type woman. One who doesn’t say a number each time she meets our Big Boss, that number being the number of significant appointments he has made since the last time one was a woman. (It got to 11 before the counter was reset just recently. That is – for us – a really, really big number) The women who do the number thing are never chosen as the token, possibly because it is perfectly evident that they consider they warrant inclusion on the basis of their considerable talents, and will use so-called token positions in such a way as to empower others.

    In the interests of transparency, I need to point out that, being in a position of total powerlessness with regards to the BB, I am not brave enough to be among those telling him the count.

    I had thought that I would be chosen as token young-person for stuff, apparently they have no interest in even seeming diverse on this front. Let alone disability, nononono!

  3. Eivind

    “we’d advocate that you have women taking prominent roles in your geekdom in similar proportions to their participation”

    Who’s this “we” ? I don’t think feminists generally all agree with that statement, indeed by that token, most male-dominated venues I take part in, already have the women severly over-represented, and in some cases I can think of, there’s even laws mandating that it be so.

    I work in a typical programming-shop, thus no surprise that out of 31 employees, only 4 is female (and one of those is doing food-and-cleaning so hardly contributes to more-women-in-tech)

    Yet of the remaining 3, technical women, 2 have leading positions, and one is on the board, i.e. we’ve got 12.5% women, but 30% women among those in leading positions and 20% women in the boardroom.

    The local linux-user-group is about the same: a clear minority of women overall (I’d guess at perhaps 20% females), yet the women are significantly BETTER represented in this both among say those holding keynotes and lectures, and in the head of the organisation.

    And 8th of march, I head a prominent norwegian feminist talk on the radio, and rage about the fact that tech-companies in Norway overall on the average have only about 20% female representation in their boards — despite the fact that that is a pretty exact match to the percentage of females employed in these organizations overall. She argued, if one would have a more balanced leadergroup, this would over time have a tendency to lead to a more balanced employee-group overall, i.e. it might make sense to start at the top.

    I’m not sure what to think, what she said made sense. But what you say, also makes sense.

    1. Elysia

      Who’s this “we” ? I don’t think feminists generally all agree with that statement, indeed by that token, most male-dominated venues I take part in, already have the women severly over-represented, and in some cases I can think of, there’s even laws mandating that it be so.

      *raises hand* I consider myself part of that “we.” And I’d like to observe that when women are overrepresented in the upper ranks because there are, say, two of them out of the the three in a shop of 31, it’s less a question of whether women are promoted in a fair way, but a question of whether women are *hired* in a fair way. I understand that this relates to the tokenism discussion in a larger sense, but I think it’s not quite the same thing that Mary was getting at in the statement you quoted. (Unless I’m misunderstanding what you’re getting at…?)

      Also, laws mandating that it be so? Can *really* make some of us question whether we *are* being tokenized. It’s not really a good strategy, as Mary so elegantly discussed – the process of inclusion should be organic.

      1. Eivind

        Yeah. I know that it’s controversial if “positive discrimination” is a good or a bad thing. That’s sort of why I asked about the “we”, because the article implies that it’s a bad thing. I’m not saying I personally disagree with that, but I’m saying it seems to me a lot of people who fairly deserve to be called feminists, do.

        The two spesific law-examples I was thinking of was one in education, the sex that is underrepresented gets a few points extra tacked on when applying to schools in norway that are more unbalanced than 1:2, so a male applying to study as a nurse, or a female applying to study as a engineer, will be prefered over equally qualified persons of the majority-sex.

        The laws on discrimination are very strict here, however there *is* an explicit exception, saying that discrimination based on gender, age, religion or race may be permitted if the discrimination can be said to advance the goal of equality. (i.e. what is here sometimes refered to as positive discrimination) This exception is controversial, but there are feminists and well-meaning people on both sides of the issue.

        The other example is that a publicly traded company in Norway point blank MUST have atleast 40% representation of both sexes on their board. It’s not a joke-law either, it’s got huge teeth, the penalty for noncompliance ? One warning, thereafter, if the warning ain’t heeded, forced liquidation i.e. the corporate death-penalty. I personally find this ridiculous [edited for ableist language], but there’s well-meaning people on both sides of this too.

        Which is why I wondered who the “we” are that all agree that positive discrimination is the wrong solution. I’m not sure myself. I find it wrong in the extreme cases, like the latter above, but I must admit in some cases, when choosing between equally qualified candidates, I would perhaps be tempted to let “more diversity” push me towards the more rare choice, is that wrong ?

    2. Mary Post author

      I mean “we” fairly narrowly, as in “people who write for this site and whose opinions I know”. This absolutely should have been clearer.

      I was mostly thinking about Skud’s entry about her OSCON talk here:

      A healthy open source community would show a bell curve of female participation rates, with the hump somewhere around the percentage of women who use that kind of software and/or the percentage of women who have (or can acquire) the appropriate skills — let’s say anywhere between 20% and 50% for most software projects. (That 20% is based on the number of women in the tech industry with the right kind of skills, and the 50% represents the number of female users for applications like blogging, web browsing, graphic design, or teaching.)

      As with any bell curve, there will be outliers. Fan fiction, admittedly, is a heavily female activity so a higher proportion of female participants is not surprising. On the other hand, a man asked me at OSCON what to do about his all-male model railway automation project, and that’s one I think is just fine with 100% male developers given the pool of model rail enthusiasts he’s drawing from.

      I thought about delving into this a bit more but yeah, I do think that that’s a reasonable enough test of “are we having a major diversity problem at the prominence/leadership level?” which is where the tokenism thing is a problem. That said, mostly writers for this site are experienced with geekdoms in the USA, Canada, Australia and the UK so far, and I don’t think persistent over-representation of women in geek leadership positions is a pattern in any of those countries, so it’s not something we hugely focus on. (We aren’t a model of diversity at all times either, and our lack of geographical diversity is not a good thing here.)

      Given that though, I don’t think more diversity among prominent geeks than among geeks in general is a problem for more or less the reasons you attribute to the radio show you listened to. It’s just that achieving it may not be as practically possible, geekdom-wide. At some point the base needs to become more diverse to keep providing the diverse leaders.

  4. Ada

    The idea is that when someone is seeking a speaker, writer, teacher, leader or so on, it shouldn’t be only men’s names that spring to mind. This is the long hard way. Essentially what you need to do is make your diversity efforts an ongoing, continual process.

    You had me up until here. So essentially, I should force myself to add womens names in the name of diversity and then force myself to forget that I included them for that purpose when evaluating them. Essentially, affirmative action amnesia.

    It’s impossible to fairly evaluate someone once you know they’ve been included for diversities sake. They are now doubly disadvantaged, first by the (often wrongfully assumed) bias that women can’t “do tech” and then again by the resentment felt that a particular person was only included “because she’s a woman”.

    (Much love to my first year computer science tutor who greeted my appearance in his tutorial with: “ah, of course, our token woman!”)

    So you’re advocating we make extraordinary efforts to include women, for diversities sake, and then are upset when someone acknowledges that that’s why a women is present.
    It’s as if you want us all to follow these guidelines but never talk about them or acknowledge that anyone has benefited from them. I agree that your tutor could have been more tactful but I don’t think he was wrong…

    1. Mary Post author

      [Note to others: given that this is a 101-ish post, I will probably approve more comments like this than our policy usually suggests. I won’t approve them if they become overwhelming or start to repeat themselves though.]

      Actually the case with my tutor is as unambiguously wrong as it gets: I placed into that class by virtue of exam results. “Token woman” means “someone who was included by virtue of being a woman.”

      As for your point in general, here’s the problem. Given which site this is, I’m just going to go ahead and assume that the existence of the patriarchy is a given. Part of it is that pretty much everyone carries around a default assumption other things being more or less equal (and even in many cases, not so), men are more worth listening to and following, and given which site this is, I am just going to also go ahead and say that that’s wrong in the general case.

      Thus, at some point we all need to challenge this internalised bias. Some people will be more lucky than others and will be constantly surrounded with women so immensely talented that it won’t require challenging. Ideally this will change, but at the moment most of us won’t. We will have to make sure to deliberately expose ourselves to chances to meet talented women, because our surroundings are set up to disproportionately expose us to talented men.

      If you do this often enough, you won’t regard an individual woman as someone you’re including because she’s a woman. I think it’s unlikely, admittedly not impossible but unlikely, that you’re going to think “Oh Sarah. Well, her name only came up because I met her through Kate who I met though Angelina who I met at that breakfast for women entrepreneurs, gah, what a token, I’d never have met her if it wasn’t for knowing women.” This is as opposed to “Oh Sarah. That’s the woman who got included in the selection after we all dug through the mailing list at the last possible second after Barry and John remembered that blogger who complained last year that we haven’t selected a woman in 5 years, gah, what a token.”

      I genuinely think that the earlier and more often you seek to diversify your network, the less you will regard individual members of it as “the talented woman [/member of other minority] that I know.” But if you don’t seek to diversify your network, especially in many geekdoms, you can easily get by knowing people who are very much undiverse.

    2. Mary Post author

      Ada, I saw your further comment and I decided to delete it rather than get into an argument in the “thought police” territory, which is pretty well-trod anti-feminist ground. (No, we don’t do this for every comment we decide not to publish, but since the discussion was begun I wanted to note its ending publicly.)

  5. Farah Mendlesohn

    I was a token woman at a number of job interviews. The give away each time was that I was a decade younger than the male candidates. I was the plausible female candidate that they could interview in the safe knowledge that they wouldn’t be offering the job to me.

    Oh: the use of football as the conversation opener at lunch is always a dead give away as well.

  6. FreeDeb

    Diversity is always hard. If you set yourself a quota for minority
    participation, you are going to have people from the majority who are
    upset. If you don’t state diversity as one of your goals and stick to
    it, eg. you go with the same so-called “meritocracy” that you’ve always
    used, then you aren’t going to end up with a very diverse group.

    For the events I am involved with, we also strive for diversity as far
    as length of time involved in the community. We particularly want to
    encourage people by showing them “Hey, look what this one person
    accomplished in just a year or two of being involved in free software!”
    It keeps it fresh and it’s inspiring to new people, but I also think it
    makes it easier to break away from the habit of picking only speakers
    who have spoken at a dozen other events.

  7. AnonymousGirl

    While I was a token early on in my STEM career, that’s dropped off as the years go by. Because I never really ranted or raved about it, at least in public. I took whatever advantage I got, mentally noted which old men (usually white, because, hey, having a girl was enough to show cultural diversity – they didn’t need to include people of color) were particularly fond of the “aren’t you pretty for such a stupid girl” stance, and just chalked it up to experience.

    Now, 20 years in? I am not token. If someone asks me to speak somewhere, mostly it’s because I’m good at what I do. If it is still because I’m token, well, I just tend to make my male peers uncomfortable by my presence, skill, intelligence, flawless makeup, expensive perfume and tasteful, powerful, but in-n0-way masculine apparel. Because now it’s a grudgingly conceded “aren’t you pretty for being such a talented girl” (because men like that always say “girl”).

    I find, though, that women are just as quick to make men tokens, and it doesn’t lead to positives, I find. I’m on the planning committee for a small-business conference, which was created by a women’s business organization. The first few years of the conference were excellent – lots of practical advice offered and good speakers of both genders. Now, though, if they can keep from having male speakers or male-owned businesses in the expo-hall, they do that. They manage to keep one or two token male speakers, but they stick out like sore thumbs on the day, and are treated in a hostile manner by some of the women.

    What kills me is that the once-practical expo – previously filled with small business agencies, banks, accountants, and the odd lawyer who could pleasantly rack up some pro-bono hours – has turned into a hall half-filled with small crafts/jewelry businesses and make up vendors of various brands. Because – and I quote the committee – “women like to shop”. The business agencies are shunted to an exterior corridor of the hall. No wonder I prefer our token businessmen and this is my last year on the planning committee.

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