Why intersectionality should be considered when forming a D&I strategy

By failing to recognise how the lived experiences of people with common characteristics can differ, organisations will undermine well-intentioned efforts to improve inclusion. Bianca Moodie and Stuart Affleck outline what intersectionality means and how it can be incorporated into an organisation's D&I strategy.

Columbia law professor Kimberlé Crenshaw once said: "If you don't have a lens that's been trained to look at how various forms of discrimination come together, you're unlikely to develop a set of policies that will be as inclusive as they need to be."

A mistake that is often made by well-intentioned diversity and inclusion (D&I) programmes is when discrimination against protected characteristics are treated in isolation. For example, a company may want to improve representation, opportunities and respect for LGBT+ employees - however this is not one homogeneous group and shouldn't been seen as such. Although the individuals in the LGBT+ community may share similar experiences due to discrimination because of their sexuality, they can also face other forms of discrimination simultaneously, because of their race, gender, class, and/or disability.

Knowledge and discussion around the term "intersectionality" and why it's important has entered mainstream culture and workplaces, but the approach is still in its infancy and can often be misunderstood. Despite describing an experience shared by many throughout time, the term "intersectionality" was introduced in the 1980s and has gained more recognition and traction within the last decade.

Crenshaw first coined the term in 1989 to describe how people's identities - gender, race, religion, class, sexual orientation and other characteristics - overlap with one another. Crenshaw described it in a recent interview in Time Magazine that, "we tend to talk about race inequality as separate from inequality based on gender, class, sexuality or immigrant status. What's often missing is how some people are subject to all of these, and the experience is not just the sum of its parts."

It's important for businesses to recognise intersectionality and how it plays out in an employee's experience of the workplace. Companies will need to create their D&I programmes with an intersectional approach in mind. Crenshaw explained why, particularly in the context of race and gender: "Because the intersectional experience is greater than the sum of racism and sexism, any analysis that does not take intersectionality into account cannot sufficiently address the particular manner in which Black women are subordinated".

To illustrate, when organisations are creating programmes to enhance representation of women at senior levels, viewing these individuals as a monolith experiencing the same form of discrimination means it does not tackle the other forms of discrimination which prevent equality of opportunity, pay and representation. For example, a cis-gender heterosexual Black woman from a low income background will have a different experience in the workplace to a middle class cis-gender heterosexual white woman. Although they may share the same gender and sexuality, they will experience different barriers coming from different social-economic backgrounds. Black women may also face further barriers due to their race, which Queer Black feminist Moya Bailey dubbed this experience in 2010 as 'misogynoir'.

If intersectionality isn't taken into account, D&I programmes will not make effective progress. Discrimination in the recruitment stage will still occur, wage inequality will still persist, professional development will not be delegated appropriately, and companies will keep losing talented employees.

So, how can organisations incorporate intersectionality into their D&I programmes?

  • Acknowledge intersectionality openly and create education workshops for individuals to understand how it may impact them and their colleagues, as well as how to identify what action is required to create an equitable environment, understanding that a one size solution, doesn't fit all.
  • Make sure that colleagues that experience discrimination know how to report this, and create a safe space in order for them to do so. Train bystanders on how to intervene to stop discrimination and be active allies.
  • Create an inclusive recruitment process with a diverse interview panel. Review the language of the job adverts, consider job adverts being written by colleagues from underrepresented groups and place them on a range of platforms that will help attract candidates from a range backgrounds.
  • Ensure talent processes are inclusive. Perhaps trained "talent champions" can assist in equipping managers to mitigate bias throughout the performance and review processes by supporting talent calibration sessions.
  • Consider reverse mentoring and sponsorship, for example a junior Black colleague mentoring a senior white executive to help them understand different compounding forms of discrimination as well as their work achievements. These senior employees should also sponsor junior employees, with a responsibility to support their development, endorse their achievements and help them obtain promotions.
  • Be willing to adapt and try new approaches. If your practices do not bring colleagues with intersectional experiences equal access to opportunities then ensure you measure the impact through disaggregated data and take action.

Although it's positive many companies want to do more to improve D&I, intersectionality should sit at the core of the initiatives. Otherwise businesses may find their well-intentioned changes will be short-lived.