Intersectionality, the key to effective DEI initiatives

Understanding race and intersectionality is critical to building DEI.

In Perspective

July 28, 2021
A black woman with straight black shoulder-length hair smiles at the camera wearing a black blazer and white collared shirt
By Carmen Morris July 28, 2021

How do race and intersectionality impact the restructuring of workplace inclusion? Conversations around race have begun to intersect with gender, which positions race around much more than color. But why is that important?  

Tackling workplace inequalities means that leaders and managers must grasp the concept of intersectionality, if they are to create workplaces that are built around authentic inclusion and position solutions around racial equality, authentically.

The issue concept of intersectionality was coined more than 30 years ago by Kimberlé Crenshaw, a law professor at Columbia University and UCLA. The problem is that, decades later, intersectionality is often either not known or fully understood by managers within organizations. This can make it difficult for those who seek to develop and promote a truly inclusive environment. 

While color is visible, the other aspects of diversity and difference may be much less so. The challenge for those wishing to promote inclusivity is to look at colleagues as complex beings, rather than the most obvious box into which they can be put.

Intersecting identities

When seeking to promote DEI (Diversity Equity and Inclusion), leaders and HR professionals often lean towards a leveling of the playing field for women. Many do this without taking into account the ways in which race and intersectionality impact the solutions that managers design for authentic inclusion.

This means that only the ‘gender’ aspect is considered flower_red@500x without any consideration of the ways in which women from different racial and cultural backgrounds experience the concepts of race and gender in disparate ways.

In relation to gender, there tends to be heavy focus on white women being supported within the diversity and inclusion programs, which means that inevitably Black women often need to navigate their careers differently, cognizant of the fact that the systems which are set up within the workplace, often do not meet their requirements for inclusion.

Identity, race, and intersectionality as part of the inclusion conversation

Take, for example, a Black, female employee.  At first glance, she may be readily identifiable as Black and female, yet the many facets that make up her being are often either misjudged or ignored. Due to complex and historical factors, organizations may begin to frame their understanding of this employee in terms of what ‘they know’ about her most visible characteristics.  

They may readily define this employee in relation to visible skin color and the connotations of such as often ascribed to people with Black skin. Other prejudices and biases, whether unconscious or otherwise, may supplement the understanding which can ultimately guide the ‘perception’ around the employee.

If checks and balances, and robust systems are not put in place within workplace systems, it’s easy to see how biases can affect the treatment based on prejudicial judgment. The employee in the above example is Black and female, perhaps a mother, sister, wife, partner, and sibling. Perhaps, she is a lesbian or suffers from mental health issues. Her experience can be affected by the wide-ranging facets of her being.

Putting intersectionality into practice

Being open for inclusion requires an organizational mindset that values the intersectionality of employees and individuals across the wide spectrum of diversity.  Where race and gender meet at an intersection, managers within organizations must be sure to support all employees to build knowledge around this important concept within the DEI conversation.

The effects of multiple forms of discrimination are compounded through intersectional and overlapping identities, and this is where managers and others can learn to implement more effective processes to create an inclusive workplace.  

The multi-faceted nature of diversity and inclusion suggests that it is not just a ‘black and white’ conversation. There is a need to better understand the multifaceted nature of diversity and inclusion, in order to make an impact.

Effective workplace solutions for DEI support race and intersectionality

Leaders and managers must take the opportunity to position conversations, and the design and delivery of DEI programs, to cater for the exacting needs of different employee groups. They must ensure that Black women are supported, their concerns around intersectionality valued, and effective solutions for support are applied.

Setting up a workplace environment that is both cognizant of and applicable to the many facets that make up the Black woman is important to developing a truly inclusive environment. Managers and HR professionals can produce more effective results, by empathizing with the multiple characteristics that make up diverse groups of employees. 

Putting intersectionality into practice requires the ability to assess how multiple intersecting identities impact the diversity and inclusion agenda, and how these identities can impact the experience of employees.

Speaking with Black employee resource groups and speaking about the experience of Black women in the workplace is only the start. The real work to establish credible, employee-focused solutions that will embrace intersectionality at the heart of workplace equity programs begins with actionable and defined objectives.

What organizations can do

Managers can start by creating a safe workplace environment where Black women can discuss the issues that are important to them. By giving employees the space to consider and assess issues, as they affect them within the workplace, develops confidence and supports the organization to learn about current issues.  

It also enables the organization to support employees according to defined needs, rather than what managers, who may not experience intersectionality in the same way, if at all, may believe based on their understanding of the concept.

By working in partnership with employees who can shape an inclusive agenda because of their lived experience, organizations are better able to develop solutions based on specific needs, rather than developing DEI solutions that have little or no impact on the workplace experience of employees.

When supporting employees with programs to promote diversity and inclusion, it is crucially important that managers and leaders employ advanced listening skills, and enable employees to shape an agenda that will deliver the results that they need to see. Intersectionality is complex and you will not become an expert in it overnight.  

Listening is a key skill in managing and promoting workplace inclusion. It should be the goal of every manager to employ this skill when seeking to partner with employees to build effective solutions to support measurable experiential change in the workplace. 

To design and deliver an intersectional approach, organizations must be authentic about the will to deliver authentic inclusion and part of this means listening and learning along the way. The following useful resource publication on intersectionality, provides 10 tips to support managers on their journey to embedding the concept of intersectionality into your organization. Perspective dark

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