Our social identities are layered. They enable us to navigate the world, forming ‘in groups’ and creating ‘out groups’ in our social, personal and working lives. As multifaceted individuals, how do we hold being both the oppressor and the oppressed in varied aspects of our identities?
Lawyer and civil rights advocate Kimberlé Crenshaw coined the term ‘intersectionality’ to describe the experiences of Black women in the workplace, but it has since been used to describe those of marginalized groups at large. It gives language to the ways in which systems of inequality based on gender, race, neurodiversity, ethnicity, sexuality, gender identity, disability, class, and other forms of discrimination ‘intersect’ to create unique dynamics and affect the way we move through the world.
Examining our differences from the vantage point of intersectionality sheds light on how and why our differences enable some of us to access and hold power in the workplace, while others face more of a struggle. In the words of civil rights activist Audre Lorde: “There is no such thing as single-issue struggles because we do not lead single-issue lives.”
In the diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) conversation, we are never speaking of diversity as the sole means of creating a progressive workspace. Nonetheless, let us focus on diversity for a moment. An employee with multiple marginalized identities could give a company a false understanding of their diversity – this is why organizations must be conscious of the danger of duplication of diversity data. Intersectionality spotlights this information so it is clear that all of these identity strands can and do often exist in the same person. The misuse of this data can lead to tokenization.
A truly inclusive work culture is an equitable one where the different needs of employees are taken into consideration when it comes to fair treatment and opportunities. Equality is not the aim as identical treatment does not take into account the systemic imbalances that already place many employees from marginalized backgrounds at a disadvantage.
With regard to gender, there has been a big push for more women in the workplace and for those women to be in decision-making positions – but there is still a long way to go. At work, a Black woman may experience racism or anti-blackness as well as sexism, but this would be experienced differently from the way a white woman experiences sexism or a Black man experiences racism. Diversity and inclusion initiatives that aim to center on ‘all women’ often do not center the experiences of non-white women and, as a result, miss out on an opportunity to consider the multidimensional impact of race and gender on hiring practices and talent mobility. In one aspect of identity, an employee can hold privilege within a system of power – for example, being a heterosexual person in the workplace and reaping the benefits of heterosexism. However, if this person is also an ethnic minority, they are simultaneously disadvantaged by the power system of racism.
In 2021, Fortune 500 listed 41 women as CEOs of the top-performing organizations in the U.S. compared with 459 men. While this number is shockingly low, worse still is that, for the first time in its 67-year history, there were two Black women listed – and this was record-breaking.
Organizations are beginning to consider intersectionality. But it is critical that this drive is maintained, and policies and inclusive practices are put in place to demonstrate authentic commitment, both internally and externally.
One of the key challenges often faced by leaders who are attempting to render their organizations more inclusive is creating channels of communication in which employees can share and be heard in their experiences. Intentional listening spaces are a wonderful antidote to this by creating opportunities for employees to explore their intersectional identity at work. These can be supported by the employee resource groups and business resource groups that already exist within the organization, if they are already in place.
It is also important to have a culture within your organization that celebrates, and does not punish, difference. Encouraging assimilation can foster isolation among staff who feel they must repress their own cultures and identities. Acknowledging the diverse pool of talent within your organization, and celebrating each unique facet of it, cultivates an environment in which people feel like they can bring more of themselves into the workspace and feel more included within the workforce.
Talent acquisition teams have a responsibility to ensure they are removing bias from their processes. This can mean challenging themselves when using descriptors such as ‘cultural fit for the team’. Often, such non-measurable parameters mean that candidates are excluded because they do not fit in with the dominant culture.
Even though intersectionality means you can have privilege in one hand and be discriminated against in the other, there are many ways to leverage intersectionality in favor of inclusion and belonging. It is a long road to get to a truly equitable workforce, but centering employee needs and amplifying the voices of the marginalized is a great step forward.