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Equity as Tokenism

This is Part Five of our five-part series titled, “Equity and Evaluation: Models of How Equity Can and Does Impact Evaluation.” Read Part One: Equity as a Leading Principle, Part Two: Equity as a Capacity, Part Three: Equity as an Afterthought, and Part Four: Equity as a Point of Tension. Or download all five parts as a PDF here.

Scenario Five

Equity as tokenism – How does an evaluator navigate a situation where they are asked to favor certain staff over others because of their identity?

The Situation

TCC Group staff is diverse with respect to our racial, ethnic, socioeconomic and cultural backgrounds, gender identity, sexual orientation, religion, age, as well as our multidisciplinary experience, lifestyles, and interests. As our diversity statement articulates, we value the whole person for who they are and the qualities and skills that every individual brings to their work.

Our clients often tend to value this and appreciate our team-based approach. But sometimes, clients will ask for a particular person to be on a project or attend a meeting in a way that disregards professional background and instead focuses on a person of a particular identity in a way that feels tokenistic for the staff person being asked. In our case, our chosen team was questioned based on racial identity and sexual orientation.

The Evaluator’s Role

In these situations, our role as the evaluator is often to ensure that the team we are bringing to any project or meeting is the right team to meet the roles and responsibilities of the evaluation. Given that our team is relatively non-hierarchical, staffing decisions often come down to who we think will be the best person in the room—whether because of their professional background, availability, client relationship, or otherwise.

What We Did Well

We tend to address these situations by talking to the preferred staff person about their level of comfort with the request. We’ll then often reach out to the client and either agree this staff person makes sense (if this is the case) or, if this is not the case, suggest some alternatives—for example, bringing multiple staff. We also reiterate to the client the other talents, skills, and capacities this staff person brings to the table aside from the perceived optics of their identity.  

Where We Can Improve

Most important to us is that our staff feel they are appreciated for what they bring to the table and are not being seen superficially. We’d like to continue to have conversations with staff around how we should handle these requests as well as offer them necessary professional or personal development resources to help navigate these situations. We also will continue to reflect on how to talk to clients about these type of requests.

Lessons Learned
  • Understand the difference between outright tokenism and authentic engagement. Tokenistic requests will be more focused on shallow representation rather than a thoughtful engagement of individuals representing a particular identity and the potential value, insights, and trust-building, or other characteristics they can bring to bear.
  • Make staff aware of what’s happening behind the scenes. In our experience, clients will often email the client lead and state their request for a different staff member. If this conversation stays at only the senior level, the team isn’t able to further understand how to operate in these situations, and the chosen staffer is deciding without access to the full information.
  • Be clear with clients around the decision-making process. When the chosen staffer feels the meeting or project is a good fit, and we agree, we make sure to articulate to our clients the full value that can be derived from having that person on the team, such as their credentials or expertise. But when the preferred staff member is uncomfortable with the request, we also articulate some of the nuances behind our decision-making process to the client, so they understand the delicacy of making these types of decisions.
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