Tokenism Diversity: Are We Merely Ticking Boxes?

Maria Mac Andrew's blog on diversity and inclusion in the workplace

Diversity and inclusion have become buzzwords that organizations use to show that they have ‘embraced’ this new way of thinking, but many critics believe that this approach does not go far enough to change people’s behavior or truly create a culture of acceptance and belonging in the workplace.

One of the biggest issues when it comes to diversity and inclusion in work environments, particularly when related to gender and race, is tokenism, the practice of including one or two people from underrepresented demographics in an effort to tick boxes and appear more inclusive and diverse than they actually are.

Tokenism can be defined as the practice of making only a perfunctory or symbolic effort to achieve diversity and inclusion, particularly when hiring new employees. Tokenism occurs when companies hire or promote an individual simply because they belong to a particular ethnic group, gender, sexual orientation group, religious affiliation group, etc., but with no expectation that they will achieve career success based on their abilities. Most often, tokenistic diversity & inclusion practices are mistaken for solutions when they actually create more harm than good.

Tokenism is different from true diversity and inclusion because it does not seek to build an inclusive culture or ensure that all employees feel valued.

It is often argued that token diversity detracts from workplace performance by creating low expectations for individuals associated with it. But others argue it’s better than no diversity at all. And most agree that true diversity requires more than just hiring a few workers who are members of groups historically underrepresented in certain professions.

Diversity requires active participation from everyone involved—and it’s imperative that these groups participate equally.

If your team is so diverse that you are simply ticking boxes, you’re probably not making much progress. You may have some employees who are happy to be included, but others will feel left out. These feelings of isolation could lead to poor performance at work. It might seem like an unfair accusation, but if it’s true, you need to figure out why that is happening and how to stop it before it has a chance to damage your business or its culture.

Many people may feel that their inclusion into a particular role or task is not due to merit but merely based on gender or skin color rather than ability. This situation may cause tension within teams who feel they were passed over for a role purely because of their gender or skin color. If left unchecked, this could potentially create high levels of animosity between employees that may stop them from working effectively together towards organizational goals.

Another negative impact of tokenism would be for those individuals given opportunities just because they are black, white, disabled, etc., rather than being able to do the job. It goes without saying that these members would struggle if placed in these roles without adequate training or support. These individuals may then become viewed negatively by colleagues, lowering team morale even further.

Employees won’t take kindly to diverse workplaces if management attempts to include minorities superficially instead of fostering an environment where everyone feels welcome and valued. We all want new technologies to incorporate ideas created by people from varying backgrounds and experiences, so let’s design our workplaces accordingly

Organizations need to find ways of encouraging people into leadership roles based on capabilities instead of solely offering access via diversity initiatives. An organization must not feel forced to include diverse staff members but instead hire, promote and reward qualified candidates regardless of race or sex. Only then will we truly see progress in terms of diversity.

How many people do you think your company could realistically hire from underrepresented groups without those new hires feeling like tokens? Perhaps those new hires were hired with an eye toward diversifying your company, and if that’s true, then I would caution against hiring too many people just because they belong to certain minority groups. Instead of worrying about how much difference you need to make, simply ask yourself: why is representation such an important part of my strategy? Is diversity something I genuinely believe is good for my business, something I want to see happen, something where inclusion is paramount? If so – great! Then keep going. The goal here is not really quantitative. It’s qualitative.

Be aware of unconscious bias: Everyone has biases—it’s a natural byproduct of being human—but acting upon those biases does not serve our customers or companies well. To mitigate these biases at work, there are a few things we can do. First, take regular inventory of who gets promoted, who gets interviewed for jobs, who gets salary increases based on merit-based factors. Second, hold monthly anonymous feedback sessions that allow your employees to share anonymous information about anything related to diversity/inclusion without retaliation. This requires trust between leadership and workers. Third, implement regular employee retention initiatives while also collecting data about turnover rates across various identity groups within your company. Doing so will help you gauge how your company is doing with respect to providing a welcoming, respectful and inclusive working environment.

Another way to find out is by having genuine conversations with all your staff members about their experiences at work. Ask them what they believe makes for tokenistic diversity, and see what issues they bring up. Then ask yourself whether any of these complaints hold merit. If there is truth to them, try addressing them head-on instead of ignoring or dismissing them.

Some businesses are starting to use blind hiring processes where job seekers cannot see information that could be used to identify their gender, age, race, or ethnicity. This is because research suggests that seeing or reading candidate demographics may influence decision-making during recruitment. If it’s not possible for candidates to provide information about themselves, there’s less chance of discrimination occurring.

The best companies implement true diversity & inclusion programs. And you know what? Diversity is okay when it’s real—not tokenistic. Remember, you can’t build a company on yes people. It would be best if you have someone to challenge your ideas, speak up against oppression, and address problems as they arise. If there aren’t diverse voices at your table from day one, how can you truly reap the benefits of a diversified team? Make diversity a priority from day one: never stop striving for a more inclusive work environment where employees feel respected and valued no matter who they are or where they come from.

If we want minority perspectives at every level of industry, we need minority representation throughout every single department—including those tasked with building cutting-edge technology like machine learning algorithms. After all, diversity really is strength: Not only does it bring together teams who reflect real-life outside office walls (where most workers spend 50+ hours per week), but diversity makes those teams more effective because perspective makes us better problem solvers.

Diversity fosters creativity, which drives innovation.

We all know that diverse teams produce better results, but there’s another reason it’s important to focus on diversity: to ensure that everyone feels included. If team members feel tokenistic or excluded, they’re less likely to be productive, which can lead to poor communication and even decreased performance for your business as a whole. We need to ensure that we’re not simply ticking boxes in an attempt to appear open-minded and progressive when in reality, we’re making little or no difference to the makeup of our work environment.

Diversity inspires learning, which drives advancement. But diversity alone doesn’t create great teams. Instead, it takes managers who are willing to actively build inclusive cultures by including everyone in goal-setting processes and performance evaluations. It takes HR departments that seek out candidates whose skills match open positions but also ones that don’t shy away from recruiting candidates with different backgrounds or lifestyles than existing employees—because meaningful diversity benefits everyone. And it takes leaders who are humble enough to realize that strong leadership is about empowering others.

Maria Mac Andrew is the head of Diversity and Communities at AI Ethics world and the Co-Founder of a Global Ethical AI Foundation.

At AI ethics World, we help businesses and communities tackle these big questions by introducing our expertise in diversity leadership strategies and training our clients to apply AI ethics into practice.

Microaggressions and Everyday Workplace Discrimination

Maria Mac Andrew's blog on diversity and inclusion in the workplace

The saying “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me” is popular because it emphasizes that physical abuse lasts longer than verbal abuse. But words do hurt. Microaggressions are everyday verbal, nonverbal, and environmental slights, snubs, or insults that communicate hostile, derogatory, or harmful messages to target persons based solely upon their marginalized group membership. Microaggressions are often subtler than explicit racism or sexism, but they can be equally destructive and are particularly pernicious because they can be so easy to communicate without conscious intent.

Microaggressions are damaging because they’re often framed as compliments or well-meaning statements but actually imply something negative about someone else’s identity. They are delivered with enough pressure to make someone feel uncomfortable—but not enough to make it clear there was anything wrong with what was said or done. Over time, microaggressions can make workers in a multicultural environment feel isolated or even hopeless when they don’t get support from managers when addressing discriminatory behavior at work. It also causes them to question their place in an organization where even simple things like posting pictures of friends on your desk invites comments from others about how that doesn’t look diverse.

If you’re like most people, you probably recognize what microaggressions are not—in other words, what they don’t look like. But if you can identify what they are—even just one or two that resonate with you—it becomes easier to identify microaggressions in your workplace.

Here are a few common types of microaggressions

Slights: These happen all too often at work, but sometimes it’s hard to pinpoint why something felt so offensive. These usually go back to assumptions or other stereotypes about a group of people. They can be as overt as asking someone where they were born or as subtle as expecting an employee to take on extra responsibilities because she is a woman. You could also think of slights as offenses that seem innocuous when said out loud but add up over time for employees who experience them frequently.

Internalized Microaggressions: It’s essential to recognize how these manifest themselves in our own actions. Perhaps there is an assumption made about how men vs. women talk in meetings, which makes women less likely to speak up for fear of being reprimanded by their colleagues.

The Problem of Not Having Policies That Allow Employees to Confront Discomfort

Unfortunately, many workplaces aren’t set up to foster conversations around discomfort. A few avenues may allow a single person or small group of employees to express concerns directly with management, but most environments aren’t set up for confronting discomfort between coworkers – especially if those comments offend others. Even more concerning is that some companies actually discourage confrontation – going as far as having policies against it – even though research shows accountability drives increased retention rates and promotes higher performance overall.

Attracting and retaining the best and brightest talent in today’s global, multicultural, multiracial workforce can be challenging. But a critical aspect of diversity and inclusion in the workplace is encouraging employees to feel empowered to speak up when something doesn’t seem fair or right—whether that means pointing out when an employee isn’t getting fair treatment or making sure that coworkers understand that microaggressions and everyday workplace discrimination are never okay.


Managing Microaggressions When They Happen

Microaggressions have been shown to have negative physical and psychological effects on recipients, including increased stress levels. Companies must ensure employees have the proper training to handle these situations quickly before toxic relationships take root among coworkers.

One important aspect of diversity and inclusion in the workplace is encouraging employees to feel empowered to speak up when something doesn’t seem fair or right. If you notice something, say something! That’s not only how emergency drills work—it’s also a good way to ensure that your company culture embraces different perspectives. And it could mean standing up for yourself if you face microaggressions from colleagues who don’t want to accept difference.

This includes providing employee training that addresses how to deal with microaggressions and everyday workplace discrimination and how to navigate complex situations without becoming overly emotional or defensive while also ensuring that your organization doesn’t discriminate against its own multiracial workforce. Unfortunately, there are few resources to help people do this—and many people don’t even realize there’s an issue.

One way to empower your employees is to give them a safe space in which they can manage microaggressions when they happen. If an employee is offended by another worker’s comment, you should encourage them to discuss it privately with that person. During your monthly meetings, you can include an activity where employees anonymously write down examples of microaggressions they experience daily. Then, take time for everyone to share their comments as a group. These exercises will help make microaggressions part of everyday conversation—and help address them from earlier stages in your organization.

It’s also critical to involve leaders in these conversations. After each example, ask each leader how they would respond if something similar happened at their team level. Consider including these teachable moments in your training program to develop inclusive leadership across your company culture. Remember: You don’t have to fire people for minor offenses like microaggressions, but creating awareness around how offensive language affects others often has more impact than punishing someone who says something inappropriate. The goal here isn’t simply remediation; it’s changing behavior into one that benefits both employers and employees alike through increased communication and understanding of cultural differences.

It isn’t always easy, but everyone needs to be involved if companies are going to diversify effectively. Be wary of situations where diversity programs feel forced or tokenistic instead of making real progress toward workplace equality across all departments. Encourage your entire workforce—not just upper management—to embrace diversity efforts, so everyone feels empowered enough to step up for change.

Given that diversity programs can take years before delivering results, having allies who support diversity initiatives right from the start is essential. These individuals can be invaluable advocates for change by helping new staff integrate into existing teams and encouraging new ideas that enhance organizational diversity efforts. Whether through training sessions focused on diversity and inclusion topics, employee resource groups, or one-on-one conversations, creating opportunities for sharing creates a safe space for everyone to feel included. This helps staff understand how they fit into a multiracial workforce and encourages them to bring more of themselves into work each day. These efforts also send a strong message about expected behavior throughout your organization: It’s important to respect people’s differences while treating others fairly regardless of race/ethnicity, gender identity/expression, religion/spirituality, disability status, or sexual orientation/gender identity.

So, let’s work together to spread awareness about everyday discrimination and empower employees to speak up when they see something happening.

The Importance of Diversity and Inclusion in Top Leadership Positions

Maria Mac Andrew's blog on diversity and inclusion in the workplace

You’ve heard the adage “diversity is strength” before, but what does that mean?

Diversity is defined as the combination of differences, whether cultural, individual, or by any other grouping. This includes gender identity or sexual orientation, race or ethnicity, socioeconomic status, educational background, religious beliefs, age groups. Although diversity has long been linked to race or gender, true diversity requires more than one or two types of individuals working together successfully.

Diversity, in leadership terms, is all about inclusion. It’s about having a team with members from different backgrounds, experiences, and cultures, people who can bring diverse perspectives to your organization. This isn’t limited to gender or ethnicity either; cognitive diversity has proven to be an asset, too. It means including people who think differently than you in key decision-making roles.

When leaders value diversity and inclusion in their organizations, they position themselves to work smarter and faster through collaboration between teams and employees who have different ways of thinking about things.

It’s no secret that diversity and inclusion are growing more and more critical. Despite recent leaps in diversity, there’s still plenty of room for improvement. That said, it’s important to note that there have been significant strides for specific groups. For example, according to McKinsey & Company, 50% of U.S.-based entry-level management jobs are now held by women—up from just 15% three decades ago! These advances will likely continue as more diverse teams perform better.

Here’s why diversity in leadership is essential. It creates inclusive cultures, improves our businesses, and makes us better as people. Diversity makes you stronger, more productive, and more successful as an organization by bringing together people with different backgrounds, experiences, and perspectives. Diversity also helps reduce unconscious bias in leadership positions, which helps to create an environment where all employees feel comfortable sharing their ideas—and where your business can benefit from those ideas. Diverse leadership teams make decisions based on multiple perspectives, giving employees different ideas to share than they would if they were only hearing thoughts from one perspective.

Apart from being a more ethical business decision, diversifying your leadership team will also give you a competitive advantage. The reality is that people are still far more likely to trust an organization whose leadership includes people who look like them, sound like them, or share their cultural experiences. In other words, diversity increases public trust in businesses and technology companies—and when consumers trust a brand, they tend to buy from them over their competitors.

A study performed by Catalyst found that companies with greater levels of diversity were 35% more likely to outperform others in profitability over five years than companies without women at top management levels. When companies have leaders that represent all parts of their customer base, they tend to perform better financially in the long term because they understand their customer base more accurately, resulting in better products and services that appeal to all groups.

Diverse leadership teams have been shown to create an environment where employees feel safe taking risks, voicing concerns, and offering new ideas. This enhances creativity, productivity, morale, innovation, and engagement among employees—all factors that can improve a company’s bottom line. A 2015 McKinsey report found that companies in the top quartile for gender diversity are 15% more likely to have financial returns above their respective national industry medians

One problem that plagues modern business leaders is groupthink, which occurs when team members develop similar worldviews due to spending so much time with each other. This can result in poor decision-making. Fortunately, diverse team members encourage differing points of view among group members—leading to more productive outcomes.

It’s easy to see how having a diverse team on your executive team could help your company better prepare for current and future challenges. There’s no time like now to begin recruiting diverse leaders into critical roles. After all, what good is being future-proof if none of your leaders remember tomorrow?

The world has changed dramatically over the past decades. With such dramatic changes occurring so rapidly within countries, “cultural sensitivity” becomes increasingly essential without inadvertently appearing ethnocentric or culturally biased towards specific groups. Cultural norms differ widely across nations and societies. Like biology (which determines genotype), culture influences behavior.

Diversity tends to bring a variety of experiences and insights into a single conversation.

We need to act today rather than wait until later because implicit bias issues cloud many decision-making skills. Often, including diversity among leaders makes excellent business sense since different viewpoints generally result in superior outcomes (at least).

Nature teaches us that diversity is vital for survival. Though it’s easy to think about diversity as a human concern, it holds true for many species as well. If we look at nature, we see that diverse ecosystems are resilient. If you live on planet Earth, then chances are you agree that diversity is key to life on our planet: We need a wide variety of plants and animals to keep our planet alive and thriving. There are different types of butterflies, birds, fish, and mammals that it’s difficult to see how they could possibly coexist. Yet they do. Diversity promotes balance. There is beauty in diversity that makes everything function together harmoniously. Diversity is just as important in business as it is in nature. Diversity is crucial for innovation and may prove essential if we hope to solve our most pressing societal issues.