I remember the euphoria of my first few weeks after beginning my degree coming to an abrupt end when I was called a ‘token girl’. I am a woman in STEM and so it wasn’t hard to believe that the university had targets to meet for admissions, so I spent the next few weeks wondering if I was a token girl, or just ‘contextualised’ because of my background.
But when does the contextualisation of applications become token hiring? When does admiration for someone's achievements in light of context become pity or just ‘meeting quotas’? On a larger scale, I believe that this act of hiring more minorities, whatever we may wish to label it, is a positive thing, inspiring a generation of more diverse leaders. However on a personal level, I find myself wondering if all my achievements are due to organisations simply ‘meeting quotas’.
This was never more of a prevalent mindset for me than my first year of university. I found myself constantly second guessing whether I was admitted due to my intelligence or my background, and still to this day find myself wondering if all of my achievements; my acceptance into Oxford, my job promotions and my graduate role were all just because of token hiring.
I know that I am not alone in this mindset, and I find myself looking to other women in my degree for confirmation, but often the silence is deafening. There is an ongoing battle for women, especially in STEM, not to show the faltering confidence caused by these ‘token girl’ rumours, in order to implicitly deny them. Yet, however hard we try, the seed of these insecurities grows deep and the silence isolates us, preventing us from realising that ‘it's not just me’.
In fact it is this silence that prohibits most members of minorities from realising the larger issue at hand. It leads them to believe that they are the ‘problem’ in this scenario, the unworthy student who was accidentally accepted. However the problem is actually the institutions’ lack of action to make minorities feel accepted in more ways than admission. Continuing to run an institution as you have historically for a privileged white male cohort is entirely irresponsible, allowing systemic bias in many forms. This bias is particularly evident in areas such as inherently male teaching methods, the lack of help to close the gaps in knowledge from previous educators and the accepted, yet uncomfortable ways that women are forced to network. Perhaps however, the worst of all is the continuous labelling of the minorities who endure this, as ‘insecure’ or suffering with ‘imposter syndrome’. This label of ‘imposter syndrome’ simply reassigns the blame to the individual, when actually what they are feeling is discomfort and anxiety caused by existing in an institution that refuses to support their minority.
It is this label that often successfully diverts efforts away from the real issues that institutions are too set in their own ways to bother fixing, and toward helping people to ‘build confidence’, or more appropriately described as ‘learning to deal with it’.
An article in Harvard Business Review, written by Ruchika Tulshyan and Jodi-Ann Burey touched upon this ‘facade’ of imposter syndrome, explaining ‘those who can’t (or won’t) conform to the male-biased social styles [of unwavering confidence] are told they have imposter syndrome’, and that ‘imposter syndrome directs our view toward fixing women at work instead of fixing the places where women work’. Although this article mainly focuses on gender bias, it is clear to see that these statements also ring true for those from any classification of minority.
Contextualised acceptance, whilst a positive movement for diversity in general, comes bearing the responsibility and promise to create an environment where these minorities can thrive. Disparity in attainment levels, promotion statistics and representation on boards, are the responsibility of the institution to tackle, otherwise risking the consistently worsening divide between backgrounds, justified by the labelling of individuals as ‘insecure’. What is worse is that the growth of rumours such as ‘token’ admissions and therefore minorities being labelled as ‘not good enough’ is self-fulfilling.
Institutions will try to ‘help’ by announcing they want to help tackle imposter syndrome but in doing so, they enforce a label that causes minorities to feel at fault or even gaslighted if they are informed enough to realise. By doing this, they also refuse to confront the real issues, allowing the systemic bias in the workplace to continue. The bias significantly hinders the success of minorities and this, along with the mental health impacts of being reduced to being ‘insecure’, promotes the idea that the minorities perhaps just ‘cannot cope’ with existing in this institution.
And so I finally come to the conclusion that perhaps whether we categorise an institution as carelessly ‘token hiring’ vs admirably ‘contextualising applications’ is actually down to their decision on whether to act on the systemic bias existing in their institutions, once admissions are completed. Without this additional action, they are meeting their quotas, appearing progressive to the general public, but masking the difficulties they allow their minority groups to endure and never giving them the tools to succeed.
And on a personal level, you may still be wondering, am I a ‘token hire’?
I understand a token admission to be someone who isn’t ‘good enough’ to cope in an institution, but was hired to meet targets. Every day that you watch your lectures or turn up to work, you are proving that label wrong, and if you do not allow the status of a ‘token hire’ to blacken your mindset, you have every chance of success. Additionally, for every day you stay, you fight for better female representation in your institution and you are paving the way for the next contextualised admission to never have to face the question ‘am I a token hire?’.