Chapter 12

The Architecture of Inequality: Sex and Gender

Micro-Macro Connection


Tokenism in the Workplace

In the early years of the women's liberation movement, sociologist Rosabeth Moss Kanter observed and interviewed over a period of five years employees at a large industrial supply company that she called Industrial Supply Corporation.1 She used the word tokens to refer to the relatively few women given prominent positions in a particular occupational setting.

Whether they are women, minorities, people with handicaps, or the elderly, tokens are often treated as symbols or representatives of the marginal social group to which they belong. As a result, their thoughts, beliefs, and actions are likely to be taken as typical of all in their social group. Some women at Industrial Supply Corporation were even told that their job performance could affect the prospects of other women in the company. In short, the token is less an individual than a social category.

Tokens must perform their jobs under conditions very different from those facing other workers. Consequently, token status has important social and psychological consequences.

The token doesn't have to work hard to be noticed, but she does have to work hard to have her achievements noticed. Many of the women Kanter studied told of situations in which their abilities were eclipsed by their physical appearance, creating additional performance pressures.

Token women also experienced the added pressure of trying not to make male co-workers look bad, of trying not to perform too well on group tasks. But because of their visibility, their actions can never be hidden. The irony is that, although they must work twice as hard just to be seen as competent, they also feel that their successes should be kept to themselves. There is a fine line between doing just well enough and doing too well.2

The choice is either to turn their noticeability to their advantage or to try to become socially invisible. To limit visibility is to risk being overlooked; to take advantage of publicity is to risk being labeled a troublemaker.

Kanter also found that tokens are constantly being reminded of their outsider status. Their presence actually increases group solidarity and camaraderie among men. Typical male behavior—telling tales of sexual adventure, sharing off-color jokes, talking about sports—becomes more dramatic and is acted out more fervently in the presence of token women. This phenomenon reinforces the feeling that the tokens are not part of the "club."

Kanter also discovered that, in more formal settings like meetings and conferences, men would often preface their acts with apologies or questions about appropriateness directed toward the token woman—such as "I probably shouldn't say this in mixed company" or "Can we still use technical jargon?" The token then feels as though she is "interrupting" the usual course of events. Rarely does a token woman feel comfortable enough to prevent a large number of men from engaging in an activity they consider normal. But by saying these things, men make their dominant culture clear to the tokens and effectively state the terms under which tokens will be allowed to participate as outsiders.

Tokens can never be seen as who they really are. They must always fight stereotypes and tailor their actions to the desires and tastes of others. We can see the self-fulfilling prophecy at work here. Stereotypical assumptions about what tokens "must be like" force them into playing limited and caricatured roles. This situation serves the interests of those in the dominant group, who can fall back on preexisting expectations and traditional behaviors.

The courteous, polite, gentlemanly behavior of men toward women, such as opening doors for them or expressing concern for their safety, seems to imply respect and affection. But this behavior not only subordinates women, it also limits their employment opportunities by reinforcing the notion that women are in need of special protection:

[Mary's] male counterparts in the company frequently were invited to out-of-town business meetings and social functions from which she was excluded. These occasions were a source for information on business trends and store promotions and were a rich source of potentially important business contacts. When [Mary] asked why she was not invited to these meetings and social gatherings, the response was that her employer thought it was "too dangerous for her to be driving out of town at night by herself. . . . "3

Kanter argues that the implications of token status can apply to people of any social category who find themselves few of a kind among a majority of others. This is an important point sociologically because it shows that the treatment of certain social groups is not fixed by inflexible characteristics but can depend on their numbers in relation to the majority. Workplace discrimination is a product of the system as much as it is a product of individuals within it.

Nevertheless, the actual experience of tokenism can vary between social groups. For instance, men in traditionally female jobs (for example, male nurses, librarians, elementary school teachers) and women in traditionally male jobs (for example, physicians, engineers, carpenters) both face prejudice and discrimination. But the nature and consequences of such treatment can be quite different.4

The discrimination that token women workers face is the kind that first comes to mind when we consider sexism on the job: difficulties getting hired, earning promotions, and getting respect from supervisors and colleagues. These obstacles come from within the job itself, either from its basic organizational structure or from the people in it.

However, the prejudice confronting men who work in nontraditional occupations is more likely to come from outside the job. These men often encounter stigmatizing negative stereotypes when they come into contact with clients and people outside of work. Male nurses are assumed to be gay, and male librarians and social workers might be considered wimpy. Male elementary school teachers often have to confront suspicions that they are potential child molesters.5

Although such outside prejudice is enough to prevent large numbers of men from entering traditionally female professions, those who do enter them often find that they receive fair, sometimes even preferential, treatment. For many men, their token status works to their advantage in hiring and promotions. As opposed to the "glass ceiling" encountered by women, the set of invisible obstacles that prevent women from moving up in a company, many men in female occupations encounter a "glass escalator": invisible pressures to move up in their professions.6 In sum, men are able to take their culturally derived gender privilege with them when they enter predominantly female professions, despite the fact that they make up only a small percentage of all people in that profession.

1Kanter, R. M. 1977. Men and women of the corporation. New York: Basic Books.

2Kanter, R. M. 1977. Men and women of the corporation. New York: Basic Books.

3Quoted in Benokraitis, N. V., & Feagin, J. R. 1993. "Sex discrimination: Subtle and covert." In J. Henslin (Ed.), Down to earth sociology. New York: Free Press, p. 335.

4Williams, C. L. 1992. "The glass escalator: Hidden advantages for men in the 'female' professions." Social Problems, 39, 253-267.

5Williams, C. L. 1992. "The glass escalator: Hidden advantages for men in the 'female' professions." Social Problems, 39, 253-267.

6Williams, C. L. 1992. "The glass escalator: Hidden advantages for men in the 'female' professions." Social Problems, 39, 253-267.

David Newman and Rebecca Smith. (Created October 7, 1999). Copyright Pine Forge Press.