How to Avoid Tokenism in Business

Diversity has never been such a hot topic.

We’re starting to publicly see how that lack of diversity impacts negatively on business now more than ever. We’re all seeing the stats that diversity is good for business,  but many businesses are attempting to diversify and getting it wrong.

I am witnessing a lot of attempts to be diverse that are falling short with many businesses being accused of tokenising.

As a black woman, someone within a minority group, I am often “the only” person of colour in the room. You can intuitively sense when someone is authentically trying to engage with you and those who are trying to use you to make their brand look better and it repels.  One of the things I love about using my professional background in equality, disability and mental health is that I get to work with epic businesses and educate about diversity and share stories of employees and consumers in underrepresented groups and their experiences of tokenism and how it affects them. Most businesses don’t realise they are tokenising and they don’t realise the negative impact in can have.

So let’s explore how to avoid tokenism in business.

What Is Tokenism

Tokenism: The practice of making only a perfunctory or symbolic effort to do a particular thing, especially by recruiting a small number of people from under-represented groups, for example; in order to give the appearance of sexual or racial equality in the workplace.

Tokenism is diversity on a superficial level without the inclusion part. It is in the absence of consistently making the effort to include people in underrepresented groups. It’s being aesthetically diverse, but not attitudinally diverse. It is without any effort or desire to help improve the lives of people in minority groups who experience inequality or discrimination everyday.

1. Challenge: Fear

There is a real fear for many business owners of getting it wrong, of causing offence and even of tokenising.

A fear that putting out specific casting calls or job advertisements for people in minority groups will discriminate against people in majority groups. This fear actually gets in the way of making any progress to diversify our business in the first place.

Solution: Confront your fear

The whole concept of the Equalities Act 2010 is to promote equalityThe Equalities Act 2010 legally protects certain  groups of people from discrimination in the workplace and in wider society (e.g: Age, race, disability, religion, gender reassignment, sex, sexual orientation, etc). If you are consciously doing something to improve the experience, better include, provide more work, more opportunity for people in underrepresented groups to enable equality – this is OK and one of the sole reasons the Equalities Act 2010 is in place! Advocating for equality for an underrepresented group does not automatically mean inequality for a majority group. Let go of your guilt.

2. Challenge: I don’t have a diverse imagery in my marketing

Common concern: Clients from diverse communities don’t engage with my brand / service. Our market is XX so therefore we market to XX

If you have cultivated an environment that has typically not included people, for example; people of colour, or people in the LGBTQ+ community,  you can’t expect them to suddenly fall head over heels with your brand and flood your inbox with enquiries and applications. You have to cultivate it, consistently.

Solution: Be proactive

If you need to diversify your brand and online presence be proactive. Consumers are more likely to engage with a product or service if they see themselves represented in the marketing.

If you have cultivated an environment that has typically not included, for example; people of colour, or people in the LGBTQ+ community,  why do you expect them to suddenly fall head over heels with your brand and flood your inbox with enquiries? You have to cultivate it, consistently.

Expand your network of business contacts or suppliers who are already established with certain communities.

Want to attract a more diverse applicants? Use intentional language  to invite minority groups to apply and be proactive, advertise and place your brand in areas and publications that we engage with.

Dedicate time and invest in diversifying your online presence, portfolio and marketing material to be more representative.


3. Challenge: Labelling

SO many people contact me feeling extremely conflicted about the use of keywords for imagery, audio descriptions and websites and “labelling” people in minority groups…

If equality is our desired state, why do we need to label – shouldn’t we be treating everyone the same?

If this statement mirrors your thoughts, the point to remember is, you are most likely not in a minority group so you have always been catered to, which is why it feels contrived. You want to create a space for people who have not previously been included and therefore, will struggle to find visual representation of a product or service that includes them online because it is dominated by the majority group (which statistically speaking is white, heterosexual, able-bodied, male or female)

Imagine; If you are black bride and a wheelchair user –  how are you going to find specific inspiration in a pool of billions of image sources that almost always show white able-bodied slim women when you type in the word “bride” ?

Solution: Be deliberate

Consider using keywords, titles, or search terms that are relevant to the client or employee you are trying to attract, this is especially useful on blogs, social media, or in your website SEO.

But be mindful and don’t stereotype.

You don’t need to label everything all the time. I don’t – but when it is relevant, it is REALLY helpful for people in minority groups to be able to find your content and let them know you are here and creating a safe and inclusive space for them. Remember, some of us experience exclusion and discrimination on a regular basis, we want to know your business is a safe space for us and if we are not represented your business will be overlooked.


Photo by Nathan Dumlao on Unsplash


4. Challenge: Intention vs badge of honour

If you’re going to brag about being diverse, make sure the aesthetic of your brand and your business practices back it up!

Celebrating diversity is a great thing. It’s  the very foundation of my businesses and the work I do is built upon. I want to see and make a difference by campaigning, educating and speaking publicly about it to challenge perception, bias and barriers to promoting diversity. However, there is a fine line between celebrating diversity and tokenising just to make your brand look good.

Solution: Check your intention

Are you including representation in your organisation, your staffing and marketing, because you see the value of diversity and what it brings to the table, or do you want to tick a check box and be seen to be being diverse?

You shouldn’t need to talk about how diverse your brand is just to make a point, it defeats the object of inclusion and is performative. Consumers can instantly observe how diverse a brand actually is (or isn’t). It should consistently be demonstrated in your brand aesthetic, your language, your content, your behaviour,  your network and by continually making an effort to include diversity, (not just when Meghan Markle joins the Royal family). Intention is everything.

Top Tips

Be authentic and relative to the content you are posting.  Sometimes I intentionally only want to speak to black women, or people over a size 14, or people experiencing mental vulnerability. That is ok –  you lose the power of engagement and authenticity if you try to include everyone, all of the time. That is not what enabling equality and being inclusive means.

Ask yourself –  Am I truly being inclusive, or am I doing this out of obligation.

Don’t be lazy: Being inclusive and reaping the rewards of diversity in your business takes more than relying on a few images to make your instagram feed look good.

It takes It takes awareness, being sensitive, time, effort, investment and ultimately genuine desire and being open to culture change within your organisation.

We all hold prejudice and bias, which gets in the way of our businesses being more representative than they currently are and can be the sole cause of collective beliefs that get in the way of sales, performance and create an unsafe working environment. Without this level of understanding and respect of cross cultural nuances; miscommunication, generalisation, offence and tokenising happens. It takes a real commitment to improve diversity in your business and you can’t cut corners. Don’t be lazy, if it was that easy we wouldn’t have such disparity in the UK with inequality and the Equalities Act 2010 would not have to exist!

Don’t be afraid of getting it wrong: Feel the fear and do it anyway! Even I get it wrong sometimes too.

The landscape around diversity is forever evolving. Look how many brands get it wrong in mainstream spaces? The key part is how we learn, how to listen, how to avoid being defensive, so we can grow. I would much rather see people trying and getting it wrong and listening and learning from it, rather than being defensive, in denial, or not making an attempt at all.

Final thoughts: Take Responsibility

Photo by Carl Heyerdahl on Unsplash

  • Seek help
  • Widen your network
  • Invest in diversity

Yes, we’ve seen that lack of diversity impacts negatively on business now more than ever, we’re seeing businesses fail as a result, but here’s the thing;

Don’t expect people in minority groups to educate you so your business reaps the rewards. Yes they want to be better included, yes they need more equal opportunities, but they shouldn’t be expected to roll out the red carpet for you if you suddenly decide to include them. It is not their job or responsibility to make your business diverse.  It is your job to do the work.

It is your job to make staff and consumers from a variety of backgrounds feel welcome and safe.

It is your job to invest in diversity, research and expand your network and if you need support, it is your job to seek out consultancy or training, ask for help – it is there and it is vital in sustaining and inclusive culture, not just to check a box because diversity happens to be on trend this year, but consistently.

If you are an equality-minded business and you want to find out more about how to make your business more authentically inclusive with one-to-one consultancy, have a diversity business review, in-house culture change workshops or attend a straight talking diversity masterclass  I would be delighted to help.


Header image: Photo by Levi Saunders on Unsplash

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