Many organisations have made good progress in improving the diversity of their workforce in recent years. But could understanding and embracing intersectionality help them improve the experience of all employees?

Diversity is not a linear issue. As companies seek to be representative of the communities they operate in and that make up their workforce, many still consider their diversity efforts in distinct, singular characteristics. For example, gender, race, ethnicity, sexuality and disability. But the reality is that any number of these categories overlap and intersect.

What is intersectionality?

In 1989, legal scholar Kimberlé Crenshaw wrote a paper coining the term ‘intersectionality’, as a way to explain the oppression of African-American women. The term has been used ever since and, in 2021, it still has as much relevance as it did in 1989. Crenshaw describes intersectionality as “a lens through which you can see where power comes and collides, where it interlocks and intersects. It’s not simply that there’s a race problem here, a gender problem, and a class or LGBTQ problem there”.

Adwoa Bagalini, Engagement, Diversity and Inclusion Lead at the World Economic Forum (WEF), explains why intersectionality is just as important now as it was in 1989. In an article for the WEF, she says that diversity and inclusion programmes that do not take intersectionality into account risk overlooking the experiences of those who are marginalised. For example, “while white women will reach gender parity with men in the States in 2059, the data shows that for Black women this date is 2130, and 2224 for Hispanic women.”

Lauren Baker, COO at Skillsize, a talent intelligence platform, describes intersectionality as “the overlapping of identities such as race, gender and sexuality and recognising the differences both between and within them, as well as the overall effect this can have on an individual’s experiences”.


Why is intersectionality important for organisations?

A 2019 report by Culture Amp, titled Workplace Diversity, Inclusion, and Intersectionality, gives an example of how intersectionality could present itself at work. “Intersectionality considers different systems of oppression, and specifically how they overlap and are compounded to shape the employee experience. For example, within gender, a 31-year-old white woman with no children will likely have a very different experience to a 42-year-old Black woman with two children. Intersectionality means we view the whole person, not their characteristics separately.” 

Baker says that intersectionality is hugely important to businesses, “to not only promote diversity within their organisation but understand how different people are affected and take the necessary action to mitigate negative outcomes”.

So, why is intersectionality such a key issue for businesses to be aware of? “It’s a blind spot that’s easy for many organisations to miss, even as they strive to foster more inclusive work environments,” Bagalini explains. “All stages of the employee journey may be impacted by intersectionality, from recruitment to onboarding, performance reviews and promotions to turnover rates. Who is leaving and why? Who is being referred to the organisation by friends or colleagues? If employees sense that they are not welcome and cannot bring their full selves to work, then they will likely find it difficult to advance, will not refer the company to others in their network, and will probably leave sooner than others.”

Antonio Macías, HR Manager for the Iberia region at Edwards Lifesciences, a medical technology company, adds that “after a difficult 2020 and with an uncertain 2021 ahead, diversity in the workplace has become crucial”. He adds that the pandemic revealed even more clearly the different experiences individuals are facing: “We need to embrace and welcome these differences to continue building stronger businesses that can overcome the times we are living in.”


Six ways organisations can improve on intersectionality

So, while it is clear that it’s important for organisations to recognise and understand intersectionality, what can they do to improve in this area? Here are six steps to take.

1. Recognise individual identities

Companies should seek to develop a better understanding of intersectionality and recognise an individual’s multiple identities that may overlap. Awareness is key here, but as Bagalini explains, the willingness to acknowledge the ‘blind spot’ also needs to be addressed. “More often than not, leaders may be complacent about practices within their organisations and believe that, since they and their colleagues feel welcome at work, the same is true for everyone,” she explains. Developing empathy and being sure to check in with others who identify differently is important to get a sense of what could be done better, she adds.

Enabling employees to identify their diversity dimensions voluntarily is a crucial starting point, as are employee engagement surveys where data is reasonably disaggregated by several of those dimensions. Doing so can then reveal the different experiences of different groups.

For example, McKinsey’s Women in the Workplace Report 2020 found that, while 46 per cent of men had felt stressed during the pandemic, 53 per cent of women said they had felt the same way. Yet this rose to 61 per cent of women with disabilities. There were also different experiences for women of different races. The survey found that 55 per cent of white women had felt stressed compared with 47 per cent of Asian women, 49 per cent of Latina women and 47 per cent of Black women.


2. Capture data to improve intersectionality

But while insightful, how can this sort of data be captured in the first place? “It’s important for every organisation to have good, up-to-date, diversity data,” says Monica Parker, Founder of HATCH Analytics, a data analytics company. “This is most easily collected by anonymous surveys sent out to the business. The key for this type of data is to get very high response rates, as otherwise its extrapolation may not be accurate, especially when looking at intersectionality.”

She says that achieving this is dependent on employees having high levels of trust in their organisation. They must be clear that equality, diversity and inclusion (ED&I) is more than just a box-ticking exercise. And while anonymous data may not identify specific intersectional segments, it can begin to give a broader picture on the nuances of the lived experiences of various team members. Organisations can then use this data to support ED&I initiatives such as affinity groups, conscious inclusion training and benchmarking. “Where you can, encourage people to tell their own stories of intersectionality and ways they have felt accepted or rejected based on their unique experience,” she says.

The final part of the data journey is to respond. “This is the simplest and hardest element of any ED&I initiative,” Parker says. She encourages organisations to set a goal, try to deliver on it, and make the whole process transparent. “I believe that if you collect data about ED&I, you have an obligation to do something tangible and measurable with it,” she concludes.

3. Create a culture of acknowledgement and understanding

Companies need to understand the scope of intersectionality so they can address those challenges directly. But how can businesses support their employees in reaching their full potential, without labelling them?

Baker says that labelling employees can create a biased perspective, which can in turn lead to unfair treatment and injustice. “This can significantly affect the morale of employees, especially if labelled negatively and unfairly,” she says. Baker explains that the key is to ensure employees feel empowered and have the full backing of the organisation. She suggests that this could take form as encouraging peer-led communities to grow and organising company-wide events to enable the “sharing of knowledge, bringing people together in learning and understanding others in the workplace and the range of diversities”.

Bagalini suggests consulting with the employees concerned to seek their input, and encourages companies not to necessarily shy away from labels, but use them to prompt conversations instead. “Many employees from under-represented groups do embrace labels as a way of reclaiming their identities and being empowered by them, instead of shying away. It is frequently hurtful for people of colour to hear from well-meaning colleagues that they ‘don’t see colour’, thereby effectively erasing their experiences of discrimination and absolving themselves of any responsibility to act,” she explains.

Baker says that obtaining a culture of acknowledgement and understanding helps to build and sustain an environment of openness and inclusion, giving confidence to both a company’s employees and customers that they are socially responsible and trustworthy. “With a workforce that trusts they have equal opportunities and their mental wellbeing is cared for, comes a higher level of satisfaction for individuals and an increased level of productivity and engagement for the organisation,” she says.

4. Capture diversity of thought

A workforce made up of people from different backgrounds with various abilities and experiences has a positive impact on the organisation as a whole. According to McKinsey’s Diversity Wins report, published in May 2020, “There is ample evidence that diverse and inclusive companies are likely to make better, bolder decisions – a critical capability in the [COVID-19] crisis.”

But while diversity of thought is beneficial to businesses, how does it relate to intersectionality? “Diversity of thought is the concept of our thinking being shaped by our backgrounds, culture, experiences and personalities,” explains Baker. “This relates to intersectionality by being able to take a broader approach in how we view others and appreciate the different elements of their identities, without stereotyping people or considering them as part of only one particular group.

“Diversity of thought is significantly important in organisations, as is the active consideration and enactment of equal opportunities,” says Baker.

“It is essential that companies can fully distinguish between the need to embrace diversity and inclusion and the need to harness a range of experiences and thought processes, to accelerate its strategic objectives.” She explains that businesses can harness this by understanding their people at a deeper level, considering not only professional but personal background and also considering competencies and psychometric ability. “The knowledge of this insight across its resources, in conjunction with a lens of diversity allows organisations to breed dynamic creativity, ideas and workforce agility whilst maintaining a culture of inclusiveness.”

While Bagalini agrees that diversity of thought is important, she warns against companies overtly striving for this “as it tends to provide an excuse or a cover not to address the thornier aspects of inclusion work”. She explains that, even in the same family, it would be difficult to find two people who think exactly alike, so it can be safely assumed that an organisation will have diversity of thought present regardless. “The same principles that go into harnessing the advantages of all other kinds of diversity apply here, namely when employees feel psychologically safe and can express themselves without fear, companies will better be able to reap the benefits of having employees who think differently from each other. Therefore, I am fairly confident that in pursuing goals of inclusion and equity for everyone regardless of identity, diversity of thought will be enhanced rather than suppressed.”

5. Help leaders to understand intersectionality

Intersectionality is important and complex, and organisations need to give consideration to how they equip their leaders with the confidence and skills to address these issues.

Each of us has a unique view of the world that has been shaped by our own unique, lived experience and our overlapping identities. Organisations should be asking themselves how to build high trust cultures and environments in which people are given the permission and the confidence to have meaningful conversations, encouraging people to have a curiosity about others’ lived experiences.

I am not suggesting that this is easy to navigate; it’s challenging, delicate and confronting. I recommend engaging an external specialist to help facilitate conversations about bias awareness. This can help to build confidence and give leaders a set of tools and a vocabulary to help them to have these conversations with each other and with their people.

Inclusive leadership is about creating a high-trust culture; proactively seeking out or inviting divergent points of view, rather than being the single point of authority with all of the answers. This can feel counterintuitive, but leaders who ask for (and really listen to) others’ points of view tend to build higher trust environments for their colleagues.

Organisations can help develop more inclusive leadership practices by clearly articulating why inclusion is important. If people think your messaging is to ‘tick boxes’ they will not engage with it. It is also important to support your most senior leaders in their development so that they can be role models of more inclusive leadership behaviours.

6. Educate colleagues on intersectionality

But while leadership is important, to positively progress a company’s diversity and inclusion interests across a whole organisation, a level of understanding must exist across the entire workforce. Macías says that diversity should not be the reserve of marketing material for organisations, and that it should be embedded within the culture of a workplace. “The culture of a company is the experiences that your employees are living on a daily basis, therefore, you have to make sure your employees are living in a diverse environment as part of their regular work,” he says. “Your employees are the best ambassadors of your company and your culture,” he notes.

This can be contributed to by introducing formal and informal education on diversity themes, Baker suggests. “A more formal approach that ensures everyone gets the necessary exposure could be in the form of a mandatory learning and development curriculum that covers important topics, such as intersectionality, creating a culture of inclusion and how to be an ally to colleagues,” she says.

In contrast, a more informal approach with a reliance on peer-to-peer networks can help to develop a consistent culture of diversity acceptance, she explains. For example, the mixing of these networks can be advanced into the social interaction between employees, such as celebrations of global cultural events including Pride, Diwali and Black History Month.

Baker says colleagues can be allies by trying to understand, and directly acknowledging and addressing, how privilege contributes to oppressive systems. “Having this understanding can help promote further education. The responsibility for this is wider than just that of the marginalised group,” she notes.

Bagalini says that, as well as using intranets or other internal communications channels to share information on the topic of intersectionality, it is worth encouraging employee resource groups to form and share information with their peers. “Making sure that this is embedded within ongoing events and initiatives rather than seeing it as an entirely separate workstream” is also crucial.

“Within almost every topic that organisations communicate to employees about, there are opportunities to point out how these support goals of diversity and belonging – so the task is to find those opportunities and use them, and eventually make sure that this becomes second nature,” she concludes.


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