What to do when you feel like the token woman on a leadership team

Feel like the ‘token woman’ in a leadership team? Some ideas on what you can do

An HR expert shares her ideas.

Picture this: you land your first senior leadership position. Your hard work, commitment, and the impact you make has gotten you there. Despite the barriers and the inequity, you’ve made it.

But, you’re the only woman in this leadership team.

And (perhaps with poorly thought out but good intentions), you’re asked to speak at internal company events and be the face of company campaigns. A lot.

What would that feel like?

After a decade in the HR field, I’ve supported many women through a range of crappy situations. This being one of them. Where a woman can feel like the ‘token female’ wheeled out for display.

Tokenism: “the practice of making a symbolic effort to give the appearance of equality within a workforce” – Oxford Dictionary

Regardless of whether it’s true in this type of situation, feeling like a ‘token’ sucks. It can be draining. It can undermine your sense of self-worth, impact your confidence and, left unaddressed it can ultimately affect your performance, playing into the narrative of tokenism.

The data

The latest data issued by the Workplace Gender Equality Agency (from the 2020-2021 reporting period) has found:

  • Women hold 17.6% of chair positions and 31.2% of directorships
  • Women represent 19.4% of CEOs and 34.5% of key management personnel and;
  • 22.3% of boards and governing bodies have no female directors (vs 0.6% with no male directors).

This data reinforces that the scenario above is far from unlikely.

I’m not here to tell you that under-represented group is bad for business. That more inclusive gender representation in these senior leadership roles makes complete strategic business sense. That companies with more women in their senior leadership teams have 30% higher profit margins than those with less gender diversity.

Because you already know that.

We need pragmatic action. So, what can we do to support the women who are already in leadership roles?


Individual conversations and support of your one female leadership team member are only going to get you so far. To avoid a reputation as a tokenistic employer, curiosity and intention backed by inspired action is key here.

  • Just because we know that doing something is going to be good for our business, doesn’t mean we do it. So, let’s flip it. Communicating what these key decisions makers stand to lose, will go a long way in influencing change. Educating on the why, what and how can be used to gain buy-in across the senior leadership team.
  • Any change can feel big. Take the overwhelm out of the equation and start small. Identify key moments along the employee journey to focus your efforts. A great starting point to reviewing your recruitment process. Where are you advertising? What language are you using in your ads? What is the DEI (Diversity, Equity & Inclusion) composition of your candidate pool? What is your selection criteria? And a bigger question: how does your EVP (Employee Value Proposition) support female hires?
  • Without accountability, these ideas remain ideas. Tie (realistic) DEI goals into individual/group performance indicators. What are the consequences of not delivering?

Women in Leadership

Often the person, or team asking you to do the things that are making you feel uncomfortable are mortified when they learn that their good intentions are falling short. They don’t get it, often because they haven’t lived it. To bridge the gap between intention and execution, a great starting point is to educate.

  • Leverage storytelling to feedback your perspective and experiences. You have your truth, they (your manager, HR team, CEO) have their truth, but neither are the real truth. The real truth will only be found by having a conversation about your concerns and connecting. You can also say no, explaining why you are declining the offer and addressing tokenism.
  • Use your influence. Never forget, you are a leader on this leadership team too! Do not underestimate your presence, ability or position. You hold some cards! Try not to focus on being the only women, but to leverage these opportunities to advocate for yourself and for others. For example, you can suggest a female colleague to join you, or to replace you for some events.
  • Become part of the solution. No, you’re not responsible for fixing such a complex challenge but you can lead by example and instigate the change you want to see. Embrace the role and use it as an opportunity to educate and bring others along on the journey. Empower the women around you, support them and share your knowledge. This is critical to eliminating token women syndrome.

Whilst the concept of ‘tokenism’ has a bad wrap, there is an opportunity here to create lasting change. On an individual level, embracing key opportunities presented to you will help progress your career, build your leadership brand across the business, and strengthen your influence, credibility and authority.

Every situation is nuanced. There is so much grey that will influence an appropriate course of action. Please note that I share these high-level thoughts, not as a blanket solution but to inspire reflection and action.


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