Defining Intersectionality and its Impact on Diversity Initiatives

In today’s diverse workplaces, understanding intersectionality is essential for fostering inclusivity and equity. By recognizing how an individual’s intersecting attributes shape their experiences and perspectives, organizations can strive towards creating environments that embrace and empower every employee.

In this article, we will explore what intersectionality is and its connection to the workplace. We will examine the ways in which intersecting identities can affect an individual’s professional development and opportunities, and we will discuss steps that can be taken to promote inclusivity and equality at work.

Today, many organizations are taking steps to educate themselves about intersectionality and how it impacts their employees. We are seeing more organizations engage employees on the topic, reviewing their policies and practices to ensure inclusivity and equity, and implementing solutions to address any identified challenges. In turn, these efforts create more inclusive and supportive environments that foster professional development and success for all employees.

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    What is Intersectionality?

    The concept of diversity refers to the presence of a variety of demographic attributes – gender, race, religion, socioeconomic status etc. –  in a group. However, an individual’s identity is not one dimensional, and their lived experiences are not the result of one piece of their identity. 

    Coined in 1989 by professor Kimberlé Crenshaw, intersectionality describes how someone’s various identities intersect and create experiences, challenges and opportunities in society. For instance, a member of the LGBTQIA+ community may face discrimination based on their sexual orientation or gender identity while also facing discrimination based on other aspects of their identity, such as their race or socioeconomic status.

    Intersectionality recognizes that systems of oppression and privilege do not operate in isolation but rather intersect in complex ways that create differing experiences of discrimination and advantage. By acknowledging and educating on the intersections of identity and oppression, we can work towards creating more inclusive and equitable environments for all individuals, regardless of their social identities.

    Intersectionality in the Workplace

    In the context of a workplace, intersectionality helps organizations recognize the ways in which different systems of oppression and privilege intersect and create inequitable outcomes for certain groups of employees. Some groups may encounter more significant disparities in pay, instances of sexual harassment, microaggressions, and/or limited developmental opportunities compared to others. These disparities can have adverse effects on workplace culture, diversity in leadership, turnover rates, and various other aspects that organizations need to address. By acknowledging and addressing these intersections, organizations can work towards creating more inclusive and equitable workplaces.

    Further, diversity and inclusion initiatives frequently categorize their workforce based on singular demographic characteristics. While this is well-intentioned, such approaches overlook the multifaceted identities present within the organization when considering an intersectional perspective. For instance, the workplace experiences and obstacles faced by a racialized woman may differ significantly from those of a racialized woman who also has a disability.

    Each individual has distinct life experiences and challenges that shape their perspectives. It’s important to recognize that their workplace hurdles will vary and cannot be categorized uniformly. Instead the unique experiences of each individual should be acknowledged, and leaders should consider these differing experiences when offering support.

    The complexity of intersectionality becomes even more evident when we examine broader systemic disparities. For instance, PayScale’s 2023 Gender Pay Gap Report compared women’s earnings to men’s, including the impacts of dimensions such as race and age. It found that white women in the US earn 81 cents for every dollar made by a white man. Intersectionality is demonstrated when looking at the data for women of color – American Indian, Alaska Native, Black, African American and Hispanic women – make 75 cents for every dollar in comparison.

    In addition to these examples, Intersectionality can be applied to other systems within an organization such as:  

      • Promotion and Hiring: Recruitment practices may perpetuate existing imbalances in representation and opportunity. For example, companies prioritize increasing diversity in leadership by addressing the underrepresentation of women, but may overlook other intersectional factors.
      • Workplace Culture that does not adequately capture the vulnerabilities of certain groups may fail to address concerns with sexual harassment or discrimination. This creates a hostile and unwelcoming environment for women, LGBTQIA+ individuals, or other marginalized groups.
      • Professional Development: Failing to recognize the unique challenges and experiences of certain groups may not provide them the same resources and developmental opportunities as others. 

    Understanding intersectionality helps companies improve their initiatives in various areas to consider the different experiences of their employees. It furthers an organization’s commitment to building an inclusive workplace and strong sense of belonging so their employees can thrive. When inadequately addressed, a lack of inclusion and sense of belonging hinders an organization from reaping the benefits of DEI initiatives and can adversely affect metrics such as turnover rates.

    How Companies Address Intersectionality

    The challenges and experiences of marginalized or disadvantaged groups cannot be fully understood or addressed through a single solution or approach. Therefore, there is a need for more nuanced, inclusive solutions to address the complex and intersectional nature of discrimination and privilege. 

    For example, an organization may implement a program to recruit and retain more women, however, their initiatives and systems should address the unique challenges and experiences of women of color, who may face discrimination based on both their gender and their race. A more nuanced, inclusive solution would consider the intersecting identities and experiences of all employees and work towards creating an environment that is welcoming and supportive for all.

    There are several ways that an organization can approach the topic of intersectionality in their DEI Strategy:

    Educate the Workforce

    To enhance systems within an organization, it’s crucial to understand the various intersections of identities and their impact on employees’ experiences and opportunities. Companies can facilitate workshops, build a training strategy and seek guidance from experts or employees with relevant expertise.

    Update Policies and Practices

    Review policies and practices to ensure that they consider intersectionalities and are equitable. This may involve examining hiring and promotion practices, workplace culture, employee development opportunities, and other areas. Similarly, companies should periodically revisit their DEI targets to ensure they consider the impacts of intersectionality.

    Engage Employees

    Review policies and practices to ensure that they consider intersectionalities and are equitable. This may involve examining hiring and promotion practices, workplace culture, employee development opportunities, and other areas. Similarly, companies should periodically revisit their DEI targets to ensure they consider the impacts of intersectionality.

    Involve Senior Leadership

    Leaders should reflect and have an awareness of their own dimensions of diversity and unconscious bias to be the catalysts in addressing intersectionality. They are the start of an organization’s commitment to creating an inclusive workplace that acknowledges the different lived experiences of intersection identities in their workforce.

    Implement Inclusive Solutions

    After identifying the needs and concerns of employees, organizations should strive to reassess their existing systems and implement inclusive solutions to tackle these issues.This may involve implementing diversity and inclusion training, creating employee resource groups, and taking other steps to promote inclusivity and equality in the workplace.

    Continuous Improvement

    Companies must recognize that addressing intersectionality is an ongoing process and commit to continuously improving policies, practices and workplace culture to create a more equitable workplace. This also requires continuously collecting feedback and maintaining open communication with employees and managers to gauge the sense of belonging within the organization and areas of improvement.

    Final Words

    Intersectionality serves as a critical lens that organizations can use to enhance their diversity initiatives and foster inclusive workplace culture. By recognizing and addressing the complex intersection of identities, organizations better understand the needs of their employees, promote equity and fairness to bring out the full potential of every individual and realize increased innovation, collaboration and organizational success. 

    As company’s move forward in their diversity journey, it is recommended to commit to integrating intersectionality into the fabric of their workplace diversity efforts, ensuring that every employee is heard, valued and empowered to thrive. 

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    Our consultants can support you build a training plan and revise your policies and practices to ensure your systems are capturing intersecting identities. Contact us for a free consultation on how we can further your diversity journey.


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