Stop Tokenizing Women In Professional Spaces!

Mar 10, 2021

It’s a bold statement and it’s a triggering one for me. As a woman, I know what it’s like to dare to be ambitious and flawed and how it feels to be scrutinized by mostly male supervisors in a callous and contemptuous manner. It’s rarely about the skills and value I bring to the table. It’s almost always to make sure that despite being a woman (and they must hire a certain number to make the organization look diverse and inclusive), I won’t disrupt the comfortable level of sexism they have going on in the ‘team’.

This fear of potential disruption is what drives a lot of organization to make bold claims like “30-40% of our workforce are women!” and “we are here to accommodate women so they can thrive in our company!” and having dubbed themselves an equal opportunity organization they carry on ignoring the toxic work ecosystems they’ve built and nurtured. We have long passed the days when affirmative action was seen as the solution to all societal woes, and yet here we are hiring based on how diverse and inclusive we want to appear. Visual tactics are exactly what tokenization is, it’s image verses merit. Tokenism is meaningless window dressing.

Boasting that 2 out of 9 executives are women, or persons with disabilities, or BIPOC is like telling the world you want to have the appearance of a good person and really a ‘nice guy’. This just means that some women ‘enjoy’ high status tokenization. It helps nobody to keep this pretense going. The reality for any organization, for profit or not, is that diversity, equity & inclusion are a systemic issue. Starting from hiring practices and the on-boarding of new employees, to promotion and employment termination, the daily experience of our workforce may not be what we hope it to be. Our professional practices are not built on consideration (note I did not use ACCOMMODATION) of safety and care. Too often the policies and protocols are built into the organization with consideration of the firm’s legal protection and are reactionary, not intersectional.

In a nutshell this means that lack of systemic built-in support for diverse voices creates a toxic workplace.

Women, BIPOC and disabled people are treated as a badge of honour but experience no real equity. With no equity there’s a squandering of the very talent necessary for robust and sustainable growth. There can be no true growth when the organization is constantly in crisis mode trying to preserve the brand image. Accommodation is not a favour we make for women who choose to go on maternity leave. It is a consideration to make for those in your purview, leading with humanity. There’s no better brand image boost than having systemic consideration for those other than white males. Those who are not white men don’t need to be tokenized to keep the organization ‘fun’ and free to make offensive comments. Women often choose to tolerate an issue, or even very traumatic events, because we’re afraid to lose our jobs, to create even more hostility in the workplace, to lose a chance at a promotion. We know it’s going to stir the pot and we consider whether we have the bandwidth to spare. We know that it’ll be us who pay the price, who will be penalized who will have to live with the lasting-PTSD. It’s become a juggling act of tolerating abuse because we’ve been told this is the game and the rules. We learn to “calibrate ambition correctly” so that none are offended by your sense of self-worth, but all seek to reward your value. And while this is true I’m always reminded, again and again that rules can be changed; sometimes it is us who are the catalyst of this change. This work is another burden we each make; a choice to either carry on or to leave (attrition).

Next week I want to touch on the “teach girls to be leaders’ culture and hint: it’s not the girls that need to be thought leadership so they can play the game. It’s about changing the rules of the game so no one has to sacrifice their mental health and ethics to be promoted.

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Anna Robson.