Worried your speaking invitation is just tokenism? Here is what to do next!

Worried your speaking invitation is just tokenism? Here is what to do next!

A few years ago in my early postgraduate years, I was approached by a renowned organisation in Norway. They wanted me to speak at one of their biggest events. I was thrilled and did not even think twice before accepting the invitation. They flew me to the city where the event was held, provided me with accommodation, and during the panel discussion, I enjoyed the spotlight and indulged in those sixty minutes as a panellist where I shared my experiences and answered the moderator’s questions. Fast forward ten years, now that I developed more critical thinking skills and became aware of what tokenism is, I sometimes revisit that event and I can see clearly that the focus was so much on me being Amazigh (indigenous folk of North Africa), on linguistic minority issues in my country, as well as on my queer identity. I look back now, and when I see pictures of the panel on stage, I see myself as the only African person among other panellists that were all Scandinavians. While they were all invited to share their research expertise, I was strongly and repeatedly encouraged to enmesh my answers about environmentalism with my African – Amazigh – queer identities. I now know that I was probably used to fill a diversity checklist, instead of having been invited out of a genuine interest in my research and my activism for planetary justice.

As an early-career scientist or researcher, receiving a speaking invitation can be exhilarating. It signifies recognition of your work and provides an opportunity to share your insights with a broader audience. However, this excitement can be tempered by a lingering concern: is the invitation a genuine recognition of your expertise, or is it tokenism?

Tokenism, the practice of making a perfunctory gesture towards inclusion by including someone from an underrepresented group, can be disheartening and demotivating. In this blog, I want to help you identify potential tokenism. From navigating such invitations, to knowing when to accept and when to politely decline, it is important to learn how to ultimately monetise your knowledge effectively.

What is tokenism all about?

Tokenism occurs when organisations or events include individuals from underrepresented groups—such as women, LGBTQIA2S+ folk, gender non-conforming people, people of colour, or early-career professionals—more for the sake of appearance than for genuine engagement with their contributions. It’s important to distinguish between being valued for your work and being used as a symbol. While efforts to improve Equality, Diversity, and Inclusion (EDI) in academia should focus on increasing representation of early-career researchers from countries with limited research funding, as well as marginalised groups in well-funded countries, these initiatives sometimes only create the appearance of equity and inclusion rather than achieving genuine progress. Prejudice often restricts early career scientists from marginalised groups to less influential or non-decision-making roles, which leads to further obstruction to genuine and effective inclusivity.

How to identify potential tokenism?

To ensure that your contributions are genuinely valued, it is important to recognize the signs! Here are three of the main warning indicators that I myself experienced on multiple occasions:

  1. Lack of meaningful engagement: If the organisers show little genuine interest in your insights or fail to engage deeply with your work, it could indicate tokenism. Genuine invitations typically involve thorough discussions about your research and how it aligns with the event’s goals. So if someone only shows interest in who you are (or what potentially defines you as a member of a minoritised group), this can be a sign of tokenism.
  2.  Diversity quotas: Be cautious if you suspect that your invitation is primarily driven by a need to fulfill diversity quotas. While diversity is important, your inclusion should be based on the value of your expertise and contributions, not merely to meet a numerical target. For instance, April and May, the months leading up to Pride month, are the peak of such invitations in my experience as a non-binary, gay person of colour. So I am always careful not to accept invitations that want to use my name and my face to highlight the inviter’s  EDI progress.
  3. Lack of follow-through: If there is minimal or no follow-up after your initial engagement, especially right after you agree to participate in whatever the invitation entails. This may suggest that your presence is more symbolic than substantive. Authentic engagements usually involve ongoing communication and discussions, after your contribution, for potential future collaboration.


To determine if an invitation is tokenistic, your first step, before answering the invitation, should be researching the event and its organisers. Look into the event’s history to see if past speakers have been diverse and held meaningful roles. Secondly, I recommend you engage in a detailed dialogue with your point of contact. Ask specific questions about the event, your role, and how your contribution will be utilised. If you receive shallow or generic answers, this might be the sign! And last but not least, assess how well the invitation aligns with your expertise. The opportunity is more likely to be legitimate if the topic you are invited to speak on matches your research and expertise. An invitation based on your specific knowledge rather than as a representative of a group is a positive sign.

I suspect that an invitation I received is tokenistic and I am not interested, how can I politely decline?

Diplomatically declining the invitation without directly accusing the organizers of tokenism is a skill that you can easily develop. Start by expressing gratitude for the consideration, and focus on explaining your decision based on the alignment between your expertise and the event’s objectives. At the end of your response, leave the door open for future collaboration when your expertise may be a better fit! Just because one invite had a tokenistic intention, it doesn’t mean that the organisers cannot learn from your answer and reach out again with a more genuine offer.

I believe that the value of my contribution deserves financial compensation, but I am not sure how to ask for it…

Whether or not the invitation is rooted in tokenism, every speaking opportunity can be leveraged to compensate your time and monetise your knowledge effectively. Yet it can be quite daunting when you’re just starting to build your brand as a speaker: How much should you ask for? What if they decline? Is my contribution worthy of compensation? They’re covering accommodation and food, shouldn’t that be enough? etc. I have been there! And believe me, it gets easier the moment you define what matters the most to you in each speaking opportunity. I remember the first time I was offered payment to speak; I was surprised because I did not see myself as “established enough” to even deserve compensation. So when the host organiser sent me my first ever service contract, where my 45 minutes were valued at 650 euros, I was in disbelief! Not only did I have an epiphany that “Hey, what I have to offer is actually valuable and deserves remuneration!” but I also realised that not every opportunity will come with a ready to sign contract, and I need to learn how to ask for it, UNAPOLOGETICALLY.

One thing I truly appreciated once I joined EGU as the Media and Communications Officer is the union’s transparent policy on remuneration. The Union recognises and appreciates the time and expertise of commissioned bloggers and webinar speakers by offering compensation for their time. When approached by us on a specific topic, contributors will be offered payment of €100 for an individual blog post or webinar. If multiple people are involved, each receives €50, up to a maximum of three participants, including moderators (excluding staff moderators). EGU members receive their compensation in gift vouchers, while non-members are paid in cash. This shows EGU’s commitment to valuing and supporting the geosciences community by ensuring their efforts are rewarded appropriately.

I am not going to make it sound easy and say the magical self-confidence is built overnight. It takes time to build your brand and to actually believe what you are trying to sell: If you have doubts about yourself, how are you supposed to convince others, with certitude, that you should be compensated for your time?

What you offer as a scientist and researcher is specialised knowledge, and it should be your decision whether you want to offer it pro bono (since volunteering is an awesome way to democratize knowledge and create a strong network!), or whether you want remuneration for your time. If the latter is the case, here are some of tips to help you :

  • No one will value you better than how you value yourself: The way you present yourself, the way you build your personal brand, and the way you respond to others all matter.
  • Are you being approached by a corporate body, industry, or any entity that commercialises the event you are invited to take part in? Then think about whether you want your contribution to a revenue-generating event to be for free.
  • In your reply, you can either ask whether compensation is offered, or you can immediately name your fee as part of your answer. Trust me, in more cases than not, when someone truly values your expertise, they will pay for it!

Now, consider you are ready to ask for compensation but you don’t know how much you should ask for? The easiest way is to contact former speakers from a previous edition of the event and ask how much they were offered. Someone might feel comfortable sharing the number with you, and that will help you determine your fee. Other matters to also take in consideration are the type of presentation, audience size, travel requirements, talk duration, and preparation time. Keynote speeches can command higher fees, while panel participation typically requires less preparation. Factor in travel expenses and opportunity costs. Larger audiences may justify higher fees or discounts due to potential business benefits. Include the time spent preparing your talk, even if it’s a repeat.  You can ask for details by saying, “Thank you for inviting me to speak. Could you please provide more details on the type of presentation, audience size, and travel requirements? Are there promotional or networking opportunities that could benefit me? This information will help me provide an accurate quote.” Achieving this level of professionalism in handling speaking invitations will immediately give the impression that you know the worth of what you have to offer, and you are certainly not going to give it away for free.


Navigating tokenism can be challenging, but with the right strategies, you can ensure your contributions are genuinely valued and even monetise your expertise effectively. Remember, recognising tokenism is the first step towards addressing it, and you have the power to turn potentially tokenistic invitations into genuine opportunities to share your work and expertise.

If you find yourself facing a potential tokenistic situation, take the time to research, ask the right questions, and evaluate the true intentions behind the invitation. And when the opportunity arises, don’t hesitate to assert the worth of your contributions, whether through requesting appropriate compensation or aligning the engagement with your expertise.

Your journey as an early-career researcher is filled with potential. I encourage you to stand firm in your value and to seek genuine engagement and recognition. If you belong to a – or multiple- minoritised groups, try to engage with networks and communities that support under-represented groups, participate in professional development workshops, and always focus on authentic interactions in your professional journey.

So, the next time you receive an invitation, ask yourself: Are they inviting me for my expertise, or just to check a box? Your answer might just change the course of your career!


Thank you for reading my blog post! I hope it helped you shape your thoughts on how to navigate your next speaking invitation. I want to take a minute, as you, like many others, might have noticed that I used a progressive inclusive term of LGBTQIA2S+. It can be confusing, as the term keeps evolving and yes, many new letters are still being added, even now! One might even ask “isn’t that what the + sign is for”? My answer is simple: Because visibility matters, especially for historically marginalised folks. The “2S” addition not only acknowledges that other-than-binary genders have long existed before many countries were colonised and forced into adopting a binary view of gender and sexuality, but it also inspires many people to actually search for the term and learn more about the diversity of gender globally. Humans are constantly evolving and so are our languages, and language is a powerful tool that shapes our perception of the world and influences our interactions with others. By being mindful of the impact our language choices can have, not only are we progressing with our thought-processes, but also expanding our worldviews and undergoing an unlearning process of taught biases, stigmas, and misrepresentations.


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Asmae Ourkiya (They/Them) is the Media and Communications Officer at EGU. They manage press releases, coordinate press participation and the press centre at the EGU General Assembly, and write and manage the EGU blogs. Asmae holds a Ph.D. in queer intersectional ecofeminism from MIC, University of Limerick in Ireland. Their research revolves around climate justice, and promotes inclusion and equality in climate governance.

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