“In the future, there will be no female leaders. There will just be leaders.” 
― Sheryl Sandberg

Tokenism and Women in the Workplace

Tokenism and Women in the Workplace

Jessica Hatch


One of my friends from college had a sister who attended the Vaganova Academy of Russian Ballet in St. Petersburg, Russia—a rare honor for an American ballerina. My friend told me about how, after a grueling first day of training, a well-meaning instructor pulled her sister aside:

“I’m going to tell you this because you have what it takes to make it big,” he said, “and that makes the other girls jealous. All their lives, they’ve worked hard for their spot. They support their families; they are trained for nothing else. So, when you put on your pointe shoes before class, always check the toes first. Students have been known to put crushed glass in their rivals’ shoes to slice open their feet and take them out of the running for prima roles.”

Narratives that pit women against women in their place of work—true and fictional alike—aren’t uncommon. Because such narratives inhabit our mainstream consciousness, they have come to temper our expectations of what a workplace should be. We see lots of think-pieces, TED talks, children’s books and so on—a lot of cultural caché—promoting and demanding more women in STEM fields, where we are poorly represented. This is a critical issue, but just as critical and often less explored are the questions we should ask about women in fields that, though they are largely female-dominated, still have a preponderance of men at the top.

In the 1970s, Harvard Business School professor Rosabeth Kanter defined a minority group as one that constituted less than 15 percent of a total workplace population. Though women are usually not in the minority in the entry-level roles of industries like healthcare and education, where is the female representation on a hospital’s board of directors? Why aren’t there more female superintendents of schools? According to Lianna Brinded in Quartz, “For every 100 men promoted to manager positions, only 77 women are promoted [...] Women are more likely to take a top spot in a revolving door capacity, filling positions previously taken by a woman.”

So, why aren’t we advancing further? Why aren’t there more positions on boards and in C-suites for women? Why is there still a wage gap, and why is said wage gap even worse for women of color and working mothers? One reason we see this is because of the in-fighting and “mean girl” behavior common in the workplace, which can be traced back, at least in part, to tokenism.

Tokenism is a practice used by the powers-that-be since at least the 1950s, when mainstream white corporate America was half-heartedly battling racial segregation. Having a “token” person (a single representative) from a racial- or gender-based minority group on the payroll would make a corporation look progressive—without having to hire on an equal-opportunity basis across the board.

Tokenism is still used today, in increasingly exploitative and capitalistic ways. Think of fashion brands that use models of all sizes when selling a product, and then think of how most runways during Fashion Week remain the industry-standard size two. What’s more, consider the fact that most fashion models are paid a low wage. Meanwhile, only 40 percent of womenswear brands represented at four major industry fashion weeks in 2016 were headed by female designers.

These statistics may seem shocking. Surely there are more women in power in fashion. Your mind flashes to Anna Wintour, the editor-in-chief of American Vogue; to the 1980s class of well-paid supermodels; to curvy models like Ashley Graham; or to the media empire, including a long-running TV show, beauty line and books, that Tyra Banks has established for herself since the early days of reality television.

But then think about how these moguls seem lonely at the top. Think about how that makes you nervous, when you consider the lonely women, the ones you can name on one hand, in the top spots of your own industry. Consider too, the further lack of representation for women of color, women of different body types, women with disabilities; women who love women, trans women and nonbinary trans people; people who are doubly or triply othered (i.e., not male, not white, not straight and therefore alienated from the boardroom)? This is an intersectional issue—gender is not the only identity at play here.

This is what we (as woman-identifying people) do when we compete against each other. By seeing each other as a greater threat to our livelihoods than our male colleagues, we are playing into the false competition narrative that has been established to keep us down. We’re reinforcing the token system patriarchy set up when, in the post-war boom of the 1950s, they wanted newly empowered Rosie the Riveter to go home and decide which color of MixMaster she wanted to order from Sears.

In the book world, there is a growing idea of literary citizenship. Instead of seeing book deals as zero-sum games, authors should support one another, retweet each other’s good news, buy each other’s books, come to each other’s readings. The basis of this concept is that a rising tide lifts all boats. In the same vein, it is important that we (as women) see and support each other instead of considering each other our competition—and we shouldn’t seek solidarity only with women who look like us, are in the same tax bracket or wear the same dress size.

When we compete against women more than we compete against men in the workplace, we reinforce the tokenism working hard to keep us down. We should not allow ourselves to fall into this bad habit. When we see other women doing it, we should gently encourage them to rethink their priorities, and when we see men encouraging a “cat fight” between or among their female colleagues, we should shut it down.

Raises and corner offices are only zero-sum games as long as we make them so. We need to root for one another, advocate for a living wage and promote our fellow women as much as possible. It’s the only way for us all to move forward and break that tired, old, still-not-shattering ceiling.

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Jessica Hatch is a professional editor and publicist who got her start at such New York literary establishments as St. Martin’s Press and Writers House. Her words have been published on LearnVest, Fast Company, and Money.com. Jessica lives in Jacksonville, Florida, where she enjoys providing story consultation services to aspiring and established writers alike, through the use of a prescriptive, practical editing system. Say hello at www.hatch-books.com

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