Geek Feminism Wiki

Tokenism (also known as the Smurfette Principle) is the practice of including one or a few members of a minority in a group, without their having authority or power equal to that of the other group members. It functions to place a burden on an individual to represent all others like her. The suspicion of tokenism can undermine a woman in tech's authority or perceived right to hold her position.

In practice in geek communities this can take the form of inviting several men whose careers are well established to speak at a conference and, in order to appear gender-balanced, inviting one younger woman whose career is just beginning and who is deemed unlikely to assert herself, make demands, or complain. This type of power imbalance played out repeatedly contributes to community perceptions of tokenization.

Tokenization can also occur when one woman is asked to represent her gender in a field over and over. Rather than seeking out many qualified women, group or conference organizers tend to return to canonizing one or two women as the most famous or as especially expert.

Tokenization can be especially apparent when the lone person in a minority group is not only asked to speak for the group, but is consistently asked to speak *about being a member of that group*.

It is possible to accept a job, a position, or a speaking role at a conference in the knowledge that on some level tokenization is occurring or will be perceived to have occurred. The person in that role may be able to do some good and may be well qualified to do the job, however, the lack of authority and/or power, or undermining of authority, associated with tokenization may contribute to eventual Burnout.

Emma Jane Hogbin has defined the Unicorn Law as an example of tokenism: "If you are a woman in Open Source you will eventually give a talk about being a woman in Open Source." [1]


  • There is one woman keynote speaker for OSCON 2009, and she was asked to speak about Women in Open Source.

Advice on combating tokenism[]

  • When looking for women to present at Technical conferences, choose different ones, from a range of fields, to show a diversity of experience and opinion
  • Invite a group of women to present together at a technical conference. Get their input early in the cycle in planning and in forming topics.
  • Reach out individually to women too, but not only to women you personally know.
  • Provide opportunities for people to connect with each other before a conference, so they can see that they're not the only woman there.
  • When giving examples of women in a particular field, provide a list, not just the single easiest person you can think of
  • Don't expect women in geek cultures to speak for all women: each woman is an individual, and will have her own story
  • When creating fictional characters (for purposes ranging from writing a novel, to creating NPCs for a role-playing game, to inventing people for case studies in software manuals) don't just include a single female character, but show a range of them, with different interests and skills, preferably non-stereotypical; perhaps interacting with each other.

Further reading[]

"Tokenism refers to a policy or practice of limited inclusion of members of a minority group, usually creating a false appearance of inclusive practices, intentional or not."

A bad pun[]

"I think we should hand out little plastic gumball-machine rings, in pink, to people who have been tokenized, and use them to identify each other when we run into each other at confs. It would be a token ring network." -- Skud in IM to Liz Henry.