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Tokenism and Promotion



Author(s) Michael Pritchard
Authoring Institution Center for the Study of Ethics in Society at Western Michigan University
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Contributor(s) Michael Pritchard
Notes Case study originally published in “Teaching Engineering Ethics: A Case Study Approach” by Michael Pritchard. Center for the Study of Ethics in Society, Western Michigan University, 1992.
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Authoring Institution (obsolete) Center for the Study of Ethics in Society, Western Michigan University
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Year 1992
Publisher National Academy of Engineering, Online Ethics Center
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  • Posted 12 years and 9 months ago

    Judy Hanson and Catherine Morris work in different areas at
    Darnell; so it may be that Judy doesn't recognize Catherine's
    leadership qualities and organizational skills as well as those
    who are considering her for the promotion. As a social friend,
    Judy may have seen a different side of Catherine's personality
    and, as a result, not seen the side that displays the
    qualifications for a Chief Engineer. Sometimes one doesn't
    recognize qualities in a good friend that one would see in
    people that one didn't know as well. "Familiarity breeds
    comtempt" goes the proverb. When someone that you know well
    does something extraordinary, it can come as a surprise.

    It is also possible that Judy shares the same prejudice
    against women in leadership positions that many men in the
    company apparently have and that pervade the general culture.
    Unconsciously, she may also be jealous of Catherine for being
    the first woman to be promoted to that high a level in the
    company. Judy should certainly do some soul-searching before
    she does anything except provide support, encouragement, and

    How would Judy feel if she were the one who was being
    considered for promotion, and Catherine had serious doubts
    about Judy's being the one for the job? Would she like it if
    Catherine expressed those feelings to others in the company,
    thus working against her promotion? Would she like it if
    Catherine even expressed those doubts to Judy, which would not
    increase her self-confidence at a critical time. With friends
    like that, who would need enemies?

    If Judy's friend Tom were being considered for the position,
    would Judy even think of doing anything in regard to his
    promotion in a different area of the company, even if she felt
    that he didn't have the strong leadership qualities or the
    organizational skills needed. She would have hoped him the
    best. So she will hope Catherine the best.

    After all, what is going to happen if Catherine doesn't do
    well in the job? Will it really take its toll on other women at
    Darnell, or will it have broken the ice for women's promotions
    with the result that women be considered for other promotions.
    Once there is a woman in a senior position, the company may
    feel that it has to promote another to compensate, in case
    Catherine is demoted. And Catherine may rise to the occasion
    and do well. Judy should certainly do nothing to prevent her
    from having the chance.

    Suppose, however, that Judy believes that Catherine's
    promotion is a deliberate effort to discredit Affirmative
    Action. She believes that management is deliberately putting a
    woman in a position over her head in order to counteract the
    pressure from the women in the company that some of them be
    promoted to senior positions. Management wants Catherine to
    fail in order to quiet the women's criticism. What then? Should
    Judy try to organize a women's caucus to come up with a unified
    reaction to the promotion?

    Suppose, further, that the women in Quality Control, which
    is Catherine's department, do not think that Catherine is
    qualified and they think that another woman in the department
    is the person for the job? They come to Judy and ask her to
    help them persuade Catherine to turn down the promotion in
    favor of the other woman. Should Judy agree?

    If Judy overhears male engineers remarking that Catherine
    will never be able to handle the job and that this will show
    how foolish, and potentially harmful, affirmative action is,
    the easiest thing to do would be to pretend that she hasn't
    heard. But the men are engaged in politically significant
    conversation, and, if Judy believes in Affirmative Action, she
    would be negligent if there is anything she can say which would
    help to rebut the conclusion to which the men are coming. Even
    if she doesn't believe that Catherine's promotion is wise, and
    even if she does believe that it will be taken as evidence that
    women don't make good leaders, she might be able to think of
    something appropriate to say to the men to defend Affirmative

    Whether to say something to the men might depend upon the
    atmosphere in the company. If Affirmative Action is official
    policy, genuinely supported by upper management, or it is at
    least generally given lip service, and the men would be
    embarrassed by having been overheard in such a conversation,
    she might make a point of letting them know that she had heard.
    If, on the other hand, women were admitted into positions very
    grudgingly and with a lot of hostility, she might simply be
    making life difficult for herself without helping any.

    Whether to say anything might also depend upon Judy's
    personality. If she is the sort of person who can make a
    sarcastic remark, which will make people think twice but not
    really angry, she might say, "Every male who's been promoted
    has been able to handle the job; so all we have to do is
    promote a male--is that right?"

    Tom Evans, overhearing the conversation, might be able to
    join it in a serious way more easily than Judy. The fact that
    he overheard it would probably not put the men on the
    defensive. He could point out that whether she could handle it
    or not remained to be seen. It's a difficult job and lots of
    men in the department or company are not as good candidates as
    she. Give her a chance or find someone better qualified, but
    judge her by her abilities, not by her gender.

    If they overhear the conversation together, they might each
    make the kind of remarks indicated.

    The above are assuming that Judy and Tom both favor
    Affirmative Action. Judy and Tom may not agree or may not know
    that they agree. These situations have to be played out in the
    specific context. Here, as often in ethics, there may be no
    general rules that apply. Judy and Tom may simply have to do
    what seems most appropriate, given a sensitivity to the effects
    of what they might do or say.

  • Posted 12 years and 9 months ago

    The "glass ceiling" is a common phenomenon in organizations
    today. In many organizations, there are significant numbers of
    women at the lower managerial levels, but few women at the more
    senior managerial levels. There are even fewer women at the
    most senior managerial levels and on boards of directors.
    Darnell, Inc. may have a strong commitment to affirmative
    action, but the glass ceiling is firmly in place. There are
    some signs that this situation may be changing, however.

    Catherine Morris is in line for a promotion at Darnell. Her
    coworker, Judy Hanson, does not believe she can handle the
    promotion. Judy fears that Catherine's failure might set back
    the cause of promotion for women. In other words, if the first
    woman manager fails, then women will never be promoted again.
    Judy is making several assumptions in this case. Let's examine
    them one at a time.

    First, Judy has assumed that Catherine is incompetent as a
    manager. We do not know what evidence she has for this
    decision. She knows Catherine "rather well," but she works in a
    different area of the company. It is her opinion that Catherine
    does not have "strong leadership qualities or the kinds of
    organizational skills that will be needed." Somehow, though,
    Catherine has become a leading candidate for promotion. Perhaps
    someone else in the company has recognized qualities in
    Catherine that Judy does not see. Perhaps someone in authority
    has decided that Catherine has the ability to become an
    effective leader if given the chance. Judy's opinion may not be
    the best one to consider in this situation. Nevertheless, Judy
    may be right. Catherine may not be a very good leader.

    The second assumption Judy is making in this case is that if
    Catherine fails no other woman will ever get promoted. This is
    a common perception of organizational tokens (people who are in
    the minority in their jobs--like female engineers or male
    nurses). The organizational token is taken to stand for
    everyone who is like them. People assume that the token's
    behavior is an indication of how all people who are like the
    token behave. This is an unfair judgment. Catherine is
    Catherine. She is not all women. If she fails, she fails as
    herself, not as a representative of all women who ever worked
    for Darnell. Judy should not promote this view. She should be
    working to get others to see Catherine for herself, not as a
    symbol of all women who aspire to higher management positions
    at Darnell. She has an excellent opportunity to express this
    view when she overhears the engineers express doubts about
    Catherine. Without downgrading Catherine, she could make it
    clear that Catherine's success or failure is her own and not a
    reflection of the competencies of all women at Darnell.

    The final assumption that Judy makes is that Catherine will
    not have any support in her new position. Catherine is seen as
    the woman who has to make it on her own. Perhaps she will find
    a mentor to help her through difficult times. Perhaps other
    workers will help her develop her leadership abilities. Perhaps
    there are training seminars that she will be able to attend to
    develop any management skills she may lack. If Darnell is truly
    committed to affirmative action, they must help employees
    develop the skills they need to succeed in their new

    Although this case may appear to be about the ethical
    responsibility of one employee to support another employee, it
    is really about an organization's ethical responsibility to
    support the employees it chooses to promote. Darnell will not
    have an ethical affirmative action policy if it merely promotes
    women or any other group of people without providing the
    support they need to do their new jobs effectively.

  • Posted 12 years and 9 months ago

    If Judy's assessment of Catherine's prospects as Chief
    Engineer in Quality Control are correct, the long-range
    consequences of Catherine's not getting the job are probably
    better than the long-range consequences of Catherine's getting
    the job. If she fails and has to be removed, her promotion will
    not increase the number of women in senior management. In
    addition, her failure will reduce the chances of other women
    being promoted to senior positions in the future.

    This still leaves open the question of what Judy should do.
    Presumably she is not directly involved in the promotion
    decision, and she may not even be asked for her opinion about
    the promotion. Thus she will have to go out of her way to make
    any effort to affect the decision process. What obligation does
    she have to do this?

    Generally speaking, our obligation to prevent an unfortunate
    consequence (especially where it does not involve the loss of
    life) is weaker than our obligation not to directly participate
    in wrongdoing. Our obligation to do what we can to prevent
    environmental damage in the rain forests of Brazil is not as
    strong as our obligation not to engage directly in
    environmental pollution ourselves. On the other hand, we do
    have some obligation to try to prevent unfortunate consequences
    when we are in a position to do so, especially if there is
    relatively little cost to ourselves. In this case, the primary
    cost could be the damage to the friendship between Judy and
    Catherine. If suggestions to those in a position to make the
    decision about Catherine's promotion could be made discretely,
    this might be avoided. But Judy would still have to wrestle
    with the fact that she has undermined Catherine's chances for
    promotion without her knowledge. This knowledge would almost
    inevitably limit Judy's ability to relate to Catherine in an
    open and honest way, even if Catherine never knows the reason
    for the difference in Judy's relation to her.

    Judy might decide to simply tell Catherine that she has
    suggested that Catherine is not the person for the promotion at
    this time. This would probably damage the relationship in the
    short run, but it might provide the basis of a stronger and
    more honest relationship in the future. This option would have
    the advantage of satisfying more moral demands: it would
    prevent potentially serious damage to the cause of gender
    equality at Darnell and it would preserve a healthy, honest
    friendship between Catherine and Judy.

    An honest and informed commitment to the cause of gender
    equality might require that both Judy and Tom express their
    partial agreement with the male engineers who believe that
    Catherine is not qualified for the promotion. They could say
    that, even though they support gender equality, they agree that
    Catherine is not the right person for the promotion. Catherine
    would probably eventually hear about this conversation. But if
    Judy and Tom told Catherine of their position, this would not
    be a problem.

  • Posted 12 years and 9 months ago

    Darnell, Inc. claims to have a strong commitment to
    affirmative action, and now it appears that a woman, Catherine,
    is about to get a promotion. Judy has reservations about
    Catherine's ability to do the job. If Darnell really has the
    strong commitment to affirmative action it claims to have, Judy
    should have no problem expressing her reservations to an
    appropriate superior. A strong commitment means that women who
    can do the job are the ones who will get promoted, and not
    'pretty faces' who will eventually fail. Therefore Judy's
    problem is how to go about making her reservations about
    Catherine effective.

    She might consider these strategies. 1. Talk to Catherine
    herself and ask her to withdraw her candidacy for the reasons
    given. Perhaps she risks losing her friend. On the other hand,
    maybe Catherine has her own doubts about her ability to fill
    the position she's in line for. Judy's frank discussion might
    help her do the job better if she gets it; or maybe Catherine
    will be able to put Judy's fears at rest. 2. Talk to other
    women in the company, first to see if they also have
    reservations about Catherine's impending promotion; and second,
    if they do, to organize opposition and make it known to the
    appropriate superior. All the women at Darnell have a stake in
    this promotion, evidently. If the other women don't share
    Judy's fears, maybe she should drop it (she could be wrong
    about Catherine); if they're afraid to act on their fears, Judy
    might reconsider whether 'affirmative action' is worth fighting

    Under situation (b), Judy hears male engineers deriding
    women. The remark she overhears from the male engineers could
    indicate that Darnell's commitment to AA is more verbal than
    real. Judy should try to determine this by discussing what may
    be prevalent male opinion, with higher management, and seeing
    what they say. If the promotion of Catherine turns out to be a
    set-up, designed to discredit the affirmative action program,
    then Judy will have a real problem on her hands.

    It might be a god idea for Judy to talk to some other male
    engineer whom she trusts, maybe Tom Evans. Tom may very well
    know more about the attitudes of the male engineers, and of the
    company officials, than Judy does. If she trusts him, he might
    be a good person to talk this problem over with before she does
    anything. She may get a better perspective on the real
    attitudes of people at Darnell, and advice from an experienced

    In (c), Tom Evans rather than Judy hears the male engineers
    talking. Should he do something? It depends. If someone such as
    Judy asks him if he knows anything helpful, perhaps he might.
    But obviously he isn't gong to come running to Judy--"Guess
    what I heard"--unless he has reason to know that the Catherine
    promotion is bothering her. Should he do anything else? This
    depends on how he feels about affirmative action. He might make
    it his business to talk to the engineers at some point and try
    to correct their negative attitude; or if he feels strongly
    enough, he might talk to management about their (management's)
    problem. He takes a certain risk obviously but if he does this
    tactfully he might come out ahead.

    In (d), there are no special problems since both hear the
    conversation together. If Judy trusts Tom she can rely on him
    for advice and support.

  • Posted 12 years and 9 months ago

    Though this has the potential to be a significant case, in
    its specific questions it is a very straightforward. It is
    presented in the general context of the issue of affirmative
    action, yet the specific questions asked hardly admit of
    morally interesting answers. What should Judy Hanson do if she
    hears of an impending promotion of someone, whether male or
    female, friend or stranger, in another division of Darnell? The
    obvious answer is -- nothing. If Judy has no administrative
    responsibility for the decision, and also lacks full knowledge
    of all the factors that went into the decision, she has no
    business interfering with it in any way. Even as a personal
    friend of candidate Catherine Morris, she should do no more
    than wish her well in her new position. For it would be
    insulting and morally demeaning to Catherine for Judy to try to
    use her case as a means to some affirmative action end at

    As to Judy or Tom 'overhearing' talk about Catherine's
    promotion, here too she/they should do nothing. Unless what
    they overhear is so illegal or immoral that even hearing it
    imposes obligations to interfere or reveal the matter to
    others, they should respect the privacy of those whose
    conversations they overhear. Office gossips and busybodies are
    likely to cause much more moral damage in the workplace than
    would the kinds of personal expressions of prejudice against
    affirmative action likely to be overheard.

    If, on the other hand, Judy or Tom are themselves taking
    part in the conversation (so that they 'hear' rather than
    'overhear'), then of course they should feel free to honestly
    express their own views on the topic, whatever those views

    Now let us read between the lines of this case and draw out
    an implied, substantive issue for those who care about the
    advancement of women in society. In the battle for equality for
    women, is it morally required that everything be done to
    maximize the gains and minimize the losses for every aspect of
    the battle, including minor skirmishes? For example, must an
    individual such as Catharine be prevented from taking a job, if
    she might perform poorly and hence make women look bad in a
    particular case?

    First, one should not do anything substantially illegal or
    immoral to advance women. The worthy goals of justice and equal
    rights for all does not permit achieving some at the expense of
    others. So behavior such as faking Catherine's performance
    records or other political manipulations at Darnell is
    unacceptable. Also, as already suggested, even an attempt by
    Judy to persuade Catherine to withdraw is morally suspect on
    several grounds. Judy would be in great danger of betraying her
    friend, and doing so in the process of using her as a pawn in a
    civil rights skirmish.

    Second, we must never forget that affirmative action
    policies are only a means to the end of promoting equal rights
    for people. The moral goal of equality of opportunity for all
    is widely accepted, but policies of achieving this for women by
    preferential hiring or promotion are much more controversial.
    Even supporters of affirmative action policies would have to
    agree that preferential treatment of one group over another is
    morally questionable. (In their view it is a necessary evil in
    order to achieve changes which will make full equality possible
    some day.)

    The practical effect of this second point is that morally
    the only firm ground available centers round issues of equality
    of opportunity. Any other issues are questionable or
    peripheral, and should be ignored in any conflict with the
    central issues. In the present case this means that since
    Catherine is undeniably being given an opportunity to succeed
    (through her promotion), then the central civil rights issue
    has been settled. Other issues, such as that she may fail and
    make women or affirmative action look bad, must be ignored
    because (if acted upon to prevent her promotion) they would
    conflict with her right to have that opportunity.

    Another way to look at equal opportunity is as a right to
    succeed or fail. Those who would for whatever reasons deprive
    Catherine of her right to fail are no friends to civil rights
    for women.

Cite this page: "Tokenism and Promotion" Online Ethics Center for Engineering 6/15/1992 OEC Accessed: Friday, May 24, 2019 <>