The theory of tokenism considers the role of those who are such a small minority in groups (15% or less of the total group) that they are seen as symbols of a certain category, rather than as individuals (Kanter, 1977; Young & James, 2001). Because these individuals are highly visible, given the characteristics that differentiate them from other members, negative outcomes are typically predicted. Kanter (1977) suggested that three factors associated with tokenism could have an impact on an individual's performance at work.
First, increased visibility can create unfair or unequal performance pressure for the "token" individual, causing this person to either overachieve to meet expectations or to underachieve to alleviate other members' concerns about competition (Spangler, Gordon, & Pipkin, 1978; Young & James, 2001). Second, workgroup members will likely create boundaries based on an exaggeration of the differences between themselves and the token individual. This idea is consistent with the ingroup/outgroup distinctions that are described in social identity theory. These boundaries can lead to feelings of detachment and segregation for minority individuals, along with perceptions of exclusionary treatment. Finally, the workgroup may have certain beliefs and/or stereotypes that fit the characteristics of majority members, and therefore token individuals may often find themselves having to conform to the rest of the group, rather than challenging group norms or expectations (Spangler et al., 1978; Young & James, 2001).
Most studies using the tokenism hypothesis have examined the role of gender dissimilarity and its effects on minority members. For example, Young and James (2001) investigated the work experiences of male flight attendants, who represent token individuals in a female-dominated occupation. They found that token status led to increased role ambiguity, lower self-esteem, and perceptions of poor job fit. In turn, these negative outcomes were related to lower job satisfaction and organizational attachment. However, tokenism can apply to other demographic variables as well. Jackson, Thoits, and Taylor (1995) found that Black leaders in the United States, who were in work situations where they were outnumbered by Whites, exhibited higher levels of depression and anxiety, as compared to those in more balanced situations. Similarly, Li (1994) found that Asian minorities (tokens) in Caucasian majority groups displayed lower levels of performance and self-efficacy, relative to Asian participants in more balanced groups. The tokenism hypothesis is consistent with the basic principles of relational demography. An individual who is demographically dissimilar to the rest of his or her group members will likely experience unfavorable attitudes and behaviors, relative to individuals who are demographically similar to their respective group members (Riordan, 2000).
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