Intersectionality in the Workplace isn't a 'Nice to Have' — it's Essential

Intersectionality in the Workplace isn't a 'Nice to Have' — it's Essential

If 2020 proved anything, it’s that the fight for greater diversity, equity, and inclusion (DE&I) isn’t slowing down — even during a global pandemic. What was once left to politicians and activists is now front and centre for corporations, big and small. Intersectionality in the workplace represents an essential part of that push forward.   

In all workplaces, diversity, equity, and inclusion should be a continuous core priority. Taking an intersectional approach to DE&I ensures that such efforts aren’t tokenistic, promoting a culture of mutual responsibility. Regardless of your background, everyone can be an ally under intersectionality.  

As ever, the best foundation for your approach to intersectionality is an informed one. With that in mind, before we look at how to promote intersectionality in the workplace, we need to understand what it is.

What is intersectionality?

Like much of the terminology used when defining diversity, equity, and inclusion, intersectionality has a grounding in the real world: namely, intersections — the point at which multiple different roads or paths meet.

However, in the context of diversity, equity, and inclusion, it’s defined as the recognition that social categories — race, class, genders — are interconnected, and that the discrimination an individual faces is often compounded as a result. 

Put simply, we are all our own intersections. We are all more than any one social category, more than one simplistic archetype. Recognising the resultant room for overlap in marginalised individuals and groups is integral to any comprehensive push against workplace prejudice. 

The term was first coined in 1989 by Professor Kimberlé Crenshaw in a paper titled ’Demarginalizing the Intersection of Race and Sex’. Discussing the erasure of Black women from conversations on both race and gender, Crenshaw lays out the problem at the heart of intersectionality: 

If any real efforts are to be made to free Black people of the constraints and conditions that characterize racial subordination, then theories and strategies purporting to reflect the Black community’s needs must include an analysis of sexism and patriarchy.

Kimberlé Crenshaw

In 2015 the sociological definition of intersectionality was added to the Oxford Dictionary — a clear validation of its wider importance. But beyond understanding the basis of such a theoretical approach to DE&I, companies have to comprehend that intersectionality is important for all business considerations. 

Why is intersectionality important?

Even the most well-intentioned policy on diversity, equity, or inclusion can fail if not built with intersectionality in mind. Initiatives and policies dictated by the visibility of any one given issue risk reducing complex people down to one trait. 

If you are a Black, neurodiverse, transgender woman, you do not exist in the world as those things separately, but workplaces often forget that. While creating inclusive workplaces means acknowledging race, gender, and any other number of socio-ecological factors, we can’t consider any of these categories in a vacuum. 

The way a Black homosexual man experiences discrimination differs entirely to a white homosexual woman. To define them both by their homosexuality, and treat them as a homogeneous group, is to further the breadth of the discrimination they face individually. 

Intersectionality is essentially a call for nuance, a call to listen to a person’s own experiences, and a call to recognise that generalisations are as potentially damaging as no action at all. True inclusion means providing a platform for every voice to be heard. 

Cultural patterns of oppression are not only interrelated but are bound together and influenced by the intersectional systems of society.

Kimberlé Crenshaw

3 methods to promote intersectionality in the workplace

If intersectionality means considering the full range of each person’s experience, and not reducing anyone down to one simplistic demographic, then how does that work in the workplace?

There’s far from one answer, so instead we’ve created three key perspectives to consider, with examples to outline the potential pitfalls. By pushing yourself and your business to emphasise intersectionality, you’ll deliver a diversity, equity & inclusion strategy that’s both robust and sincere.

1. Don’t limit the scope of intersectionality

While it may feel inclusive to outline “women-first” campaigns, there’s an inherent risk to narrowing the field in that manner. The first step towards intersectionality is to avoid creating a narrow remit for your diversity, equity, and inclusion initiatives — even if they’re focused on one demographic.

When a company states that they’re prioritising ‘X’ group, they inevitably actually draw a circle around them, leaving any underrepresented group outside feeling less heard than ever. In fact, even those in the circle can feel misheard; attributed to one targeted demographic that may or may not resonate with their own self-perception. 

Ultimately, for diversity, equity, and inclusion strategies to work, defined focuses are needed. But these focuses should be approached with an intersectional lens. That way, individual problems can be highlighted and tackled, without creating an environment that’s exclusionary.

The problem: A company has recognised a disparity in the wages of their male and female employees, and have begun an inquiry into addressing this gender pay gap. However, in doing so they’ve failed to notice a further disparity between white female employees and Black female employees. 

This problem is far from theoretical. The campaign Equal Pay Days shows that while the average American woman earns $0.82 for every $1 earned by the average man — a stark disparity nonetheless — that figure shifts to $0.63 for Black women, $0.60 for Native American women, and $0.55 for Latina women. 

The solution: Don’t define through opposition. Fighting for equality on one front doesn’t mean ignoring others — intersectionality is a matter of understanding the tiered nature of privilege, and the vast variance of discrimination. In this instance, there’s a clear need to tackle wage disparity, but rather than only analysing the gender divide, consider where further focus may be needed. 

This single-axis framework erases Black women in the conceptualization, identification and remediation of race and sex discrimination by limiting inquiry to the experiences of otherwise-privileged members of the group.

Kimberlé Crenshaw

2. Create intersectional spaces for discussion

The beauty of an embrace of intersectionality is that, when done correctly, it gives a platform to everyone regardless of background. Intersectionality was a direct response to the occlusion of Black women, particularly in conversations surrounding feminism. By creating intersectional spaces, you ensure these conversations involve the right people. 

By its nature, embracing diversity, equity and inclusion involves promoting those voices that typically go unheard. If you want to get a true sense of the issues facing minority groups within your business, who better to consult than the groups themselves?

The problem: While technically diverse, a business has been suffering from negative employee survey responses surrounding diversity, equity, and inclusion. These responses are predominantly coming from employees from minority backgrounds. 

Analysis of the current situation shows that most of the initiatives designed to develop and encourage DE&I are constructed with a heavy top-down approach. As such, feedback from employees indicates a poor sense of belonging, and a lack of inclusivity.

The solution: Give your people the chance to speak. The idea here is simple, but the execution requires a sustained effort. In-person solutions can involve meetings dedicated to DE&I and workshops that disseminate intersectional practices. If you’re working in a digital or hybrid workspace, create regular windows for healthy discourse, whether those are communal Zoom meetings, or clear office hours for one-on-one discussions.

For some problems, however, directly speaking out can feel impossible. That’s where the benefit of a confidential feedback platform reaps dividends for intersectionality. Being heard isn’t limited to public-facing dialogues — it also means having the opportunity to voice your thoughts in a space which embeds psychological safety by default. 

3. Give distinct voices a seat at the table

Hitting diversity quotas is a bad reason to promote diverse voices from within the company. If you want to create a truly intersectional workforce, you have to consider who is involved in the decision-making process, and whether or not they’re appropriately supported in their role.

Tokenistic representation leads to situations where a member of a minority group becomes what Minda Hart refers to as “The Only”. Whether they’re “The Only” woman in the C-suite, or the “The Only” person of colour in a management position, not only have they been minimised, they’re also pressured to speak for their entire demographic; a demographic they can never, and should never have to represent the entirety of. 

The problem: In an attempt to recognise the high proportion of white male C-suite members, a business has recently promoted a Black woman to CFO. However, she still finds it difficult to be heard amongst the rest of the leadership team, and isn’t afforded the same degree of agency in her decision making processes. 

More than that, she’s expected to speak on any and all issues relating to her background, ethnicity, and gender — forcing her to become a spokesperson well beyond the remit of her job role. Juggling her actual role as CFO and her unspoken position as the face of company diversity is a recipe for employee burnout.

The solution: Without an ally to reinforce their opinions and perspectives, and without an intersectional understanding of their working experience, people of minority backgrounds will never flourish within your business. In fact, women who perceive themselves as “The Only” one of their demographic are 26% more likely to leave their job than other women.

A study by McKinsey found that for every 100 men promoted to managerial positions in 2020, only 85 women were promoted. This gap was even larger for some women: only 58 Black women and 71 Latinas were promoted in the same time period. To truly give everyone a seat at the table, these figures have to change. 

Placing those who currently are marginalized in the center is the most effective way to resist efforts to compartmentalize experiences and undermine potential collective action.

Kimberlé Crenshaw

Promoting intersectionality by listening

There’s a common thread to all three of these problems, and a common solution: listening. 

Too often listening has been rendered inane; a way of feigning engagement with staff without actually taking action. But the path to intersectionality requires real, sustained listening to those employees that don’t feel heard. 

Listening isn’t just the act of hearing. Instead, it involves processing that information, turning it into insights, and acting on them. Using an intersectional lens to view these insights is essential. 

At Peakon, our approach to intersectionality is built into the heart of our employee engagement platform, ensuring that people at every level of a business can voice their opinions, and be seen as the multifaceted people they are. If we want to ensure employees feel they belong at work, then instituting such processes is integral.