Intersectionality. The word seems to be everywhere these days but what is intersectionality and how does it relate to diversity, equity, and inclusion in the workplace?

Intersectionality is an academic term that refers to how different aspects of a person combine and create overlapping areas of privilege and oppression. Originally coined by Kimberlé Crenshaw over 30 years ago, it originally referred primarily to the experience of black women but has since grown to include many others.

In plain terms, intersectionality means that people are complicated with many facets to who they are and their life experiences. If you have multiple facets of your life that subject you to discrimination, the effects of that discrimination will multiply and compound. For example, a black woman faces racial and gender prejudice, whereas a black man faces only racial prejudice. A white gay man faces different, and far fewer, obstacles than a Latinx transgender person.

What about at work – what is intersectionality in relation to the workplace? The principles of intersectionality can be applied to any institution or aspect of society and used to help understand the various factors that affect daily life. In the workplace, it is an additional tool for understanding your employees and how you can provide an environment that helps them feel respected, supported, and achieve their best.

Take the gender wage gap for example. Intersectionality can help us better understand it and thus develop better solutions. Studies show that women earn on average $0.82 for every $1.00 a white man earns, but that average ranges from $0.54 for Hispanic women to $0.90 for Asian women. Clearly, actions and policies taken to address the gap will be ineffective if they treat all women the same since all women are not suffering equally and not as a result of the same issues.

The wage gap is not simply a result of companies deliberately paying women less than men, although that is certainly the case in some instances. Instead, it is the result of several influences including differences in jobs, industries, education, experience level, opportunity, and more, and these factors are influenced by a person’s race, gender, ethnicity, etc. So – discrimination affects educational opportunities, and education strongly determines job opportunities, and jobs determine wages.

Which is why intersectionality is a helpful lens to look at the problem. Equalizing pay scales and salaries between the genders is just one step. Another reason women don’t make as much as men is because they work in jobs that have lower pay, and often work fewer hours because of childcare responsibilities. In order to help close the wage gap, issues like access to education and good childcare options need to be addressed, not just pay equity.

If you are trying to create a supportive respectful workplace for all your employees, you need to recognize where intersectionality exists and how it affects the workplace experience. For example, efforts to recruit more minority candidates that don’t recognize that minority men and women face different issues will be less successful. On the flipside, childcare and leave policies that only consider women ignore the fact that men are parents too.

It’s vital to be mindful of these factors as part of your DE&I efforts or you might unintentionally perpetuate one issue while trying to solve another. For example, an employee resource group for LGBTQ+ employees that defaults to having a white leader repeats the issues of marginalization for some members. Mentoring is another area. A white woman partner may not be as helpful a mentor to a female manager if she doesn’t take into account and address the discrimination that a woman faces because she is black or Latina, in addition to being a woman.

Intersectionality doesn’t mean that all mentors have to match up exactly, or that all ERGs need to be homogenized into separate groups. It means being aware of all the factors facing your employees and how they might affect them negatively at work, and then taking measures to address this in your DE&I efforts. Those measures might be having a mentor that looks like the mentee, but they can take any form that solves the problem.

Being aware of intersectionality and thoughtful in the actions you take to address DE&I issues means that you will be more likely to succeed. It reminds us that no one is just one thing, they are many and require recognition and respect for all those facets of themselves. When it comes to addressing systemic and persistent issues that are barriers to advancement and equal treatment, these multiple aspects need to be recognized for the unique ways they combine to oppress and/or privilege people.


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