On Quotas and Tokenism – Why is Token called Token?

Token Tokenism

I saw something on the television today that inspired me to write a blog post. Despite the title and the picture, it wasn’t South Park that inspired me (even though that show can be quite inspirational as well). I saw a news item on ‘Eenvandaag‘ (Dutch news) about the new quota on handicapped employees the Dutch government has planned for 2015. This quota forces all middle to large companies to hire at least 5% of employees with some form of disability. If a company fails to reach the quota they will get fined. The news item briefly shows a few different views on whether it is good or bad to install such a quota.

Do quota’s work?

Let me get straight to the point: I don’t think that implementing a quota is the right way. I understand the (noble) idea that leads to the plan, but I think this won’t lead towards what we all actually want: True participation of everyone, despite their background, looks or physical abilities. During the segment I saw today, someone working at ‘De Normaalste Zaak‘, and someone working at ‘Shakingtree Interventions‘, explained why they think it is not a good idea to implement the quota. Their explanations made me think of my lessons in Sociology of Tokenism.

What is tokenism?

Tokenism has several definitions, but the one I am referring to is: “The practice of hiring or appointing a token number of people from underrepresented groups in order to deflect criticism or comply with affirmative action rules.” But what makes Tokenism a bad or dangerous thing? Forcing organizations to hire more people of underrepresented groups does mean that they will actually hire more people of these groups….. right?
While it might increase the actual numbers, it does not mean these people get the chances they want. Even worse, it can influence the people that already got inside organizations based on their talents in a bad way. This happened decades ago in the USA when universities received a quota on giving PhD positions to students from an African American ethnicity. Everyone in the academic world (and corporate world) knew of this quota, which lead to viewing all African American PhD students as just being there because of the quota. Now, for some of these students this might have been true, but for the unfortunate others who were actually hired based on their talents, it meant that they didn’t get the chances and recognition during their PhD that they deserved. Even worse, after successfully finishing their PhD this Tokenism stuck on them, and they had trouble getting hired in a Postdoc position or in the corporate world because people would still think they only got their PhD because of the quota. Besides many other problems influencing this complex case, sociological research showed that implementing a quota leads to an increased chance of seeing these people as a Token, which harmed the actual cause for which the quota was implemented: giving people equal opportunities. You can translate this bit of sociology towards other underrepresented groups like women in high management positions or people with handicaps in organizations.

How to improve the future

From that bit of sociology back to the actual quota and the fragment on TV that inspired me today. In the fragment you can also see a good initiative by Microsoft Nederland. They organized a think tank to discuss the matter: “Is it possible to get more handicapped people to participate in an organization without actually forcing the organization?” I am very curious what this think tanks will present somewhere in the next few weeks, because I think you will accomplish more if you stimulate something, than you would if you forced it instead. (This might actually be a subject for a future blog)

Do I think we could and should do more to give people with a handicap more/equal opportunities? Yes I do.
Do I think that implementing a quota is the answer to the problem? No I don’t.
Do I have the right answer? Unfortunately… I do not. I do however think a stimulation in some form will work better then forcing it upon organizations, and I am really curious what the think tank will come up with. If any of you have a good idea, please do share your view below!


Oh, and why is Token called Token? I hope the bit of sociology in the middle of this blog helped you somewhat. If you want to know more you should look for Token Black. It is one of the many examples in how South Park can be an inspiration or give you food for thought. Don’t forget to dive into the wondrous world of Sociology of Tokenism as well!