17: Tokenism – Rosabeth Moss Kanter

With Special Guest Deborah Brewis

Rosabeth Moss Kanter

Rosabeth Moss Kanter is the Ernest L. Arbuckle Professor of business at Harvard Business School. She is known for research on gender, strategy, leadership and innovation. Her book “Men and Women of the Corporation” (1977), arguably one of her most important work, is considered a seminal study on gender in the workplace and one of the richest case studies of a large industrial corporation in the field. It won the C. Wright Mills Award, fueled a stream of research on tokenism and the negative consequences of inequality and blocked opportunities for minorities, and had great impact on policymaking on affirmative action and related strategies.

In this episode, we read Kanter’s paper “Some Effects of Proportions on Group Life: Skewed Sex Ratios and Responses to Token Women” (1977) which features as a chapter in her classic book. In this article, Kanter explores how interactions within a group or an organization are affected by the different numbers of people from distinct social types. In particular, she focuses on groups with skewed gender ratios: a high proportion of men and a small number of women – the tokens. The study is based on observations and interviews with sales team which had recently started to incorporate women in its workforce and shows how structural factors stifled their potential.

Kanter documents that because women were numerically few, they: 

  1. experienced heightened visibility creating performance pressures,
  2. were isolated by the majority who exaggerated their differences in the face of women entry in the group, and
  3. were expected to act within pre-defined gender roles.

Kanter richly unravels the mechanisms underpinning these gender dynamics and the responses of these (token) women to such situations. The paper debunks a number of assumptions from previous literature on the behavior of women at work. It posits that hypotheses on the “fear of success of women” or “women-prejudice-against-women” have origins on structural conditions in which women are embedded in, not gender traits in themselves. The paper also makes a strong case for affirmative action and numerical balance as an instrument for gender equality. While many of these claims have been replicated in further research, gender scholars have also problematized some of its assumptions, insisting that gender is a matter of power and not only quantity; and that balancing numbers as a strategy for change may fall short in the face of resistance and the reproduction of inequality.

The challenges of gender integration, the theoretical underpinnings of Kanter’s framework and the relevance of the concept of tokenism in contemporary research and practice are among the themes covered in this Episode. 

Join us as we talk about these issues, and many more, together with our very special guest, Dr. Deborah Brewis!

You may also download the audio files here:  Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 

Read with us:

Kanter, R. M. (1977). Some effects of proportions on group life: Skewed sex ratios and responses to token womenAmerican Journal of Sociology, 965-990.

To Learn More:

Yoder, J. D. (1991). Rethinking tokenism: Looking beyond numbers. Gender & Society5(2), 178-192.

Zimmer, L. (1988). Tokenism and women in the workplace: The limits of gender-neutral theory. Social Problems35(1), 64-77.