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.