What's Better: Meritocracy or Tokenism?


Walking into a boardroom, you noticed three rows of men sitting in the boardroom, uniformly dressed in black. Then, from the corner of your eye, you spotted three ladies seated next to one another- their vibrant colored blouses successfully catching your attention. You cannot help but wonder the odd juxtaposition and perhaps slightly awkward gender ratio you witnessed in the room. Some might even ask: do these women really belong here?  

Tokenism is known as the action of including, such as hiring, someone (typically of a different background) for the purpose of preventing criticism and appearing fair. It does not equate to diversity, despite its good intentions to create some type of mix to a rather homogenous group. Selecting and including someone based on their age, gender, and ethnic differences actually takes away the value of having diversity in group settings, as it places greater emphasis on the “superficial” components, i.e. their sex and skin color, and overlooks the more significant yet invisible part: their ideas and perspectives. The other problem with tokenism is that the outsider, may that be women or minority group, often gets promoted as the face of a company and downgraded to little more than figureheads. “Women in tech have been handed a double-edged sword. They’re given the opportunity to promote themselves but at the price of potentially hearing the ‘only there because she’s a woman’ comments as they walk down the corridors,” Harriet Minter, the editor of the Guardian's Women in Leadership, wrote in her article

If tokenism is only a superficial solution to the problem of diversity – like a bandage placed on top of a tumor – would meritocracy be the answer? It is only when recruiters and executives truly look beyond the candidates’ sex, age, and ethnicity can they evaluate people based on their performance, capabilities, and experience. However, the solution is not as simple as adopting a meritocratic environment, for the merit-based culture bears another set of challenges. 

Gender researchers have repeatedly found that while self-promotion is important in succeeding or advancing in a career, women are more likely to face backlash effects – some form of work-related or social punishment – from both men and women when they actively assert themselves or initiate negotiations. The main cause for backlash effects is, essentially, unconscious biases. Through their collaborative research experiments in the States, Emilio J. Castilla, a professor at MIT’s Sloan School of Management, and Stephen Bernard, Indiana University sociology professor, discovered the paradox of meritocracy: despite many companies’ efforts to uphold meritocratic ideals and HR practices like pay-for-performance, the reality is that women, minorities, and non-U.S. citizens needed “to work harder and obtain higher performance scores in order to receive similar salary increases to white men.” 

The cause of the non-meritocratic outcomes lies in the fact that employers pursuing meritocratic principles consider themselves impartial, which creates conditions where implicit and explicit biases are unleashed – unnoticed by the people themselves – as Castilla explained. Indeed, as unconscious biases surround us, they conveniently become the filters (i.e. stereotypes) we use to assess others, often favoring the dominant groups over the lower-status groups. Hence, to truly attain meritocracy at the workplace, people must be aware of the unconscious biases they have and deliberately consider how those come into play whenever they are making decisions. Managers cannot ignore gender or racial inequity, but must confront the problem by asking themselves, “Would I treat a man and woman the same in this context?” or “Did I assume [something] based on their skin color or nationality?”

"the opportunities and rewards of diversity are tremendous and must not be dismissed."

With all that discussion on tokenism versus meritocracy, it is pertinent to understand why it is important to have workplace diversity, despite the difficulty to create and maintain it. Research findings and company surveys have confirmed that diversity generates more ideas, which breed innovation and foster a more enriching environment that benefits everyone. As Benhold noted from her TED Talk conference experience: “To attract the best ideas, you cannot afford to deprive yourself of any part of the idea-generating population.” Moreover, diversity is repeatedly identified as a key factor for workplace growth and better performance. A McKinsey research study found that across publicly traded companies in the UK, US, and Germany, executive boards with more diversity (measured by the number of women and foreign nationals on the senior teams) have much higher returns on equity (ROE) and margins on earnings before interest and taxes (EBIT). A Forbes survey completed by 321 executives at large global enterprises ($500 million-plus in annual revenues) also showed diversity as the vital driver of internal innovation and business growth.

After acknowledging the benefits of diversity, we should ask ourselves how it could be introduced to the team, especially if the group is relatively homogeneous. The answer is not as simple as just implementing meritocratic principles. Rather, it is a multi-step process. For companies where gender and/or racial inequity exists, employers should reevaluate their recruiting process and perhaps introduce blind auditioning to test if they are fairly assessing the candidates. Employees too should reflect on their own perceptions of their coworkers to check if they unintentionally hold stereotypes towards others and misjudged situations. Diversity requires a change in attitude and mindset, as well as conscious self-check to avoid making decisions based on unconscious biases. Diversity also should not be thought of as a standalone program, but rather as a cultural movement, according to Neil Lenane, a Business Leader of Talent Management. Getting people to work with different people demands change and adjustment, and while it may be time-consuming, hard, and uncomfortable at first for some, the opportunities and rewards of diversity are tremendous and must not be dismissed. 

A recent graduate of New York University, Vivien is a global storyteller, curious traveler and aspiring foodie. Growing up with a bicultural background (Taiwanese and American), she is deeply passionate in learning about cultures across the world, and spent 4 semesters studying away: from London, Washington DC to Prague. With a major in Media, Culture and Communication and interests in technology and business, Vivien enjoys listening to, sharing, and voicing ideas of her own and from different people, and hopes to bring positive impact through her work and writing—starting with SheCanCode.