Token diversity doesn’t work: Build an inclusive organization.

By Carolyn Hibbs, PhD

The protests during summer 2020 in response to the murder of George Floyd marked a turning point—in a series of turning points—on public perception of racial injustice in the USA. Activists in Canada were quick to point out the statistics on how Canada’s legal systems disadvantage black and indigenous people—including police responses. Everywhere, members, clients and staff pressured their organizations to take action on diversity, equity and inclusion—and a slew of diversity statements were drafted and released.

While these statements may be well-intentioned—and a step forward on the path from exclusion to equity—they often end there, and become token efforts which give the appearance of progress without doing the deep reflection and long-term work necessary to make meaningful change. In response to the news about hundreds of unmarked children’s graves on former residential school sites, the Canadian government chose to fly flags at half-mast on Canada Day in 2021; critics have identified this action as a token effort to improve the government’s reputation while it continues its 14-year fight against a human rights case requiring it to implement equal education funding for indigenous children. During the recent Pride Month I was astounded by how many corporations had created a LGBTQ flag version of their corporate logo, despite having no apparent connection to LGBTQ initiatives.

There is a wealth of research on barriers to inclusion, from educational experiences to financial access in education to hiring practices to promotion practices. Much of the research comes from outside of Canada; for example, the Ontario Human Rights Commission notes that school boards in Ontario don’t collect statistics on suspension rates for students based on race or disability. Unfortunately, a perception persists that equity means appointing an unqualified person to a role solely on the basis of their identity. The first week of July 2021, the New York Times reported comments by a white ESPN reporter who suggested that her black colleague had been assigned to roles based on ESPN’s efforts to demonstrate their commitment to diversity. More unfortunately, appointing a person with visible difference can seem like a shortcut to diversity, equity and inclusion for an organization that prioritizes its reputation over meaningful change.

Visible representation can contribute to success for marginalized people who never thought of themselves in a role, and can shift public perception regarding which people do which work. However, when representation is seen as the end goal, it becomes tokenism. It’s also important to note that tokenism tends to focus on visible difference—the board member in a wheelchair, the black immigrant member, or the out and proud gay employee. Discrimination means that subtle or invisible experiences of inequality are not always safe to disclose. Employees or members may hide or downplay their experiences in order to minimize conflict, keep their role, or avoid being asked to do extra work as the “token representative” for a specific initiative. While still maintaining inequitable practices, organizations provide a more welcoming space to those who “fit in”. It’s also important to consider that individuals have multiple intersections of identity with experiences of both inclusion and exclusion.

It’s important to ask what marginalized people are being included in—are they expected to assimilate into an environment that is designed for others, or an environment that is hostile or detrimental to their success? In practice, token diversity often means that a marginalized person is appointed to a role in a system that has not made any structural changes to ensure equity and inclusion. A person who experiences discrimination is expected to assimilate into a hostile environment with gratitude. Alternately, they are expected to be the expert on discrimination, though their job description has nothing to do with equity or human resource management. In the second case, in addition to their regular duties, they are expected to perform work to conduct research; compile evidence; keep issues of diversity, equity and inclusion on the agenda; and propose solutions for inequality. In the end, too often that person is accused of creating problems rather than identifying problems, and a toxic work environment develops. In some cases, organizations create token “diversity, equity and inclusion management” roles, without providing the resources to accomplish these goals, or without a commitment to implement and support changes that this role might propose. In 2020, Google fired the co-leader of their Ethical Artificial Intelligence Team after she expressed criticism of internal discrimination. Without meaningful resources and support, diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives are tokenistic and designed to fail.

What can organizations do instead? It’s a good start to set benchmarks to ensure that participation on the board or in the workplace matches the constituent community; however, that is the bare minimum. Understand that diversity, equity and inclusion is a long-term and ongoing process. An organization needs to consider everything from its recruitment strategies to its volunteer pool to its development and promotion strategies to its internal culture, and needs to engage people at every level. These initiatives need to be designed to outlast any individual in the organization.

Any organization that sincerely intends to promote internal change needs to commit resources to this goal on an ongoing basis, both financial and non-monetary. That might mean hiring a consultant to conduct training and evaluation—and not just once. It might mean creating a dedicated role to coordinate these initiatives. It might mean creating an internal task force—and ensuring that individuals assigned to that task have a reduced workload to compensate. In all cases, it is essential that people doing the work have the resources they need to succeed. Leadership at all levels must be committed to providing resources and support, and must be committed to meaningful change. Consider resources that have not previously been considered in workplace environments, such as childcare, quiet spaces or access to support from Elders.

Commit to avoiding the “one and done” model of diversity. Token diversity isolates individuals. Consider long-view recruitment practices which encourage participation starting with job fairs through internal promotion. Develop formal mentorship programs where individuals within the community can support each other, or in a small workplace, provide resources to connect employees with external mentors. Engage leaders at all levels in the organization, and identify non-traditional forms of leadership. Resist identifying leadership only in people who are similar to the existing leaders, and create explicit plans to provide leadership and development opportunities to marginalized people—and the resources to ensure success in these opportunities.

Evaluate office standards and norms for unintentional practices of exclusion, and seek perspectives from an extensive range of people internally and externally. Don’t take any system for granted, but evaluate how each system provides supports or barriers, even the informal ones. For example, ensuring that operational processes are documented in writing creates more positive environments for people with disabilities or those whose first language is not English. Ensuring that social events don’t always include alcohol supports positive networking opportunities for those who don’t drink. This process doesn’t mean eliminating the facets of the existing culture; it means eliminating barriers to inclusion—and often improves the environment for everyone. If it’s not possible to eliminate a barrier, create an accommodation plan. Diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives need to consider the person who never asks for accommodation.

Token diversity is designed to make the minimum effort for the maximum public praise. Committing to diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives requires maximum effort for little public acknowledgement—and often more criticism. Be ready to get uncomfortable and face resistance. Understanding how bias is embedded in structures that were represented as fair and benign means understanding how individuals benefit from and contribute to these structures—even unintentionally. It is uncomfortable for an individual to go through the process of learning that their beliefs and habits contribute to discrimination and exclusion, and even more uncomfortable for those who have experienced discrimination and exclusion themselves. However, the outcome means more positive relationships, increased creativity and achievement, and ultimately leads to improved mission success

Dr. Carolyn Hibbs has been privileged to learn from Canadian activists through her work with student and labour unions, and gained further insights through her doctoral research on race, gender and religion. She is committed to embedding diversity, equity and inclusion into her life and work through ongoing conversations and research. She helps nonprofits improve their governance and operations, drawing from 15 years of leadership experience. Connect with Carolyn on LinkedIn –