When it comes to creating a fair and equitable society, representation matters. Period. However, representation alone is not the silver bullet that will automatically create a diverse, inclusive, and successful workplace. It is an essential component to address inequity, but it is only part of the solution. Sadly, in many workplaces, representation is seen as the complete solution. It is an unfortunate reality that, in many workplaces, creating diverse representation both starts and stops with simply hiring for diversity.
Success is seen as the “look how diverse we are” approach of showing pictures on the company website that is full of faces that represent diverse communities. Once you have that, DEI achieved! This speaks to the heart of the problem, diversity and representation are often seen solely as visual acts. When you have achieved the right amount of diverse looking people or people who check the right boxes, then you win.
This oversimplification of a complex issue ultimately replaces one problem with another. It does prioritize opening up hiring practices and works to challenge bias, which is extremely important. But when visual diversity is achieved and the efforts end there, you are not creating a diverse, equitable, and inclusive workforce. You are collecting people, limiting them to a collector’s item, a token.
Tokenism and The Minority Tax are problems that organizations create for themselves when they prioritize the visual benefits of a diverse organization, without truly valuing the need for inclusion to exist first.
Let’s talk about Tokenism
We can define tokenism as: “the practice of doing something (such as hiring a person who belongs to a minority group) only to prevent criticism and give the appearance that people are being treated fairly” (Vanderbilt University).
To quote a BBC article, “In homogeneous organizations, even the most talented hires can feel tokenised. They can make attempts to appear inclusive by hiring or promoting one or two people from underrepresented communities, the feeling and perception of tokenism can hit hard. While many cope with the roadblock either out of economic necessity or as the bitter price of reaching their career goals, it can leave others at a crushing crossroads.”
There are a lot of insincere efforts made by organizations that are less focused on actually trying to be diverse and more focused on trying to seem diverse.
Even well meaning companies can fall into the trap of tokenism. According to a Wired UK article, Companies such as Barclays, Deloitte, and the BBC have all pledged to increase the number of Black employees in their workforce. Glassdoor reported a 50 percent surge in diversity and inclusion job openings in June 2020 alone. But one thing still missing from this discussion is this problem of “token hiring” as a quick-fix to diversity that is becoming a lot more common.
“Token hiring is just window dressing with no real commitment to infrastructural change or challenging problematic behaviours around inclusion or culture,” says Christina Brooks, co-founder and CEO of Ruebik, a company that specializes in diversity-focused software. (Wired UK)
A problem that can often accompany tokenism, and even exists in companies that go to great lengths to avoid being tokenistic, is what’s called “The Minority Tax”.
What is The Minority Tax
The Minority Tax happens when you are one of the few racial/ethnic minorities in a company. Leading you to be called upon more than your coworkers simply because someone who looks like you needs to have a seat at the table. (Diverse Medicine)
This can happen when people who identify as being from minority communities are expected bear the burden of an array of additional duties, expectations, and challenges that accompany being an exception within white, cisgender, male-dominated institutional environments.
While these extra responsibilities are both important and necessary for the expansion of diversity in a workplace, they are also time intensive and often detract from the effort spent on traditional promotion-granting opportunities. (In Training)
This is experienced by every minority community, but is often “a double-edged sword for people of colour (POC) and black, indigenous and people of colour (BIPOC), as employers disproportionately lean on them to come up with initiatives, join committees and help formulate diversity game plans.” (BBC)
According to CNN, It is clear where the Minority Tax originated.
“In many workplaces, minority workers are asked (or expected) to do the work that makes a company more inclusive.
But experts say the work of diversity and inclusion is a shared responsibility, to which everyone in the office can contribute.
Supervisors need to listen and learn, making sure this work doesn’t only fall to certain workers.
They’re often the ones asked to educate their colleagues on racism, sexism, ableism and all the other -isms. They’re also the ones who are typically tasked with recruiting more diverse candidates. They’re usually the ones tapped to speak up in uncomfortable discussions about company culture.
In short, they’re the ones doing the hard work of making a workplace more diverse, inclusive and welcoming to everyone.”
This creates unfair and unequal expectations in many workplaces. White, able, cisgender employees may be fearful or anxious about accidentally saying the wrong thing. So not only are members of diverse communities given additional responsibilities from their supervisors, they frequently have to deal with their colleagues asking whether certain actions or statements are “okay”.
when visual diversity is achieved and the efforts end there, you are not creating a diverse, equitable, and inclusive workforce. You are collecting people, limiting them to a collector’s item, a token.
We can do better
Tokenism and The Minority Tax are problems that organizations create for themselves when they prioritize the visual benefits of a diverse organization, without truly valuing the need for inclusion to exist first. If a culture that supports true inclusion is present before we go all in on hiring for diversity, it will allow us to mitigate these issues.
What we need is a workplace where everyone, regardless of the community they represent, is respected, trusted, encouraged, and inspired by an inclusive culture where they feel they belong. Then problems like Tokenism and The Minority Tax can be addressed head on.