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An Introduction to Intersectionality in the workplace

Intersectionality in the workplace is widely seen as an emerging phenomenon as discussions around diversity and inclusion are evolving in the 21st century, however it is important to note that it is not a new concept by any means.

Merriam-Webster which describes intersectionality as: “the complex, cumulative way in which the effects of multiple forms of discrimination (such as racism, sexism, and classism) combine, overlap, or intersect especially in the experiences of marginalised individuals or groups.”

Other examples of intersectionality include common simultaneous social identities such as: ethnic groups, disability, appearance, height, sexuality, religion, age, socio-economic position. It also identifies multiple factors or advantage and disadvantage.

The history around this terminology can be traced back to a black female US legal scholar named Kimberlé Crenshaw, who coined the term “intersectionality” in a 1989 academic paper to describe how race, class, gender, and other individual characteristics “intersect” with one another and overlap.

Crenshaw defines the three key areas of intersectionality as “structural”, “political” and “representational”.

Structural intersectionality looks at how the social systems in which we exist in, or the social categories we belong to meet at an intersectional point and how they contribute to the positive or negative experiences in our lives.

Political intersectionality highlights the “conflicting systems within the political arena”, and how one subordinate group experience maybe disregarded whilst highlighting the other, i.e race and gender and how these two identities can intersect and overlap within the realms of feminism (particularly in the western world).

Representational intersectionality which refers to the presence of numerous stereotypes that affects individuals of whom two or more negative stereotypes are applicable in media and contemporary settings.

For organisations to be able to successfully implement their diversity and inclusion strategies in the workplace, there must be a definitive transition from looking at diversity from a singular approach, to a more holistic one.

It is impossible for organisations to build a fully inclusive organisational culture — one which supports all of their employees effectively, without addressing the themes of intersectionality, the privileges it carries and the structural imbalances this creates for the lived experiences of marginalised groups in the workplace.

At the centre of intersectionality should be inclusivity and true equality. In a work environment where employees are spending around 80% of their week, many employers expect employees to be authentic, productive, innovative, and collaborative. Employers ask employees to bring their “full” self to work and they expect commitment at all times.

However, psychologically, inherent attributes such as personality, motivation and self-identity at work can be a very difficult and lonely space to navigate for employees who do not feel fully embedded, represented, or included in an organisation. D&I efforts which seek to correct bias and discriminatory practices could have an adverse effect in reinforcing systematic discrimination if the varying areas of intersectionality are not well considered and incorporated into organisational strategies.

The absence of empathy, education, openness, inclusivity, and trust as well as conscious and unconscious bias contributes to inequality that many employees face at work. Intersectionality is a very complex social subject that requires continuous and open dialogue, willingness, understanding, positive and deliberate affirmative action, accountability, monitoring, research, self-reflection and analysis.

As human beings, we are unique and therefore intersectionality and self-identification as a social construct is one that can take many various forms. Within these forms, there can be a social capital and hierarchy which can differ immensely depending on the context and the individual’s lived experience.

An example of how the effects of intersectionality can transpire in the workplace is that for many organisations, there is a focus on gender equality and in recruitment that can lead to a focus on boosting the number of female hires. However, many organisations fail to go one step further to analyse the various levels of intersectionality at play within gender such as: race, disability, sexuality, socio-economic and cultural background, and historical factors, as well as the lasting impact this has on the marginalised communities within their workforce.

This affirmative action whilst positive, can be seen as an exclusionary practice. The narrow focus on ‘gender’ as opposed to developing a more targeted search to include the wider constructs within gender and examining how this intersects from a place of privilege in a society may end up only benefitting a subset of the population that is already at a higher advantage. It does not serve to fully counter act the intention of removing the institutionalised barriers and obstacles in place for other marginalised groups to redress the balance of visibility, diversity, and equity in the workplace.

Various social and economic research studies over the years have examined the effects of discrimination and intersectionality. The Centre for Social Investigation, Nuffield College, Oxford conducted a study in 2019 which revealed that applicants from ethnic minority backgrounds have to send 60% more applications to get a positive response from an employer than white British candidates. Factors relating to their cultural identities such as their name, race, heritage and perceived religious beliefs heavily impacted on their ability to secure employment irrespective of being british born citizens with the same qualifications and similar socio-economic backgrounds to their white counterparts.

Dr Valentina di Stasio, former Research Fellow (2016–2017) and co-author of the report, added: “The persistent gaps in callbacks found for more visible and culturally distant minorities, regardless of the occupation considered or the information included in the application, suggest that employers may simply read no further as soon as they see a Middle East-sounding or African-sounding name.”

What’s important to differentiate here is that for many applicants with other social identities such as race, sexuality and religion or disability for example, they face discrimination as a combination of their social factors and not purely in isolation of each other.

Organisations that are focused on ‘culture fit’ as opposed to ‘culture add’ and do not seek to source and hire from a more diverse pool of talent from different social and cultural backgrounds are at risk of contributing to a broader systemic problem where there is an inequality for candidates who may identify with two or more multiple identities that face continous marginalisation in today’s society. This further contributes to factors such as income pay gaps and abnormality in job progression across the various social groups.

The key to remember, is if we can remove the obstacles for those who are most held back by our society, then we can work towards building a fully inclusive and equitable organisational culture where margalinised groups can truly benefit and thrive.

I would encourage you to look at the reading lists below and look out for part two of this article where I will share my tips on how to build on intersectionality in the workplace.

Reading list:

Reference links:

***The views and opinions expressed in this article are my own and do not necessarily represent the official policy or position of any other agency, organization or company****

Writer, blogger, travel addict, and talent management professional

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