Tokenism vs. Equity in the workplace

Tokenism vs. Equity in the Workplace

by Lalitha StablesLalitha Stables

“There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”   Galatians 3:28 

Racism is not a social justice issue to be dealt with on the side, it is a matter of humanity and therefore a matter at the heart of Jesus. Senior leaders across all organisations need to invest time and resources into understanding the problem and implementing necessary changes. All successful change management initiatives start at the top—and issues involving tokenism and equity in the workplace are no exception.

What is tokenism and why is it harmful? 

Tokenism can occur in various scenarios. Here are a few examples:

•  A quick and reactive response to hire Black, Indigenous and People of Colour (BIPOC) to give the appearance of addressing inequality that may exist in the organisation. For example, rushing to hire Black, Indigenous and People of Colour (BIPOC)  into key positions, C-Suite, Board, etc.

• Only one person hired to represent any minority group. This can be only one BIPOC in the senior leadership, C-Suite or Board.

• Tokenism is further highlighted when that one person hired actually represents more than one minority group, such as a female BIPOC. This happens a lot!

• Death by committee. Organisations frequently select people to form a committee to combat inequality, including BIPOC members who don't have the necessary  skills/experience in diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI). These individuals are not the true voice—they are just the 'face'—and are not really empowered or heard. The real power remains with those who appointed them, resulting in a tick box exercise only.

Tokenism is being employed when an organisation is not willing to acknowledge, address and find solutions to fix the racial imbalance in their workplace at the root. When this happens, all other activities are merely cosmetic and will appear as a token gesture or a tick box exercise. We know that racism presents in various ways, through systems and processes, both intentionally and unintentionally. Building true equity, inclusion and diversity in the workplace requires attention and genuine action, in an embedded and sustainable way.

Understanding diversity, equity, and inclusion

There are three components to preventing tokenism: diversity, equity, and inclusion

Diversity means having staff from a variety of backgrounds, including but not limited to ethnicity, race, gender, socioeconomic class, and nationality, across all levels of the organisation. 

Equity ensures that everyone has equal access to resources (e.g.: salaries, networking, and mentors). 

Equity asks questions like these: What are the plans to look at racism in the organisation? What are the plans to widen the talent pool for hiring across an org, including senior leadership positions? Is the distribution of wealth and high paying jobs going to one colour over another? How do we provide equity to those underrepresented groups to give them an even playing field? What goals do we need to set for representation in senior leadership? And by when?

Inclusion means that no matter the background, each member feels welcomed, valued and like they belong within the group. Inclusivity extends to the individual, and employees shouldn’t feel like they have to leave part of their identities at home when they go to work. Most people of colour want real and sustainable equitable change, not tokenistic moves by their senior leaders. 

The importance of diversity in senior leadership 

Representation matters to the people of colour working in your organisation. BIPOC want to know that they are represented at senior decision-making tables. When young leaders look at the senior leadership makeup, they should identify with someone that looks like them. These BIPOC who are young leaders should feel confident that there are clear, fair and equitable pathways to progress to a senior level within the organisation.

The fundamental issue with tokenism is, if somebody is placed in a position and it is perceived, rightly or wrongly, as being in a token role, the person occupying that role really has their work cut out for themselves. It begs the question, was this person hired based on merit or to satisfy the quota? This can lead to feeling as though they need to prove themselves, which is a whole different discussion!

Three common mistakes to avoid

In my ten years of industry experience in the space, I've seen three big mistakes that senior leaders unintentionally make. 

1. Assuming that People of Colour want the spotlight or want to lead these efforts. Huge mistake! Why? The #1 reason organisational change fails, according to Harvard Business Review, is a lack of CEO ownership and middle-management ownership. All change should be owned and led from the top—the very top! That is why it’s important to ensure the board includes good representation from all under-represented groups while reflecting the actual percentage in diversity of the organisation they lead. 

2. Organisations should not assume that systemic racism does not exist in their organisation. It’s all in the data! Racial biases often occur as a thin thread within systems and processes. When those at the top don’t acknowledge this fact, it is likely any solutions will end up basically being lipstick on a pig!

3. Setting up DEI committees who—with all the best intentions in the world—if they do not have the relevant skills/experience they will not move the needle. This, coupled with the CEO missing from the Chair role to drive and own the change, unfortunately results in a superficial change. A HUGE red flag! Hiring one DEI person, without the CEO or country lead owning the change, sets that person up for failure. That one lone ranger will be blamed or pinned for the failure when the needle doesn't move on achieving racial equity goals.

Effective change programs usually require a 3-5 year commitment and require financial and strategic investment by the board and key executive management. Sustainable solutions addressing diversity, equity, and inclusion must be implemented and embedded, with top senior leaders owning and leading the change. This way, accountability becomes baked into organisational systems and processes. 

I believe where racism or discrimination knowingly exists, the Spirit of God cannot be present. I believe, one colour cannot get more dominion, power and blessing than others in any organisation. I also believe there is no shortage of good intentions and good hearts, but courageous actions are the only things that have ever led to sustainable generational change. 

Lalitha xo 


Lalitha Stables

Sri Lankan born Lalitha Stables has over 23 years experience in the Tech industry and currently is the Head of Partnerships and the DEI lead for Google Europe, Middle East and Africa. Following a successful corporate career with IBM for 11 years. She is married with two small children. Served on the Australian and Global Board of Directors for Hillsong church for 10 years. You can connect with her on LinkedIn and Instagram.