What is Intersectionality, and Should Your Workplace Acknowledge It?

Posted By Terri Williams on July 28, 2017 at 5:05 am
What is Intersectionality, and Should Your Workplace Acknowledge It?

What is intersectionality, and why is it relevant to diversity and inclusion programs? (Spoiler alert: Your workplace should acknowledge it.) What are some of the common mistakes and best practices for an effective diversity program? GoodCall® asked two experts in this area to shed light on these interdependent issues.

Defining intersectionality

Simma Lieberman, a diversity and inclusion/culture change consultant and author of 110 Ways to Champion Diversity and Build Inclusion, tells GoodCall®, “Intersectionality is the way all of our multiple identities or diversity dimensions intersect.”

Lieberman explains that each person has multiple personalities. “We’re more than just our race, or gender – we are a mixture of our race, our gender, sexual orientation, age, social-economic class, ability/disability, et cetera, and all of those dimensions make up who we are and how we view the world.”

However, she says many people – even those who work in Diversity and Inclusion, see issues only in terms of one aspect, such as race or gender. “This discounts the complexities of each of us and doesn’t take into consideration that the 65-year-old male, black attorney from New York may see the world differently than the 22-year-old female, black customer service person for the phone company.”

The relevance of intersectionality to diversity and inclusion programs

Ciara Trinidad, head of people development and inclusion at Lever, a San Francisco-based maker of recruiting software, tells GoodCall®, “The consideration of intersectionality allows for companies to be able to consider not only groups protected by singular EEOC requirements but those of us who are protected in multiple protected classes.”

For example, an individual may be Hispanic, female, older than 40, and gay. “I have the option to participate in groups that protect any of those classes, but there might not be a place that recognizes all of those classifications together,” says Trinidad. “Companies normally aren’t considering the work needed to provide resources to Hispanic females or queer females, as an example.”

The tech sector’s tendency to focus on women might help or hurt

A recent report by the Kapor Center for Social Impact reveals that tech workers making six figures were choosing to leave their jobs. Among other things, the report revealed three important points:

  • LGBTQ employees reported higher levels of bullying than any other group.
  • Underrepresented women of color were most likely to be passed over for promotions.
  • Underrepresented people of color (both men and women) were much more likely to experience stereotyping than their White/Asian peers.

However, the tech sector sometimes has been criticized for focusing primary on women.

Lieberman thinks this approach is both shortsighted and lacks inclusiveness. “There are too many people who think of diversity in hiring as bringing in more women, and the conversation stops when more women are hired, and unfortunately, it tends to be white women,” Lieberman explains. “While it’s great to bring in more women, if it’s only or primarily white women, it perpetuates the practice of discounting the existence, education and experience of women of color.”

This focus in likely to intensify in light of numerous, recent allegations of sexual harassment in the tech start-up industry. “We have a long way to go — that said, any effort in focusing on underrepresented groups is normally helpful if well intended and extensively considered,” Trinidad says. “It’s no secret that diversity in tech is a problem that we can’t seem to fix, so any mention of an underrepresented group or any effort to diversify tech is helpful, in my opinion.”

Learning from common missteps made around intersectionality

Some companies seem to take a blanket approach to diversity. “It’s often assumed that by having one resource dedicated to a group that other resources aren’t necessary,” Trinidad explains. “This frame of thinking is especially harmful, as it implies that having the minimum amount of resources is acceptable, and not choosing to respect the multitude that someone might identify with is also not choosing to be open to embracing all aspects of someone’s identity,” Trinidad explains.

Meanwhile, Lieberman is concerned that intersectionality is applied very narrowly. “For example, only using intersectionality as a way to understand oppression and discrimination, instead of also using it to help people build connections based on their multiple identities and the way they intersect.”

Lieberman says it’s also a mistake to think that all issues are the same. “Different identities are more important, relevant or dominant at different times,” she says.

Best practices and strategies for building an intersectional strategy

Trinidad offers some basic, simple advice. “Acknowledge that there are multiple sides to someone’s identity; this is normally resolved by choosing to be actively considerate of all the dynamics that could exist when thinking about diversity and inclusion.”

She provides a practical example: “If you have a women’s Employee Resource Group (ERG), you might consider adding a sub-ERG to it for women of color, or for parents – having the sub-ERG nested under is going to ensure all the groups have cohesion to support each other.”

Trinidad’s piece of advice requires a little more courage. “Choose to have the hard conversations about what it means to be at your company AND to be a [fill in the blank].”

After bringing those stories to light, Trinidad says it’s important to delve into discussions regarding what those individuals might be looking for in an organization. “At Lever, we don’t actively target people; instead we open up the discussion for everyone to participate in.” And she believes this method is important for two reasons. “All voices feel that they are heard, but more than that, they feel that they can speak in a safe environment.”

And, these are conversations that everyone can have. Lieberman concludes, “Identify all of your own multiple-identities, where we can connect, where we are different and recognize multiple-identities of others that may be the basis of inclusion/exclusion, underutilization or discrimination.”

Terri Williams
Terri Williams graduated with a B.A. in English from the University of Alabama at Birmingham. Her education, career, and business articles have been featured on Yahoo! Education, U.S. News & World Report, The Houston Chronicle, and in the print edition of USA Today Special Edition. Terri is also a contributing author to "A Practical Guide to Digital Journalism Ethics," a book published by the Center for Digital Ethics and Policy at Loyola University Chicago.

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