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What is intersectionality and why is it important in the workplace?

Find out what intersectionality means in the workplace, why it's important and four ways to embed intersectionality into diversity and inclusion at your organisation.

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Intersectionality has become a buzzword that is often thrown around in the context of diversity and inclusion conversations. However, what does intersectionality actually mean, and how does it apply to the workplace? Kimberlé Crenshaw, an American scholar in critical race theory, first introduced the term in 1989, and has since defined it as a lens “for seeing the way in which various forms of inequality often operate together and exacerbate each other”. This is essential to how we address issues of race, gender, sexuality, disability and class in the workplace, and provides a framework through which we can design initiatives to better cultivate equity and inclusion within organisations for all people. 

What do we mean by intersectionality?

Intersectionality is a lens through which we can understand an individual’s experience with the recognition that an individual’s experience is made up of various elements of their identity in conversation with one another. In a recent interview with Columbia Law School, Crenshaw speaks to the importance of using intersectionality to analyse problems faced by marginalised groups, explaining that intersectionality allows us to see “where power comes and collides, where it interlocks and intersects”. 

For example, we can use intersectionality to understand privilege, whereby a straight, white cis1-man’s experience is influenced by his race, gender and sexuality, which results in a significant amount of privilege distributed to him. We can also use intersectionality to understand where various inequalities interact. For example, a woman of colour will experience both racism and sexism due to the intersection of her race and gender. It is important to talk about inequality as a connected issue between race, gender, sexuality, disability and class in order to ensure that an individual’s complete experience with discrimination is addressed. 

Why is intersectionality important in the workplace?

In a 2017 study conducted by The Resolution Foundation, Black male graduates in the UK were shown to be paid 17% less than white men and 7% less than white women. In turn, Black women were paid 9% less than white women, a further 2% less than Black men. Here, we can start to see the tip of the iceberg when it comes to how race and gender interact in the workplace in the UK. 

As Diversity and Inclusion (D&I) agendas become more prevalent in organisations, it is important to ensure that intersectionality is built into how we think about D&I. Traditional D&I initiatives often split the race agenda from the gender agenda, potentially missing the interaction of race and gender as highlighted in the study above. This can sometimes result in certain racialised or gendered experiences being given priority over others, further marginalising those who are subject to intersecting identities. For example, antiracist initiatives can often be determined by the experience of straight, cis-men of colour, whereas the gender agenda can often be determined by the experience of straight, cis-white women.

When splitting these two agendas, organisations are forced to only look at part of the problem by design. By thinking of intersectionality as the basis to shape D&I agendas, we can paint a more complete picture of the inequalities felt by people within an organisation and better design initiatives to address these. 

Although the examples above discuss how race and gender interact, it is essential that we apply the same principle across other intersecting identities including sexuality, disability and class as well. Intersectionality can impact people’s barriers both to and within the workplace based on the interaction of an individual’s identity in various ways. For example, structural barriers to employment experienced by people with disabilities are compounded by the gender pay gap when considering women with a disability. Depictions of wage disparity, barriers to professional development and hiring discrimination are incomplete when intersectionality is not taken into account. 

How do you promote intersectionality in the workplace?

Intersectionality needs to be integrated into an organisation’s vision for D&I from the get-go in order to have a meaningful impact. Here are four ways to embed intersectionality into D&I:

1. Ensure intersectional diversity amongst senior leadership

Having a diverse senior leadership team from an intersectional perspective will solidify an organisation’s commitment to addressing discrimination faced by their workforce in a more holistic and inclusive way, as well as provide essential representation for other members of the team. Senior leadership can also play a strong role in ensuring intersectionality is a part of an organisation’s culture by setting the tone and providing buy-in to policies and initiatives that integrate intersectionality.

2. Educate the workforce on the importance

Encouraging learning and conversation around intersectionality will embed a greater understanding of people’s differences in an organisation’s culture, whilst also equipping the workforce more broadly with the language to address different forms of discrimination and design initiatives that promote inclusion.

3. Integrate into internal policies

Reporting standards often separate race, gender, sexuality, disability and class data, however, including reporting that discusses how these interact within an organisation’s workforce can inform decision making around pay gaps, recruitment practices, promotion cycles, flexible working policies, parental leave etc.

4. Consider when interacting with customers

Using intersectionality as a lens through which we conduct our work can improve how teams interact with each other, as well as how businesses serve their customers. For example, how does intersectionality impact the design of a CRM system from both a delivery team and end-customer perspective?

This is by no means an exhaustive list of how to implement intersectionality into an organisation, nor an exhaustive representation of what intersectionality means in practice. What is most important is that intersectionality is integrated into and considered at the beginning of decision making to account for the fact that the intersection of our various identities directly impacts how we experience, engage and interact in the workplace, as well as the world more broadly. The more we integrate intersectionality into our thinking, the more accurate the picture becomes of our people and our clients, allowing us to continue striving to deliver the best possible experiences to all. 

References

  1. The term “cis-gender” refers to people whose gender identity and expression corresponds with their sex assigned at birth.

Want more? 

READ: What is D and I and why is it important in organisations?

READ: Diversity is in the data: How collecting diversity data can support your D&I initiatives

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