Monday, 9 February 2015

The -ism Series (19): Tokenism

"Tokenism is defined as an intergroup context in which very few members of a dis-advantaged group are accepted into positions usually reserved for members of the advantaged group, while access is systematically denied for the vast majority of disqualified disadvantaged group members." (Wright & Taylor, 1998)

In her theoretical framework, Rosabeth Moss Kanter distinguishes between a) uniform groups (homogeneous groups in which all members hold the same master statuses, ratio of majority to minority group members is 100:0), b) skewed groups (majority group members far outnumber minority group members, ratio from 99:1 to 85:15), c) tilted groups (less extreme distributions with ratios from 84:16 to 65:35, hence, minority group members can form coalitions and experience less stress) and d) balanced groups (ratios from 64:36 to 50:50).
Skewed groups are characterised by a clear disproportion between majority and minority. In this context, Kanter refers to majority group members as "dominants" and calls minority group members "tokens". As a token, the individual is treated as a representative of the category the individual belongs to, as a typical symbol rather than an individual person. In other words, what one does and how is not attributed to the individual but to the group he or she is considered to be representing. Token woman Mary, for example, is not bad at math because she (the individual) is not good at it but because women (the group) are said not be good at it (see illustration). According to Kanter, tokens experience more stress because they are under performance pressure, are constantly reminded to be "different" and are confronted with stereotyped assumptions on a regular basis (Braboy Jackson et al., 1995).

Kanter's numerical approach certainly explains a great many mechanisms. The reliance on numbers only, however, is criticised for neglecting complexities such as gender status, occupational inappropriateness, and intrusiveness (particularly as Kanter focused on women working in "gender-inappropriate" fields). In fact, token men do not necessarily share the negative experiences of token women (Yoder, 1991) since negative outcomes are primarily associated with low-status groups (e.g. women, ethnic minorities) (Settles et al., 2006).

- Braboy Jackson, P., Thoits, P. A. & Taylor, H. F. (1995) Composition of the Workplace. The Effects of Tokenism on America's Black Elite. Social Forces, 74(2), 543-557
- Settles, I. H. & Buchanan, N. T. (2006) Psychology of Tokenism. In Jackson, Y. K. (ed.) Encyclopedia of Multicultural Psychology, 455-456, Thousand Oaks: Sage Publications
- Wright, S. C. & Taylor, D. M. (1998) Responding To Tokenism: individual action in the face of collective injustice. European Journal of Social Psychology, 28, 647-667
- Yoder, J. D. (1991) Rethinking Tokenism: Looking Beyond Numbers. Gender & Society, 5(2), 178-192
- photographs by Bert Stern (1960) of Veruschka Von Lehndorff with Walter Matthau, Art Carney and Mike Nichols, Vogue via and via and by Bert Stern (1961)Veruschka with David Bailey via