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?