What it’s like to be the token at work

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Professionals don’t want to think of themselves as tokens. Such a designation erases all the work invested in their careers. It erases their merit and stamps each underrepresented person as “other” and unworthy. 

Sociologist Rosabeth Moss Kanter studied the differences between men and women professionals’ work experiences and found that women experience tokenization. Because of this tokenization, women are more likely to be stereotyped, isolated, and regarded as incompetent. Since these high-ranking women are tokens in their majority male work environment, women had to:

  • Prove themselves to their male colleagues,
  • Work to counteract stereotypes, 
  • Struggle to be seen as competent and capable professionals.

While women are doing all of this extra work just to be seen as worthy of their position, the work environment becomes more and more unequal. Men enjoy opportunities for social networking and mentoring and are allowed more room to make mistakes. Kanter argues that all of this is the result of women executives being numerical minorities in their workplaces and that any numerical minority will have the same experience at work. 

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Intersectionality teaches us that this is not true and that minority groups are tokenized differently. We have to think about how power and hegemony impacts the equation. For example, when men work in occupations traditionally associated with women — librarians, teachers, nurses, and social workers—they ride the glass escalator⁠1 while women in those same professions continue to fight to break through the glass ceiling. Men are perceived as being more competent, even when their female colleagues have more experience, seniority, or training. 

Adia Harvey Wingfield researched Black professional men (doctors, engineers, lawyers, and bankers) to determine whether Kanter’s theory held up when race and class became factors. Wingfield concluded in her book No More Invisible Man: Race and Gender in Men’s Work, that Black men experienced what she called “partial-tokenization.” They were tokenized because they were Black but they still experienced some male privilege. For example, these Black men were hyper-visible at work and as a result, they had less latitude to make mistakes. However, this same hyper-visibility also presented advantages where they had higher salaries, professional recognition, and more customers/clients. They also received social and cultural support.

Thus while the women in Kanter’s study sought to fade into the background due to their hyper-visibility, the Black men in Wingfield’s study sought to take advantage of it.

There is power in numbers but significant power also comes from hegemonic beliefs around race and gender. It’s important to understand how tokenism impacts lawyers’ experiences so that we can better understand why the legal profession remains largely homogenous and exclusive.

Email us or leave a comment telling us about your experiences and perspectives of tokenism.

By: Takeia R. Johnson

1 See Christine Williams’s Still a Man’s World.