Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Against tokenism

Recently I’ve been finding myself in more and more situations where I’ve ended up raging against tokenism – specifically, given my own situation, token women. For one who is a feminist to my bones, it’s uncomfortable. However, my experiences in politics and at work have led me to conclude that ‘reserved places’ may tick the boxes for organisations but do nothing for women. Indeed, tokenism may well be detrimental to our interests. Here’s why.

First, it’s common for some to say that women occupying reserved places would not have got there in open competition. Of course this varies. But it does happen, in circumstances when we are called upon to make up the numbers in roles for which we are inexperienced and perhaps unsuitable.

Not only do we sometimes find ourselves outside our comfort zone, which can be dealt with over time, but what if we want to use our new position to actually (horror) bring about change? We may be surprised at the reaction. We may have been welcomed into our token role, not realising that the deal was ‘don’t rock the boat’. But then, should we want to speak up, one of two things are likely to happen. We may get ignored. Or we’ll lose the argument – because tokens are always in the minority.

Then there’s the time and energy involved in being a token. I’ve written about this before, in relation to women and politics:

Before you know it are on every committee going, simply because you are female. If women are in a minority in a particular constituency or ward party, but party rules insist that, say, half the officer places must go to women, then there is pressure to do more.

This is a serious problem in my political party, because the reserved places system is imposed at UK level and bears no relation to the actual number of women active in the constituency. We have to find four women for our Executive Committee; two of the four officer positions must be held by women; and on alternative years, our conference delegate must be female. It’s not easy.

However, I think it’s worse at work – and I’m talking about various jobs I’ve done over the years, not just my experience of several universities. Has anyone seriously thought about the time commitment it takes to sit on all those appointment panels, committees, mentoring, training days and so on? Even when there’s no formal reserved place, the cry will go up ‘we don’t have any women....’ I suggest that all this activity takes time away from the type of work that actually contributes towards progression within an organisation, rather than always being out of the office on yet another ‘equalities’ commitment.

But am I just being selfish by pulling up the ladder and preventing other women from having the same opportunities as myself? I don’t think so, because I don’t think tokenism is the way to make real change. Sure, you’ll get a few more female faces around the place – remember Blair’s babes? This is what some of them had to say ten years later. Tokenism gets you in, but it doesn’t get you much further, because it doesn’t actually change the culture of an organisation by tackling everyday episodes of sexism.

So what would I do instead? Women need to work together on skills development, critical mass, and solidarity. Skills development so that we are capable of competing for positions on offer; critical mass so that we encourage other women to join us; and solidarity so that once we are wherever we want to be, we support each other. These can be formalised, for example the Queen’s Gender Initiative, or can be the result of a strong group of women organising themselves.

My own experience has been that female solidarity is hard to come by – despite a few shining exceptions. Sometimes women genuinely don’t have the same interests. In other cases, there just doesn’t seem to be the political will. But one thing’s for certain. Tokenism doesn’t lead to real change for women because it doesn’t alter the balance of power between men and women. Maybe that’s why it’s so widespread.


LeftAtTheCross said...

It's a subject that needs more attention.

There was a recent post on Irish Left review by Eoin O'Broin which also raises similar questions.

I'll cut & paste my comment to O'Broin's post here:

“Part of the reason is to do with the many barriers that block women’s full participation in political life. Elected politics involves long working weeks and very anti-social hours. The anti-family work requirements make it difficult for those with primary caring responsibilities from getting involved.

The lack of adequate childcare facilities also acts as a barrier, preventing many who want to play a more active role in politics from doing so.”

Perhaps the elephant in the room here is captured in the phrase “those with primary caring responsibilities”.

Until men step up to their responsibilities to share equally in the child-rearing tasks then there is no really meaningful equality between the sexes, in political life or in private life.

Apart from breast-feeding, and even then with the assistance of breast pumps and bottles this can be worked around, there is no requirement for women to be the primary carers for children.

None of which takes away from your point about tokenism.

Have you come across, or are you involved with, the 50:50 Group (

LeftAtTheCross said...

Meant to include the link to the ILR piece:

Jenny Muir said...

LeftAt - I thought I replied yesterday, but blogger ate my comment. I liked O'Broin's post and also your comment on it. Men sharing caring responsibilities (which might include an elderly person as well as a child) is part of the answer, most definitely. But for those of us who do politics voluntarily, I wonder if we also have to be clearer about what we can and cannot do with our time. This isn't only about caring - I have a very demanding job which has to come before my unpaid activites, and I have to be careful not to do too much and let people down in the Labour Party for that reason. It might be - heresy - that if you have several small children, or are, say, caring for both childre and an elderly parent, that you just shouldn't be taking anything else on which involves people having to rely on you. This is a different issue from tokenism but perhaps another taboo which I might as well address.

Also looked at 50/50 group but I see they are for quotas and so on. We really do have to ask why career women like them so much.

LeftAtTheCross said...

You make good points there. However, I think one can be consistent in being pro-quota (which I would be) but also take a stance on the issue you raise, about over-stretching, which is that the problem of insufficient resources is not the problem of the female members of the party, it is a problem of the party's organisation.

Much the same as in a workplace it is reasonable to resist the pressure to perform overtime as a widespread but unhealthy organisational mechanism to cope with excessive workload on a constant and on-going basis, equally it is absolutely reasonable for female party members to be pro-quota but absolve themselves of personal responsibility to fulfill all of the organisational commitments associated with that.

On your equating the quotas with career women, perhaps it is the careerist aspect which originates in the same workaholic gene which fuels such people (irrespective of gender) to embrace all-consuming workloads, whether in their daily workplace or in their political spheres. One thing I learned many years ago, don't compete with workaholics, leave them to it, and treat them with the same tolerance one would give to any person afflicted with any other type of personality disorder.

Kim McKee said...

Interesting post which I sympathise with. I'm in a female minority in my department and I'm getting increasingly frustrated by the number of interview panels I need to sit on (which are quite often outside my area of expertise).

Also something interesting to be said about the interaction between gender and age I think. I find much more mutual support from female co-workers my own age than I do from older ones (which is a shame as it would be nice to hear & learn from their experience).

And I would also echo the previous point about workaholics (regardless of gender) ... let them get on with it!

Jenny Muir said...

LeftAt - Although in theory it's possible to be pro quota in the abstratct and still protect the position of individual women, in practice it's hard and sometimes impossible. In work - as Kim points out - sometimes we aren't given any choice about being the token, if a more senior person requests it. In work again, and also in politics, there's the emotional blackmail issue - there you are, we give you these opportunities and you just can't cope. 'You' being either singular or plural. How many men really accept that the problem might be institutional, and actually try to do something about it?

Good point you both make about workaholics though. Used to be a bit that way myself!

Kim - again an illustration that women don't always support each other. I suspect women form mutally supportive networks based on common interests (which I'm sure men do too) and younger women would be correct in assuming a lot of the time that they are discriminated against on two counts. Of course we're not talking about the disruptive type of younger woman who gets a long way on a very light c.v. and the rest of us can only wonder why :)

LeftAtTheCross said...

"sometimes we aren't given any choice about being the token, if a more senior person requests it"

To quote an excellent phrase from a different context, just say no.

There is always a choice.

Jenny Muir said...

Have spent several days thinking about that one :)

Anonymous said...

To my mind some women in society are treated as low class citizens and will never break out of their syndrome until we all work hard to make a big change. I speak from my experience of working on "sink estates" where to address problems millions are spent - like New Deal for the communities. Young single girls soon to be single parents stuck in high rise blocks or estates and often left alone to discover the best way to survive.
Of course this is at the bottom end of our social stratas but nonetheless significant to this post.
The Labour Party has a blunt tool of a Quota in its policies for positions. At a national governmental level it has allowed an increase in women MP's. But replacing white middle class men with white middle class women has not had an impact or created genuine role models for that young girl on the sink estate.
The point about some institutions that spend time and resource on following a selection process to ensure fair play can easily be resolved. Don't permit anyone from within a department to sit on the selection panel. Independant panels selecting solely on a precise specification and criteria would in my view throw up fairer results.
The promotional events that we often see "Getting more women elected" or "More Women Chief Executives" does not surface from the millions of women living on the edge. Our focus should be equality from the bottom to top.
Sharing care responsibilities for children is a start and like the programmes in football to "kick out racism" We should begin to think of promotions like "What's the difference".
Obviously we are not (at this time) going to change what nature dictates but everything we create we must ensure all people have a fair chance, are treated equally and do not need rely on rules that ignore the real cause of the failures.