Anyone can be a token employee and experience a host of related problems. But being a token is most difficult for women and racial minorities, according to a review of research over the past quarter century. In some cases, being a token may even help men.
“It’s hard being the only one, or one of a few. It tends to be even more difficult for women and racial minorities to be tokens, compared to men and white workers,” said Marla Baskerville Watkins of Northeastern University.
Watkins, and coauthors Aneika Simmons of Sam Houston State University and Elizabeth Umphress of the University of Washington, analyzed 80 studies about token employees between 1991 and 2016, for their Academy of Management Perspectives article, “It’s Not Black and White: Toward a Contingency Perspective on the Consequences of Being a Token.”
“Our review showed that tokens have higher levels of depression and stress. They’re more likely to experience discrimination and sexual harassment than women and racial minorities who are working in more balanced environments. Research shows people are less satisfied and less committed at their jobs if they’re tokens. Companies should be concerned about this,” Watkins said.
Despite notable instances of success by women and racial minorities—”such as Andrea Jung becoming the first woman of color CEO of a Fortune 500 company, Avon, in 1999; Rosalind Brewer becoming the first black COO at Starbucks in 2017; and Mary Barra being appointed as the first woman to lead an automobile company, General Motors, in 2014″—only 6% of Fortune 500 companies had women as CEOs in 2017, the authors wrote. In addition, men of color held only 6% of corporate office positions in 2012. Only 2% of all Fortune 500 CEOs were Asian, 1% were Latino, and 0.4% of Fortune 500 CEOs were women of color in 2017.
The authors wrote that anyone can be a token at work when they are part of an organization, department, or team that has 15% or fewer people like themselves. The authors based that definition on findings by Harvard University management scholar and consultant Rosabeth Moss Kanter, who noted in her 1977 book, Men and Women of the Corporation, that being a token “dramatically shapes that person’s experiences within a workgroup or organization, and this tends to be negative.”
The authors said that today’s trends “reflect the likelihood of men being tokens in various industries, as the millions of new employment opportunities that are projected to materialize in this decade are in occupations that tend to attract fewer men than women.”
While men may be tokens in such fields as nursing and K-12 education, some token male employees benefit from the “glass escalator,” Watkins said. “Men generally don’t have the same kinds of negative experiences that women do when they’re tokens. The glass escalator is when men are in industries or occupations where they’re underrepresented, they tend to advance quickly to leadership positions. Whereas female tokens tend to have a more difficult time advancing to leadership positions.”
“For example, [researchers] conducted a survey study of 5,734 elementary school teachers and found that men tokens were 3.1 times more likely to advance upward into administrative positions (principals) than were women,” the authors noted.
Anyone who is a token employee, however, usually faces these three problems, originally identified by Kanter:
“Tokens have higher visibility than dominant members,” the authors wrote. “This heightened visibility can lead to performance pressures whereby tokens may have fears about making mistakes because their performance is being heavily scrutinized.”
“Those in the numerical minority might not feel connected and included with those in the numerical majority. They might feel alone and lonely,” Watkins said.
“Tokens are stereotyped by others and likely behave in stereotypical ways because they feel as though they need to act consistent with the assumptions that others have regarding their demographic background,” the authors wrote.
“For example, the only man in a group may offer to carry things. When there’s only one woman in a meeting, men might expect her to take notes. Men might expect the only woman to bring treats to the meeting, or plan parties,” Watkins explained.
In addition, women and racial minorities who are tokens may experience “stereotype threat,” which Watkins said “is a fear that you’re going to confirm some kind of negative stereotype. When women and racial minorities experience this fear, their performance tends to suffer.”
Managers in organizations that are trying to be more diverse need to know that just reaching a threshold of 15% of particular demographic groups is not a solution. “Companies that embrace diversity may stop after they have 15% representation, but they may not understand that even at that level, it can be a very negative experience for the tokens,” Watkins said.
What can managers do?
“First of all, managers should make team members aware of the dynamics that could occur with teams that have a token member,” Watkins said. “Managers might want to create conditions that help ensure everyone is connected, and that everyone feels included. Managers might want to talk to that one person and see how he or she is feeling. Managers can set the tone in how team members interact with each other. They can make sure that team members are collaborating and cooperating.”
Managers might think that sprinkling the underrepresented employees across teams might create “a bit of diversity in every group.” But the authors noted that those employees would still be tokens, and that it might be better to create teams with multiple or even all women or racial minorities.
This article originally appeared in the Academy of Management Perspectives and is reprinted with permission. It is based on academic research published by Marla Baskerville Watkins, an associate professor in the D’Amore-McKim School of Business at Northeastern University, Aneika Simmons, a professor at Sam Houston State University, and Elizabeth Umphress, an associate professor at the University of Washington.