Tokenism: Equally unpopular in business and in Hollywood

Published: 19 July 2018

Can businesses learn from the criticism levelled at Ocean's 8?

Diverse teams help avoid slipping into groupthink and ultimately improve decision-making.

Ocean’s 8 has been a commercial success. The all-female remake of the successful franchise beat its box office expectations by some way. But, despite this, the film has still faced criticism. Replacing male actors from the original films with stars including Sandra Bullock, Cate Blanchett, Anne Hathaway and Helena Bonham Carter sounded like a recipe for success. But the film comes unstuck for much the same reasons we see when exploring gender diversity in senior business teams.

One of the key criticisms levelled at Ocean’s 8 was that putting a group of women into a film purely on the virtue of their gender is seen by many as tokenism. A key finding from this year’s Women in Business Report we developed with Grant Thornton  is that the percentage of businesses with at least one woman in the senior management team has increased. However, the percentage of women in senior teams overall has decreased.

As with the film, the ultimate question businesses should ask themselves is do we have the right senior team in place to work with each other to achieve the best possible outcomes for the business? This should be a diverse blend of different factors such as gender, education and sexuality. Diverse teams help avoid slipping into groupthink and ultimately improve decision-making. And more diverse boards tend to perform better. Separate research we completed with  Grant Thornton showed that, among listed companies in India, the UK and US, the opportunity cost for companies with male-only executive boards (in terms of lower returns on assets) is an enormous US$655 billion.

Critics have also attacked Ocean’s 8 for its lack of a female director; a female cast in effect managed by a male. The same criticism is often addressed at businesses which might have a high percentage of women at senior management level, but still don’t have a female CEO. There are currently more CEOs named David or Steve than there are female CEOs.  Female CEOs can be a strong role model for other women in a business and can inspire them to take on more senior roles.

Here’s an idea: Make the next Ocean’s film a combination of the best of the female heist team and the best of the male heist team, just like a senior business team should be.  In the end, the success of businesses (and Hollywood franchises) will not come about from simply parachuting women in to replace men. It requires a much bigger cultural shift in policies and practices, ensuring women have as much chance of being successful in business as men do. Ensuring equal opportunity is not just fair – it also makes good business sense.

Jennifer Evans





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