What is intersectionality and why is it important in the workplace? - Inclusive Employers

What is intersectionality and why is it important in the workplace?

Intersectionality has become a popularised term in the inclusion sector in recent years and it plays a big role in how we approach inclusion in the workplace. The word was first coined in the 1980’s and has since grown in use, but do we really understand its meaning and how to apply it in our organisations?

In this blog, Kelly Phillips, our Inclusion Events & Projects Officer, shares how intersectionality can help address all areas of inclusion and diversity and gives practical tips on how to apply intersectional practices in our workplaces.

What is intersectionality?

First outlined and defined by Dr. Kimberley Crenshaw in her 1989 paper, ‘Intersectionality’ was originally used to describe and explain the experience of Black women. However, it has evolved since then and is now often used to describe a myriad of intersecting and marginalised identities.

Dr. Crenshaw highlighted, and gave name to, what many Black women had been voicing for some time during the civil rights and feminist movements in the 1950s-60s, which was that anti-racist movements centred around Black men, and feminist movements centred around White women, leaving no space for the unique and compounding experience of Black women. Dr. Crenshaw emphasised that the oppression experienced by Black women was not only that of being a woman and that of being Black, but a unique oppression that is greater than the sum of the two individual identities separately.

We can consider this to be the case for many marginalised people from a range of experiences such as those who are disabled, are part of the LGBTQ+ community, practice faiths which are marginalised, and more.

Intersectionality is then about addressing all systems of oppression which support one another simultaneously and negatively impact people. These systems of oppression cannot be dismantled brick by brick, you have to pull the whole building down. To achieve this, we need to start with the people facing the most barriers and oppression and support them in reaching equality. Through this, we obtain equality for all.

Why is intersectionality important?

Intersectionality is an important concept to understand and have awareness of because, we as individuals, are not one dimensional. We can’t be put into a neat box and checked off. We have many layers to our identities, and those layers can present various barriers.

When you don’t take an intersectional approach, but rather an issue-by-issue approach, what you are effectively asking people to do, is leave part of themselves behind. This erasure only compounds the marginalisation faced by those with an intersectional experience of the world.

If we truly want to have equality and equity for all, an intersectional approach is the only way to ensure we support those facing the most oppression and that no one is left behind in social progress and social justice.

How does intersectionality impact the workplace?

Intersectionality impacts how inclusive your organisation is, how safe individuals feel bringing their full selves to work and how as employers you get the best from your employees.

Lack of intersectional approaches to inclusion can show up in many ways in the workplace, e.g. wage disparity, lack of diverse representation at leadership level, lack of workplace opportunities and progression for marginalised employees, employee burnout and high staff turnover, and among many more.

Without taking an intersectional approach to inclusion, initiatives can have the opposite effect, isolating people further – e.g. If a work initiative is aimed at improving the opportunities for LGBTQ+ staff but doesn’t take into consideration the barriers facing LGBTQ+ staff who are also people of colour, or are also disabled, or both, then this can leave those employees feeling even more on the fringes and unable to express all parts of their identity and needs freely and safely. This emotional burden of not feeling seen, heard or safe, can create a toxic environment resulting exhaustion.

A helpful example to showcase how intersectionality can impact us in the workplace is to look at the hourly wage of different groups of people. In the UK in 2017, it was found that compared with White men graduates, Black men took home 17% less wages per hour, and White women took home 7% less per hour for the same work. However, Black women then took home 9% less than the White women – therefore, their take home pay was less because they were women, but then was even further compounded by the fact that they were Black.

How we can embed intersectional practices in our workplaces

If we want people to be able to bring their whole and authentic selves to work, it’s important to ensure that individuals are safe in all facets of their being. It’s about taking a holistic and agile person-centred approach to inclusion in the workplace so that all individuals and identities have space to be held; not a one size fits all strategy.

There are a variety of ways to support an intersectional approach to inclusion in the workplace, a few may be:

Training and employee engagement

Provide employee and leadership training in intersectionality and its importance to raise awareness and understanding. You could also consider introducing allies or diversity champions programmes to engage with the wider team. Provide training regularly will embed intersectionality into company culture and to allow organic growth of understanding of intersectional practices in the workplace.

Diversity data

Collecting useful and accurate diversity data relies on the organisation creating a space where employees feeling safe enough to share their data. This can be helped by leadership demonstrating their commitment to an inclusion strategy. Our diversity monitoring form guidance is a member’s factsheet that has been created to support organisations in designing questions which support gathering accurate data, with inclusion at the forefront.

Once you collect diversity data, use an effective data dashboard where you can analyse data from multiple angles and really understand your employees and the barriers which they are faced with. Then using this data to make informed decisions about inclusion initiatives or policies in your organisation. Ask employees for feedback on these initiatives and policies and consistently review this data to ensure you are meeting your goals.

Representative leadership

Having a diverse group of leaders who represent people from different backgrounds will allow your employees to feel seen in the organisation and to see a potential pathway for them to progress. It will demonstrate your commitment to diversity and inclusion and potentially allow conversation about different identities to take place.

Hiring practices

Take a look at your hiring practices – do your hiring practices take into consideration the various barriers individuals might be facing and account for this in the selection process? Incorporating intersectionality into your hiring will allow you to attract the best people for your organisation with a variety of experiences and knowledge.

Listening and creating safe spaces

Look to creating safe spaces for individuals to voice their experiences and challenges. If you have staff resource groups, networks, or affinity groups – are they intersectional? Are different voices represented? If not, perhaps look to encouraging collaboration among groups, or creating cross group opportunities. Centre marginalised voices in these spaces, as those who have faced barriers are the most likely to have solutions to those barriers.

Additionally, ensure there is a zero-tolerance policy of bias, discrimination or bullying of any kind.

How Inclusive Employers help you learn more about intersectionality in the workplace