Rosabeth Moss Kanter’s 1977 book Men and Women of the Corporation contributed to filling the gap between broad sociological and individualistic psychological approaches to organizational theory and research by taking a social psychological look at interpersonal relations within work groups. Specifically, Kanter described the on-the-job experiences of “token” women working with a “dominant” group of male sales managers in a Fortune 500 company. She attributed the heightened visibility and resulting performance pressures, marginalization, and role entrapment these women reported to “numbers,” that is, their proportional representation as less than 15 percent of their “skewed” work group. These three outcomes and the role of skewed proportions rest at the heart of what has become known as tokenism theory. Empirical support for Kanter’s conclusions across case studies representing a wide array of occupations and manipulational experiments is strong for women tokens. For example, research with military cadets found that women were readily visible, even in uniform; that women in basic training scored even higher than men on tests measuring psychological stress; that women felt socially isolated and disapproved of by peers; and that women reported role conflicts between masculinized expectations for cadets (e.g., “command” voices) and stereotypes for themselves as women (e.g., fragile).
Subsequent research undermined tokenism theory’s gender-neutral reliance on proportions alone. There is solid evidence that the negative consequences associated with proportional underrepresentation did not extend to White male tokens in female-dominated occupations, including nurses, social workers, librarians, teachers, and flight attendants. Although the perceived masculinity and work attitudes of token men may be threatened, token White men were advantaged with pay and promotion. However, this presumed glass escalator may reflect universal male advantage rather than benefits associated with token status itself. What Kanter attributed to proportions alone really resulted from token proportions intertwined with a stigmatized status, most commonly operationalized as being female in a male-dominated and masculinized context. Indeed, token proportions themselves may be an indicator of lower status. Token women, whose lower status as women and tokens was intentionally elevated, held fewer negative expectations about their interactions with dominant men. Moreover, solo women leaders (that is, women who were not only a token minority of less than 15 percent but also the sole woman in the group) facilitated group performance successfully when their expertise was legitimated.
Research extending these patterns beyond gender to race/ethnicity is minimal and may be culturally specific. A study of African American elite leaders found evidence of depression and anxiety as well as loss of Black identity, multiple demands, felt isolation, and pressures to confirm one’s competence. The subjective experience of distinctiveness is especially strong among African Americans who commonly find themselves in positions as solos, an extreme form of tokenism. Indeed, stigmatizing effects of distinctiveness are generally associated with solo status across many subordinated groups. Studies of women firefighters highlighted how role entrapment, drawing on different stereotypes for African American and White women, occurred for both groups but in qualitatively different ways that overburdened Black and underburdened White women. Given that the fundamental basis for tokenism effects is difference between tokens and dominants, further research exploring race/ethnicity and the intertwining of multiple identities is warranted.
Researchers have explored a wide range of outcomes of proportional underrepresentation beyond those originally documented by Kanter. On the one hand, men, whether tokens or not, were advantaged consistently over women in both wages and promotions, making the broader gendered subtext of favoring men more influential than tokenism’s work group proportions. On the other hand, and consistent with tokenism theory, career aspirations, job satisfaction, and organizational commitment were negatively impacted by women’s token status. Laboratory research documents that women who anticipated being a token in an upcoming group sought reassignment to a non-token group. Furthermore, vignette studies, which described token settings and recorded readers’ expectations, paralleled actual tokens’ experiences, suggesting that job choice may be affected by negative expectations for token women. Token women more commonly reported sexual and gender harassment, probably used by dominants as mechanisms for boundary heightening, that is, for simultaneously tightening bonds among in-group dominants and boundaries excluding out-group tokens. Subjective performance evaluations from dominants were more negative for token women compared to women in groups with both higher female representation and all men, with some of these differences disappearing when raters were held publicly accountable for their assessments.
Recent research on stereotype threat has clarified the impact of tokenism on actual individual performance. Stereotype threat occurs whenever a negative task-relevant stereotype is activated for a member of the stereotyped group who values performance in the tested domain. For example, simply being a high-achieving solo woman taking a math test in the presence of two men led to poorer performance, both when test results were public or private, than that of women randomly assigned to same-gender test groups. A strong, developing body of research on stereotype threat merges with tokenism research to argue that the effects of token status extend beyond performance pressures to actual performance decrements. These studies raise serious questions about what it takes to level the playing field of work group interactions.
Another strand of research moved away from the simple documentation of negative impact to explore ways to facilitate tokens’ success. Given Kanter’s emphasis on proportions, the most obvious panacea became increasing numbers themselves. The benefits of numbers remain unclear, with some research reporting more favorable outcomes when proportions exceed 15 percent and with contrasting research highlighting intensified boundary heightening in the face of intrusive numerical increases. The inconclusiveness in this literature may well rest in the clearly established understanding that tokenism effects themselves are produced by more than skewed proportions.
Another line of research has followed successful tokens, comparing them to both less successful tokens and similarly successful dominants. Successful tokens drew on good records of accomplishment, nurturing relationships, proactive management of their own career, mentoring, and developmental job assignments. Successful tokens typically were co-opted into the higher status group, declining to support and identify with their still disadvantaged out-group of origin. These findings are not surprising, given that such individual boundary crossing fails to challenge the core structure of tokenism.
The promise of tokenism theory when it was first introduced came from its focus on social context and situational barriers rather than on individual accountability with its potential for victim blaming. Individual tokens may persist and succeed, further directing attention away from the core tenet of tokenism theory, that is, that social context involving work group composition and its intersection with sexism, racism, and other forms of social oppression matters.
- Inzlicht, M. and Ben-Zeev, T. 2003. “Do High-achieving Female Students Underperform in Private? The Implications of Threatening Environments on Intellectual Processing.” Journal of Educational Psychology 95:796-805.
- Jackson, P. B., Thoits, P. A. and Taylor, H. F. 1995. “Composition of the Workplace and Psychological Well-being: The Effects of Tokenism on American’s Black Elite.” Social Forces 74:543-557.
- Kanter, R. M. 1977. Men and Women of the Corporation. New York: Basic.
- Lyness, K. S. and Thompson, D. E. 2000. “Climbing the Corporate Ladder: Do Female and Male Executives Follow the Same Route?” Journal of Applied Psychology 85:86-101.
- Yoder, J. D. 1991. “Rethinking Tokenism: Looking beyond Numbers.” Gender & Society 5:178-192.
- Yoder, J. D. and Berendsen, L. L. 2001. “‘Outsider within’ the Firehouse: African American and White Women Firefighters.” Psychology of Women Quarterly 25:27-36.