Diversity expert warns against dangers of tokenism at PinkNews Business Community event

This is an image of Gabby Austen-Browne. She is standing on a white wall and is wearhing a black turtleneck. She has long brown hair and has her arms folded.

Employee resource group (ERG) leaders along with equality, diversity and inclusion (ED&I) professionals convened in central London last Thursday (10 August) to learn more about how tokenism negatively impacts diversity efforts within businesses.

Nearly 40 people from across all sectors but bound by a dedication to inclusive workplaces met up for the third PinkNews Business Community event of 202, which was kindly hosted by Marshmallow Insurance, a disruptor in the car insurance business.

On a lovely late-summer evening, attendees were treated to an insightful talk by Gabby Austen-Browne, founder and director of the Diversity Alliance and the co-founder of the Diverse Speaker Bureau.

As Austen-Browne shared her experience of diversifying the event space, those in attendance learned about the dangers of tokenism and how authentic representation is the true path to inclusion.  

This is an image speaking at an event. She is wearing a read dress with white dots. She is wearing glasses.
Gabby Austen-Browne speaks at the recent PinkNews Business Community event. (PinkNews)

Austen-Browne kicked off her presentation by noting that “the lack of authentic representation and the prevalence of tokenism continue to hinder progress towards true diversity and inclusion in events.”
She highlighted examples of tokenism, such as inviting a diverse panel of speakers but not truly valuing their input and using underrepresented groups as props for photo ops.

Austen-Browne says that tokenism is problematic because it delivers a false sense of diversity, failing to address systemic issues by only focusing on surface-level visibility.

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“It’s so superficial,” she told the audience.

The lack of diversity on panels at events remains a serious problem, with Austen-Browne sharing statistics that indicate that, 66 per cent of global speakers are men, only 22 per cent of speakers at tech conferences were women and 35 to 40 per cent of events have no Black speakers on their panels.

“Event organisers always go back to ‘safe’ options,” she said.

Austen-Browne argued that authentic representation through inclusivity, celebrating diversity and promoting equality is the only way to tackle tokenism.

She told the audience: “It is not about tokenism, but about genuine empathy and respect.”

Three women and a man stand in a group laughing at a PinkNews Business Community event.
The PinkNews Business Community is open to all professionals looking to progress ED&I and LGBTQ+ networks in the workplace. (Paul Grace/PinkNews)

Austen-Browne wrapped up her presentation by offering tips on how authentic representation can be achieved. She believes that including diverse voices that have input in creating content shows a commitment to authentic representation, along with compensating all speakers equally and consistency in booking diversity of thought.

Elaborating on how workplaces can battle tokenism, Austen-Browne told PinkNews that employers need to pay attention to talent attraction processes, and developing diverse talent into leadership positions within the organisation.

“A lot of diversity exists at the bottom rungs, but not so much of the middle management and leadership,” she confessed.

“There needs to be a policy, a programme and a procedure in place for ensuring that [talent development] is open and available to all.”

Attendees also heard from Mark Shields, head of partnerships at Marshmallow and a member of the firm’s Pride Network, to find out how the firm is committed to EDI as the company continues to grow.

This is an image of Mark Shields speaking at an event. He is wearing khaki trousers with a denim shirt. He is in front of branding that says "Pinknews"
Head of partnerships at Marshmallow, Mark Shields speaks during the recent PinkNews Business Community event hosted by the car insurance firm. (PinkNews)

He told PinkNews: “We want to learn, and I think by having events like this, we can really ensure that our own community feel part of something bigger and be able to ask questions.”

Since its launch in October 2022, the PinkNews Business Community has become a thriving hub for ED&I and LGBTQ+ network leads across the UK. The community provides a welcoming and supportive space for professionals to connect with like-minded individuals, build skills, and share insights and best practices. 

With its quarterly events, monthly newsletters, and webinars, the PinkNews Business Community is an essential resource for anyone committed to creating more inclusive workplaces.

Sign up to join the PinkNews Business Community to get access to the monthly newsletter and our events.