At this year's South by Southwest, I snuck into the back of a panel on bro culture called "Dude, Where's My Patriarchy?" On stage were four women on whom I have Twitter-crushed hard for a while: journalists Ana Marie Cox, Rachel Sklar and Jazmine Hughes, and communications powerhouse Tracy Sefl.
The entire debate was healthy and intelligent, yet one particular comment from Cox stayed with me. As is common in any discussion of gender, the panelists were talking about the latent role women can play in holding other women back.
Cox commented that many times in her career, she's been the only woman in a room full of men. She went on to explain how she has been conscious of the fact that she would, at times, feel threatened by another woman at the table, because the system is designed to make women feel like there is only room for one woman. And she admitted it can be hard to make room for others.
Cox's acknowledgment that it's tough for some women to make space for more women runs counter to the rising tide of interconnected sisterhood that seems to be having a banner year in 2016 (particularly in advertising, the industry that feeds me).
However, I do recognize the feeling that Cox is describing: a strange mixture of insecurity and defiance. The feeling of being a token woman.
Stages Full of Guys, and One Woman
The advertising industry has always been concerned with its own image—if you can't sell yourself, how can you sell your clients? In 2016, this is taking the form of myriad discussions around 'optics'—the name for a branch of physics that we've co-opted, in this image-driven age, as a helpful shorthand to describe the way things look, regardless of what they actually are. All-male optics, when so many of the clients are female, so many of the consumers are female, and so much of the talent is female, are not good, which means more last-minute scrambles to add women to the docket, which means more token women.
For more evidence of poor optics, and token women in the ad industry, one need look no further than the Tumblr Too Many Guys, One Girl. It's a barely curated collection of almost every successful team at every advertising awards show. The title says it all.
Advertising is an easy target, but far from the only culprit. If you're a woman working in tech, media, advertising, engineering or a startup, chances are at some point you've been the token woman. You've hopped in the car on the way to a client meeting, looked around, and realized there's only one of you. Or you've shown up to brief a team on a project and realized that every single one of them is a dude.
Being the token woman could be cause to complain. It's lonely, for starters. It can feel shitty not knowing if you're there because you're good, or because you're not male. And to Cox's point, it can be hard to tell whether you have the right to fight for more faces like yours at the table, or if you're it, and you should just take it and keep quiet.
However, there are also crazy advantages to being the token woman, even if you were added to make up the numbers. Being the token woman can be awesome. You're super visible. You get exposure to information and people you might not have had otherwise. You get to direct outcomes, and run projects and represent different ways of thinking. You get to shape your career, and the perceptions of the people who influence it, face-to-face.
These advantages are not only powerful—they're disappearing. It may be hopelessly naive to feel that the glacial barriers to gender equality are now melting at an extraordinary pace, yet … there is something going down, right? Pending total disaster, the U.S. is on the brink of electing the first female president; the gender pay gap is under discussion in Washington; influential employers are scrambling to make more space for female hires; and women now make up 45 percent of the labor force at Fortune 500 companies. We're a long way off from total equality, to be sure, but things are changing. The change is painfully slow, but real.
And one of the first casualties of this progress is likely to be the token woman.
If there are more women in the workplace, and in leadership, the chances of the all-male-plus-one team is lowered. As the stereotype disappears, so do the advantages that taking that seat can bring.
So, brilliantly and beautifully, we are the last generation of token women. Now's the time to use every tool at our disposal, every last advantage, to make space, to overcome the notion that there's only room for one of us, and to wave goodbye to the token woman once and for all.
A Manifesto for the Last Generation of Token Women
We are the last generation of token women, and we have a job to do.
We don't wait to be assigned a speaking role. Instead, we just speak, because we have something to say.
We take every meeting invite and every client dinner, save an extra chair, make an extra space, and fill it with a female colleague.
We grin like cats in corporate headshots, on the top row, above the fold.
We accept last-minute invitations to otherwise all-male conference panels, and make a point of turning up with interesting things to say.
We nod sagely when recruiters call us "gold dust," and take the bigger and better jobs. And then hire a bunch more women.
We mentor and elevate and thank and promote.
(When points need to be made, we will blast Beyoncé, and roll in packs.)
We are on the stage, collecting that award. Next year, there will be two of us.
Then, three. Then all.
When there are tons of us, there will be no more token women. Just women. And we will invite the dudes out for champagne and celebrate together.
We are the last generation of token women, and we will make space for all the rest.
Jess Greenwood (@JessGreenwood) is vice president, activation strategy and partnerships, at R/GA.