Moral licensing: The veil for tokenism in the workplace


I was introduced to the concept of moral licensing while listening to Malcom Gladwell’s podcast, “Revisionist History”. Gladwell is an extraordinary writer who studies history and human behaviour patterns and many may argue that he takes a psychological approach to history’s lessons.

Before we indulge in the lessons and application of my understanding, let’s get on the same page with key definitions.

Moral licensing is “evident when people allow themselves to do something bad (immoral) after doing something good (moral)”. On the other hand, tokenism is the “practice of making only a perfunctory or symbolic effort to do a particular thing, especially by recruiting a small number of people from under-represented groups in order to give the appearance of sexual or racial equality within a workforce”.

In our personal relationships, moral licensing can be presented in multiple ways, but one that stands out is gender-based violence, and in subtle ways when a friend or partner uses what you mentioned in confidence against you.

In business and in the political world, moral licensing presents itself in donations, discrimination, and cooperation that usually results in tokenism.

You may begin to see the relationship between moral licensing and tokenism. In blunt terms, the tokenism that presents itself in corporate South Africa is moral licensing for Black professionals, particularly Black professional women.

The sad reality is that doors are usually opened for a few “deserving” women and then the doors are immediately closed again. Inside those boardrooms, women are reduced, assumed to take notes, assumed to arrange lunch, assumed to be doing the running around and every tedious service that would be uncomfortable for a man to do.

The appointed “deserving” women often find themselves having to fight for a voice in management meetings and having to accept that their words will be better received and accepted when a man utters her ideas.

The “deserving” women would have to fight for what is essentially not a cost driver, but contributes to the productivity of the company – employee wellness. Her strengths and her ability to recognise or provide a different outlook will always be challenged and undermined because men have been building and running toxic workspaces for decades.

Her emotions that are usually used as ammunition and/or insults are also not compensated for because we are a society that does not value emotional labour and intelligent women are viewed as a threat to men’s egos.

In 2019, PricewaterhouseCoopers reported Maria Ramos as the only Chief Executive in the top 40 Johannesburg Stock Exchange (JSE) listed companies, however by the end of 2019 she had resigned from her position. In 2015, the JSE introduced requirements that were intended to promote gender diversity at board level. The requirements were effective from January 2017, however, the JSE listed companies have not made great progress in terms of representation of women at an executive level.

To some men in leadership, appointing women is a compliance measure, however this asserts moral licensing if women’s voices will be restrained. Appointments that week to address transformation should never take away from the experiences of women and other marginalized groups.

The challenge of women in the workplace being viewed as a compliance issue reinforces the need for strengthened BEE regulations that clearly articulate the measures required to ensure equality and fairness for women. The truth is, without some legality required, many companies would never feel obligated to even offer Black women a seat at the table.

The treatment that “deserving” women experience in corporate South Africa reduces these excellent women to tokens because their voices are often muted, ignored or weaponised against them.

Companies want to be viewed as progressive because senior positions have been made available to some women, but women’s narratives assert that they are treated as outsiders in many boardrooms, rendering the company’s actions as moral licensing.

Essentially, the act of moral licensing negates the good deed, and, in some cases, it cancels the moral action. The KPMG saga that happened last year is a sad example of the reality of tokenism and moral licensing. When KPMG’s credibility was on the line, an acting CEO was appointed. Yes, you guessed it right, the acting CEO was a Black woman. A young “deserving” Black woman was appointed, however actions that follow suggest that this was probably a public relations stunt. There is absolutely no doubt that the woman who was appointed is capable.

What makes the appointment uncomfortable is the timing and how merit was given as a response to a crisis. When the crisis subdued, a new CEO was appointed, and as you may have guessed, the current CEO is a man. A Black man.

Furthermore, moral licensing presented itself because although there was progression, the progress did not last or open a door for another Black woman.

The KPMG saga is just one example. There are many corporate spaces that have an influx of men in important meetings. There are many women who have been appointed for seemingly moral justification and to immorally silence the urgency of appointing black women in positions they have earned.

Though the term moral licensing has been coined during online activism, it does not take away from the experiences we could not define. From today, we will be able to callout actions that are demeaning and oppressive by their names.

Now you know that moral licensing is presented in pay cheques that guilt trip you for being less available for work after working hours, in maternity benefits that lure you to work before you have healed. You would have to do your homework and ask yourself, “Am I represented in important discussions that happen in this organisation? Does the current representation understand that my menstrual cycle impacts on my overall wellbeing and the level of my productivity?”

Representation is not limited to likeness or likeability. It is a business imperative in the quest to dismantle patriarchy in workspaces.

By Yolisa Mdiya.

Yolisa is an LLB graduate from the University of the Western Cape, a Master’s scholar in Development Studies: Economic Development & International Development. She is the Assistant National Programmes Manager at the National Education Collaboration.

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