A Token for Your Thoughts? Perceptions of Tokenism Among Female Corrections Executives

AuthorKimberly Collica-Cox,Dorothy M. Schulz
Publication Date01 September 2020
Date01 September 2020
A Token for Your Thoughts?
Perceptions of Tokenism Among
Female Corrections Executives
Kimberly Collica-Cox
and Dorothy M. Schulz
The increasing number of women corrections executives indicates improvement in their oppor-
tunities for career advancement. This article examines the perceptions of women in corrections
supervisory and management ranks regarding their opportunities for continuing upward mobility,
whether they or their peers view them as tokens and whether those views may impact their
decisions to pursue promotion up to and including wardens or corrections administrators. Based on
surveys and interviews with members of the Association of Women Executives in Corrections, this
study found that most women felt promotional opportunities were equally available for men and
women. The women did not report feeling the isolation associated with tokenism, but they did
report feeling high levels of visibility. Despite facing aspects of tokenism, they were not deterred
from seeking advancement, and they noted that each subsequent promotion after the first one
presented fewer problems for them and for their organizations.
women corrections executives, promotion, tokenism, wardens, upward mobility
Presently, 18%of state corrections agencies are led by women (Collica-Cox & Schulz, 2018).
Almost 50 years after women walked through the gates of men’s prisons, there are a sufficient
number of women corrections executives to conduct a meaningful study on factors, such as
tokenism, that restrict, but do not preclude, their ability to achieve promotion (Collica-Cox &
Schulz, 2019b). Tokenism explains how numerical minorities in the workplace impact group
dynamics and negatively affect the token, in this case women, who are employed in a traditionally
male-dominated environment.
With the hiring of the initial prison matron in 1822, corrections became the first criminal justice
profession open to women (Belknap, 2007). Since their only interest was working with women in
sex-segregated facilities, men had no reason to feel threatened professionally by their presence
Criminal Justice and Security, Dyson College of Arts and Sciences, PACE University, New York, NY, USA
Law, Police Studies and Criminal Justice Administration, John Jay College of Criminal Justice (CUNY), New York, NY, USA
Corresponding Author:
Kimberly Collica-Cox, Criminal Justice and Security, Dyson College of Arts and Sciences, PACE University, 41 Park Row,
11th Floor/Room 1126, New York, NY 10038, USA.
Email: kcollicacox@pace.edu
Criminal Justice Review
2020, Vol. 45(3) 337-357
ª2020 Georgia State University
Article reuse guidelines:
DOI: 10.1177/0734016820902259
(Schulz, 1995). At that time, tokenism, a concept introduced by Kanter (1977), was not problematic
because there were few women who served in titled executive positions of sex-integrated facilities
prior to the 1970s. When Title VII of the Civil Rights Act opened more doors for women to work in
sex-integrated institutions with men (Maghan & McLeish-Blackwell, 1991), these new opportunities
presented women with different challenges including gender harassment, sexual harassment, and
overcoming the effects of token status (Martin, 1996).
Previous studies have examined the effects of tokenism on women in policing (e.g., Archbold
et al., 2010), but there is a paucity of research examining the effects of tokenism on women in
corrections. This neglected area warrants further examination. Prior research on this subject is based
largely on anecdotal evidence; hence, there is a need for empirical study (Collica-Cox & Schulz,
2019a). This study examines whether tokenism is perceived by women corrections executives as a
factor which impacts their ability to achieve promotion to the executive ranks. Based on surveys and
interviews with members of the Association of Women Executives in Corrections (AWEC), this
study found that most women felt promotional opportunities were as available to them as to men.
The women in this study did not report feeling the sense of isolation traditionally associated with
tokenism, although they did report that they were subject to high levels of visibility, this did not deter
them from seeking advancement. Study implications raise an important issue—despite facing ele-
ments of tokenism during the promotion process, the women indicated that each level of promotion
presented fewer negative problems, allowing them ultimately to advance to a more equal playing
field with their male peers.
Literature Review
Overcoming gender bias can be one of those challenges. Gender bias within the workplace can take
many forms including exclusion from work culture, gender harassment, or sexual harassment (Mar-
tin, 1996). It might also include being perceived as less effective than a male counterpart, or when
promoted, being perceived as a “token,” meaning the individual obtained the position because of her
sex, rather than for her skills, and because of the agency’s need to appear open to a broader range of
candidates than only men. Many of the studies pertaining to women criminal justice professionals
examine the promotional difficulties they experience in policing; these issues are not dissimilar from
those women looking to advance in most corrections departments (Collica-Cox & Schulz, 2019b).
However, there is a lack of specific research on women in corrections, tokenism, and its impact on
career advancement.
Kanter’s Tokenism
Tokenism research, based on Kanter’s (1977) study of women in the business setting, focused on
how being a minority (i.e., less than 15%of the workforce in a particular organization) contributed to
promotional barriers.
Skewed sex ratios in a workplace shape group dynamics and negatively affect the token (defined as the
few among many). Kanter described one of the effects of tokenism as higher visibility for the token
group; an exaggeration of the token’s differences from the larger group as appearing greater than it may
actually be, and that the token’s qualities are distorted to fit preexisting opinions of them (Collica-Cox &
Schulz, 2019b, pp. 91–92).
Simply put: When too few women are employed by an organization, they become too visible. This
heightened visibility creates increased performance pressures and leads to increased scrutiny,
338 Criminal Justice Review 45(3)

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