Tokenism Revisited: When Organizational Culture Challenges Masculine Norms, the Experience of Token Is Transformed

Author:Laurence Romani, Charlotte Holgersson
Publication Date:01 Sep 2020
Tokenism Revisited: When Organizational
Culture Challenges Masculine Norms, the
Experience of Token Is Transformed
Department of Industrial Economics and Management, KTH Royal Institute of Technology, Lindstedtsvägen 30,100 44,
Stockholm, Sweden
Centre for Advanced Studies in Leadership, Stockholm School of Economics, Box 6501, 113 83, Stockholm, Sweden
Extant research on tokenism has documented the adverse consequences for employees in minority positions and
how womenspossibility of action is constrainedin male-dominated contexts. We present an in-depthqualitative case
study of a male-dominated organization in a masculine industry in which, despite all expectations, the experience of
tokenism for minority women is ambiguous. Furthermore, these women also display a strong agentic role in an
organization in which culture favours gender equality. This case reveals an aspect previously overlooked in studies
of tokenism: the importance of organizational culture. By exposing and challenging the implicit masculine norm
through its organizational culture, this organization actively engages in the change of gendering processes and
contributes to establishing an alternative norm. Theoretical contributions show the impact of normative control on
the experience of tokens, and how it provides a frame for action toward genderequality.
Keywords: Tokenism; gender equality; organizational culture; masculine norm; normative control; change agents
From law firms to corporate boards, studies of the
dynamics of tokenism reveal how womenspossibility
of action in male-dominated contexts are constrained
due to adverse consequences of their token position.
According to Kanter (1977a, 1977b), tokens are the
minority members in a skewed group, that is a group
where there is a large majority and a very small minority,
perhaps up to a ratio of 85:15. Kanters theory has been
investigated and corroborated in a variety of male-
dominated occupations and contexts, in which women
are in minority positions (e.g., Chambliss and Uggen,
2000; Simpson, 2000; Singh and Vinnicombe, 2004;
Childs and Krook, 2008; and the review by Watkins
et al., 2018).
In view of extant research,the case study presentedhere
appears to be a paradox. Ada (pseudonym) is an
international consulting company active in a masculine
industry (IT); it operates in the Nordic countries in which
societal contexts are characterized by a gender egalitarian
ideology (Inglehart and Norris, 2003), yet in an industry
where men are in majority numerically, where gender
discrimination is common and masculine norms are well
established (Holth et al., 2017; EIGE, 2018). Just as in
the rest of the industry, Ada employs a large majority of
men, especially among their core professional group, the
consultants, making it a clear skewed group, where
women account for 22 to 13% across the different
positions. Women at Ada could therefo re be seen as
having a token position. However, unlike what would be
expected from Kanters (1977a, 1977b) work and later
studies of womenin male-dominated contexts(see review
by Watkins et al., 2018), including recent studies in
Nordic countries (e.g., Alvinius et al., 2018; Baublyte
et al., 2019; Nielsen and Madsen, 2019), we find that
womens experiences of tokenism are more ambiguous
and, remarkably, token women seemto even have a strong
agentic role in defining Adas corporate practices.
We show in this study that Adas case holds potential
for theory develop ment as it highlights a new di mension:
the contingent aspect of the organizational context in the
experience of token, when current theoretical efforts for
the development of token theory concentrate primarily
Correspondence: Charlotte Holgersson, Department of Industrial
Economics and Management, KTH Royal Institute of Technology,
Lindstedtsvägen 30, 100 44 Stockholm,Sweden. +46 8 790 67 71. E-mail:
charlotte.ho lgersson@ind
European Management Review, Vol. 17, 649661, (2020)
DOI: 10.1111/emre.12385
©2020 The Authors
European Management Review published by John Wiley & Sons Ltd on behalf of European Academy of Management
This is an open access article under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution License, which permits use,
distribution and reproduction in any medium, provided the original work is properly cited.

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