What’s Better: Meritocracy or Tokenism?

Lots of diverse hands on top of one another, diversity concept


New York University graduate, Vivien Li, looks at what is better - meritocracy or tokenis

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. This 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 woman or minority group, often gets promoted as the face of a company and downgraded to little more than figurehead.

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 can consider themselves impartial. This can create conditions where implicit and explicit biases are unleashed – unnoticed by the people themselves – as Castilla explained. Unconscious biases serve as filters (stereotypes) for evaluating others, often favoring dominant groups. To achieve workplace meritocracy, individuals must recognize and address these biases when 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.”

Workplace diversity, despite challenges in its establishment, is crucial due to its positive impact on innovation and the overall environment. Research and surveys emphasize that diversity generates a wealth of ideas, leading to innovation and an enriched atmosphere. Highlighted by Benhold‘s insights from her TED Talk experience. “To attract the best ideas, you cannot afford to deprive yourself of any part of the idea-generating population.”

Moreover, diversity is a key factor for workplace growth and better performance. McKinsey research study: Diverse executive boards in the UK, US, and Germany show higher returns (ROE) and earnings margins (EBIT). A Forbes survey also showed diversity as the vital driver of internal innovation and business growth.

Fostering Diversity: Navigating the Complex Path to Inclusion and Change

Having recognized diversity’s advantages, how can we introduce it to a predominantly homogenous team?

The answer is not as simple as just implementing meritocratic principles. Rather, it is a multi-step process.

  • In companies with gender and/or racial inequity, employers should reassess recruiting and consider blind auditioning to ensure fair candidate evaluation
  • 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. Neil Lenane, a Business Leader of Talent Management says, ‘Diversity should not be thought of as a standalone program, but rather as a cultural movement.’
  • Getting people to work with different people means change and adjusting. While it may be time-consuming, hard, and uncomfortable at first for some, the opportunities and rewards of diversity are tremendous.  

About the author

Vivienne Li

A recent graduate of New York University, Vivien Li is a global storyteller, curious traveler, and aspiring foodie.

Follow Vivien: Instagram | LinkedIn


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