Sarah Palin: Is Tokenism A Bad Thing

The Toronto Star

The Toronto Star

by Daphne Gordon, Living Reporter

The epitome of tokenism? Or the hammer that will finally shatter the glass ceiling?

Cynics label American vice-presidential candidate Sarah Palin, 44, the epitome of tokenism, citing her lack of national or international experience as the main indicator that she was appointed mostly because she’s a woman.

The optimists say she’s up to the job, with more executive experience as a former governor and mayor than either Democratic presidential hopeful Barack Obama or his vice-presidential pick, Joseph Biden.

If the cynics are right, and Palin’s gender was the main factor motivating Republican presidential candidate John McCain to appoint Palin as his running mate, we’re left wondering: Is tokenism – in politics, or anywhere else – necessarily a bad thing? Or can it sometimes be a harbinger of change?

The word tokenism refers to the selective inclusion of members of a minority, creating a false impression of openness. Not limited to politics, it can happen in any establishment where appearance matters – media, academia and corporate culture are prone to it, too.

According to John Miller, a Ryerson journalism professor and author of a book about diversity in the media, tokenism almost never leads to lasting change.

“At newspapers in the United States, there was a big push to hire black reporters. And they were successful in doing that. But they didn’t stick around. They quit. It didn’t change the culture, and they didn’t want to work in a place that doesn’t value them for their competence.”

But there are always exceptions. Colleen Clarke, a career coach and corporate trainer, says tokenism is sometimes possible to overcome.

“Some people can just make things happen,” says Clarke. “Some people are charismatic, and they might get an opportunity that was never there before, and they fly, regardless of experience. They’re problem solvers. They know themselves. They’re highly self actualized. You don’t learn that at Harvard, and it doesn’t show up on a resume.”

Not all members of minorities in positions of power are accused of being tokens – for example, no one doubted former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher’s qualifications – but when they have little experience or popular support, the label is slapped on.

We asked four female politicians about tokenism. And like many of the issues brought up by Palin’s appointment, the question was contentious:


She has served since 2004 as the Liberal MP for Brampton-Springdale and Dhalla, 33, is now running for re-election.

When people look at the political process, it can look like an opportunity for men of a certain age, anglophone men. Others need to be heard. The journey I have had so far, I hope it acts as an inspiration to youth.

To be honest, when you’re a woman, people talk about what you’re wearing and your shoes. At first, I was uncomfortable. I want to talk about child care and affordable housing. It can be a bit of a distraction, but if people choose to focus on your shoes and handbags at first, they’re also going to hear what’s coming out of your mouth.


She was elected Liberal MPP for Hamilton Centre in 1981, then entered national politics in 1984 when she became Liberal MP for Hamilton East. She held the seat until 2004.

Hillary Clinton was the beginning of change. The Republicans were smart in responding. The change is being driven by the public, and the Republicans may benefit from the change that is, in large part, wrought by Clinton. I would characterize it as recognizing there is a vote out there that is gender-based. Smart politicians try to reach those voters. I don’t think people will make a decision based on gender alone, but it’s in the mix. People who want gender equity will consider a party that has it as part of its platform.


She served as a Progressive Conservative MP from 1972 until 1988 for Kingston and the Islands. Now MacDonald, 82, heads a charitable foundation called Future Generations Canada, which works for change in Afghanistan.

Heavens, I don’t know. I don’t really follow American politics that closely. If you want to talk about Afghanistan or Pakistan, well then, it’s much more interesting.

There are 72 villages in Afghanistan and the people there have formed village councils … In two of those villages, women head the councils. They’ve become role models. They’re working to change the whole societal set-up. It’s not tokenism. They’re interested in improving the lives of their families. Until recently, one-quarter of children there died at birth. That has improved.


She has served since 2004 as the Liberal MP for Winnipeg South Centre and is now campaigning for re-election. She chairs the National Liberal Women’s Caucus.

The one thing that’s positive is that the message is out there to young women that this is a job that’s open for women. Anybody can aspire to it. Maybe if a woman does a job well she can overcome the label of being a token, but it’s not a setup for success.

We saw it in our own country. I think Stephen Harper did it with Rona Ambrose. She’s a smart, able woman, but she did not do well as environment minister. She didn’t have the background or experience. She had responsibility but no authority.

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