Is Tokenism a bad thing?


Not long after the first anniversary of gender pay gap reporting, I was out for dinner with a group of friends. Inevitably, the subject came up, and the supposed lack of female talent able to step into a senior role was mentioned. One of my female dinner guests complained how hard it was for her to get the opportunity to show how capable she was. Another replied she used the fact she was a woman to her advantage. As we all looked at her aghast, she explained.

She works in a male dominated office in a male dominated industry. As the issue of diversity became more and more important to clients, she noticed she was being invited to more client meetings. One of her male co-workers joked she was the ‘token’ woman.

‘I knew he was right, but I saw this as the perfect opportunity to show how good I am at my job’, she went on. ‘I started as the token diverse gender rep, but as soon as clients, and more importantly my team, saw I knew what I was doing and talking about, I was being invited for my expertise and knowledge.’

This token gesture, she argued, has allowed her to develop and get promoted on her skills and ability, rather than her gender. She is now in a position to help other less experienced females who may not have access to the opportunities my other dinner guest was referring to.

Whilst I instinctively loathe tokenism, I could see her point. Whilst we wish for a world where all people are treated equally in terms of opportunities, this is not the case. Research continues to demonstrate that women are less likely to ask for a pay rise than men (confidence? worth? Social conditioning?); less likely to get a pay rise when they do ask (confidence? Worth? Social conditioning?); less likely to ask for a promotion (ditto).

Working in the world of Executive Search, I meet senior women all the time. I have heard the phrases ‘lucky to have the opportunity’; ‘right place right time’; ‘willing to take a risk on me’ (this last one a particular favourite). As diversity becomes an open discussion and initiatives such as gender pay gap reporting become mandatory, I’m starting to hear phrases such as ‘I worked really hard for it; I deserved it’; ‘I actually don’t see gender as an issue in my place of work’.

At Norman Broadbent, we have a particular focus in Research & Insight on identifying diverse pools of candidates. We also practice positive action: always the right person for the job, but favouring the diverse candidate. It’s one way we can provide more opportunities (rather than ‘tokens’) and to manage the bias of clients. We have a demonstrable track record of diverse short lists and talent mapping projects that show the talent is out there: you just need to know who to ask.

If you would like to find out more about how we can help you, or perhaps to discuss a specific assignment, please do not hesitate to contact Jacqui Pinnell, Group Head of Research & Insight, on +44 (0) 207 484 0000 or via  for an initial confidential discussion.