Julia DiBenigno: Transcending Tokenism: How and When Token Women in Male-Dominated Occupations Can Challenge Gendered Work Norms


Wednesday, April 6, 2022, 4:00pm to 5:30pm


Zoom Link available upon registration

Economic Sociology Seminar presentation by Julia DiBenigno, Yale School of Management.

Zoom Link

Abstract: Scholarship on numerical minority “token” women in male-dominated occupations suggests they tend to conform to gendered work norms to win acceptance or risk rejection. These dynamics contribute to women’s underrepresentation in these occupations because the few women who ascend to leadership roles tend to perpetuate these norms that generally disadvantage women. How and when can token women challenge gendered work norms to improve conditions for themselves and other women? In this study, I analyze over 300 interviews and observational data from a multi-year qualitative field study of over 50 token women and their workgroups across a variety of male-dominated occupations at a U.S. public land management organization. I show how some women came to depersonalize their token experiences by reinterpreting past rejections at work (e.g., harassment, ostracism, being passed over for promotions, etc.) as a collective, gendered problem, and reconceiving of their conformity to gendered work norms as a moral issue affecting not only themselves but also other women in their occupations. The development of this sense of a “collective structural consciousness” occurred for women who had the opportunity to connect with other structurally equivalent token women about shared struggles at work (e.g., such as at conferences or trainings, or short-term assignments to work in more gender-balanced groups). I then suggest the relational affordances that provided protection for some token women to act upon this newfound consciousness to attempt to “change the game” by challenging gendered work norms while maintaining acceptance in their local workgroups. These relational affordances included having a male patron at work – either from a male supervisor or ally or from a romantic tie to a respected male colleague – which shielded these women from being penalized for challenging norms. Token women who had developed a sense of collective structural consciousness but lacked such relational affordances tended to self-isolate by job crafting their roles to be less interdependent with their male colleagues, and they instead challenged gendered work norms outside their local workgroups (e.g., in their broader organization or occupation). This study highlights the importance of looking beyond token women’s current structural situation of numeric and cultural disadvantage to consider how developing a collective structural consciousness and leveraging relational affordances may shape women’s responses to tokenism and their capacity to effectively challenge gendered work norms.