A female and male human character from The Old Republic: both are the maximum size allowed but the female model is much thinner

When does diverse hiring become tokenism?

This is an Ask a Geek Feminist question for our readers:

When people from video game development talk about making game development more inclusive and diverse, it’s often taken for granted that more diverse teams will be better able to bring out a well-rounded game that avoids or at least minimizes stereotypes.

However, I wonder to what extent this is true, and to what extent it represents tokenism. In a sense, this might be a case of developers not wanting to try – i.e. “Let’s just hire a woman or two, and then things will sort themselves out.” Then again, I can also see this being true, i.e. a diverse team *does* bring different perspectives to the table.

So what do you think? Do gender-diverse teams tend to create better/more unique/more inclusive games? How high is the danger of tokenism and/or essentialism here? Can you point us in the direction of real experiences made by gender-diverse development studios in these regards? Is it helpful for a developer to actively seek out female developers in order to create a more diverse team, or does this lead to problems?

See also an AAGF question from 2010 on being on the receiving end of tokenism.

What do you think?

9 thoughts on “When does diverse hiring become tokenism?

  1. Shinobi

    I think having a diverse team only works if the team is actually an equitable partnership. All too often in meetings peoples ideas are overlooked or silenced. It only works to add under represented groups to a team if you are committed to listening to what they say and implementing it. If you are just going to add them and then do whatever you want anyway, what’s the point?

    1. Amy

      [Mod note: Edited for clarity.]

      I agree that it would be beneficial to combine men and women in the video game development world. I think that having equal numbers of both genders will help diminish gender stereotypes in video games.

  2. Sheila

    I’ve actually been curious abut this beyond the topic of gender — I get curious about whether hiring practices at my company have any systemic bias towards or against various myers-briggs types, for example.

    There are probably studies that you can look up to chase them up and down the citation list. One I remember seeing linked from Wired was Evidence for a Collective Intelligence Factor in the Performance of Human Groups.

    I’ve never dug in to that to see if those findings hold.

    From the abstract

    [...] This “c factor” is not strongly correlated with the average or maximum individual intelligence of group members but is correlated with the average social sensitivity of group members, the equality in distribution of conversational turn-taking, and the proportion of females in the group.

    More females, better performance.

  3. Sheila

    My comment may have triggered a bot due to the urls in it. There are some papers I’ve seen in the news from time to time correlating the performance of groups on tasks that correlate increased performance with an increase in the number of women in the group. See “Evidence for a Collective Intelligence Factor in the Performance of Human Groups”, 10.1126/science.1193147

    I’ve also seen papers investigating performance on programming teams based on Meyers-Briggs inventories. If an interview process has a bias towards or against certain personality types, perhaps it affects performance outcomes.

    I don’t know for certain since I don’t follow industrial organization psyc. I just kind of skim the BPS Occupational Digest blog.

  4. Meg

    The danger of tokenism is Sarah Palin: if the hiring manager isn’t going to take a candidate seriously, if the only qualification is that the candidate is “diverse”, then there will be a problem. There would be a problem even if the candidate ends up being competent, because they won’t be respected no matter what they do.
    However, it is not all that hard to find people who at the very least are adaptable enough to learn whatever skills they are missing and contribute along the way. I don’t consider that “tokenism”, but rather a recognition of the realities of education and working environments. Plenty of companies are willing to flex the requirements for people fresh out of college. It’s not much of a stretch consider each applicant in context and value skills like “contributes to design” or “has community manager experience” along with “willing and able to learn”, which’ll expand the pool of potential employees.

    Diversity begets more diversity. A technical woman on a team is like a canary in a coal mine: I know it’s at least this unsexist because if it was unbearable she’d have gone elsewhere. So hiring the first person may be an investment in the future diversity of the team. Equally, though, when I’ve seen that only two women have worked somewhere and they both left inside of six months the company is forever scarred and I’d never take a job there. So it is important to advertise honestly and actually create a collaborative atmosphere where the products of a diverse workforce are valued.

    I have seen tokenism, but I’ve seen the fear of tokenism defeat many more efforts to correct for gross biases that compound in our industry. I’ve also seen tokenism accidentally end up awesome and lead to better long-term outcomes for everyone, so I’ve stopped being afraid of tokenism. I do expect to get paid more if I’m going to be a token, though: if I have to do the work of a developer and speak for my entire gender besides there should be some upside!

    1. Anjasa

      I’m not sure you can really say that games with a single female on it must be any bit unsexist simply because what might be seen as degrading and sexist to you might be something every day to her. Or maybe she just doesn’t have any other options and would rather eat than be unemployed.

      For instance, that political ad that had an Asian actor say that China is trying to take over America etc. There are plenty of people out there where they just don’t have a lot of job options and so they have to take the work, no matter how offensive.

  5. Kali Tal

    The basis of diversified hiring: seeking out and preferring applicants from under-represented groups when all other qualifications are equivalent to or better than other candidates. If you hire qualified applicants, then they cannot, by definition, be “tokens”: they are fully-qualified members of your team. But if you are committed to diversity and you have 9 men on your team and then you hire a woman, you will not stop there. You will continue to hire the most qualified female candidates you can find until balance is achieved.

    Diversification is business demographics, and it makes business sense. If you hire with the intent to overcome the irrational prejudices that enforce homogeneity, you have a good chance of assembling a team that 1) takes full advantage of the available pool of talent, rather than excluding potential members on the basis of traits unrelated to talent; 2) represents more varied viewpoints and perspectives, which potentially provides insights and options unavailable to more homogenous teams; 3) creates a productive collegial atmosphere based on each employee’s belief that the quality of one’s work is valued beyond any other measure, which spurs employees to work harder and to be more creative.

    “Tokenism” is the practice of hiring candidates from under-represented groups as if those candidates individually represent their demographic. But demographics is based on aggregates and averages, and there is no way a single woman can represent “a woman’s viewpoint.” Each woman represents her own viewpoint but it’s only in aggregate that one can get an idea of what “women” think about an issue. You may notice that your first female hire offers some interesting new perspectives, but if you truly want to institutionalize and reap the full benefit of womens’ perspectives, you can’t leave it on her shoulders alone.

    The idea that a lone woman represents “her sex” is sexist, just as believing that every person of color represents “his race” is racist. They no more represent their demographic than an individual man represents all men, or an individual white person represents all whites. Tokenism is based on this racist and sexist belief.

    Your business will benefit from the inclusion of “women’s perspectives” if you hire enough women to provide you with an aggregated average perspective that differs from the aggregated average perspective of the men.

    This holds true for the inclusion of any demographic: people of color, people of different abilities, LGBT, etc.

  6. Anjasa

    I think plenty of companies half-ass things in order to point and say “We’re progressive!” but that’s really not enough and I don’t really believe that’s what people are talking about when they talk about bringing about greater diversity.

    It’s about a corporate mindset more than the individuals they hire, and if the corporate mindset is that of stereotypes and tokenism, then that’s what they’ll be getting out of hiring regardless of what individuals they employ.

  7. Julia

    Been there. Tokenism leads to disparate treatment no matter how qualified the underrepresented person is, because nobody looks at their qualifications but they would be treated as a “female”, “person of color” (sexist, racist). Moreover, some (male) team members get angry if they perceive that a female got selected because of her gender. The opposite is not true, (male) team members are happy if somebody is selected for “team fit” (i.e. another male).

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