Tips to Avoid Token Woman Syndrome

With more and more courageous women putting cracks in the glass ceiling, society is starting to catch up and see the value in promoting women to positions that have traditionally been held by men. Awesome, right? Yes, but with one caveat. The problem is a lot of the women taking on new roles are the only woman in a sea full of men.

So, if you find yourself in a situation where you are an obvious token woman what should you do? Use the following tips to work around being a token woman in any situation.

Just say no. You’ve worked hard to get where you are in your professional life and one of the worst feelings is walking into a meeting full of men and not knowing if you are there because of your merit or because you are not a male. If you feel as if the latter may be the case and you are not comfortable with that, tactfully reject the opportunity.

This tactic works best when you’ve been asked to participate in a speaking engagement or panel discussion. When the last minute invitation comes in and the rest of the speakers are male, you may feel like the best option for you is to just say no and refuse to be the token woman. Declining a speaking offer is a critical and potentially uncomfortable conversation to have. If you feel comfortable with it and want to address tokenism, tactfully explain why you are declining the offer. However, if you want to avoid confrontation, a simple note explaining that the engagement will not fit into your schedule will suffice.

Embrace your role. On the other hand, you can take a last minute invitation as an opportunity to shine. Regardless of why you got asked to participate in a speaking engagement or important meeting, you are being given the chance to push your career forward and use your expertise to enhance a situation or solve a problem.

Whether you are the only woman on a panel or the sole female at a lunch meeting, you can embrace your role. The key is to not view yourself as the token woman but just a person who is doing her job and using her knowledge in a professional situation. Once you start presenting yourself as a colleague and not a commodity, others will soon follow suit. Eventually, rooms will be filled with men and women who are there because they are the best at their job and not because of the need to fill perceived gender quotas.

Suggest a colleague. Not satisfied with flat out rejecting opportunities but still uncomfortable embracing being the only woman? If you can, suggest an equally qualified female colleague join you in the meeting or whatever the scenario may be. Most of the time there is room for one more at a kickoff meeting or client dinner and bringing another woman along provides an opportunity to reshape how the workforce thinks about including women. As a token woman, you have the opportunity to bring your female colleagues up with you and make more women faces around the conference table the norm. 

Empower the women around you. If you are placed into a situation where you are the token woman it can be easy to submissively fall into the role and keep quiet. You may even find yourself consciously threatened by other women when they do show up at the table because you’ve been conditioned to think there is only room for one woman. However, making room for others is key.

The specifics of female empowerment look different across sectors however, all women have the ability to mentor, elevate, thank, and promote other qualified women around them. Whether you are at the table or not, making sure you are doing your part to empower them in your workforce is critical to eliminating token woman syndrome.

The road to workplace equality is a marathon not a sprint. However, awesome women all over the world are working hard to ensure that gains are being made every day. Have any tips we didn’t cover on how you’ve handled being a token woman? Leave them in the comments below!


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