Intersectionality is a term that encourages an appreciation and recognition of the multi-faceted nature of the human identity and individual lived experiences. In short, we are not all one and the same. Who we are, how we experience the world, and the challenges we face are unique.
It is this appreciation of difference that leads to more equitable and inclusive workplace cultures, so let’s explore intersectionality, why it is important, and the benefits of understanding intersectionality for today’s diverse workplaces.
What is intersectionality?
Intersectionality was first coined in 1989 by civil rights and critical race scholar Kimberlé Crenshaw, who used the term to demonstrate that individuals do not experience discrimination or privilege based on just one aspect of their identity, such as gender, race, or sexual orientation. Rather, our identities are complex, composed of multiple intersecting factors that shape our experiences and how we are perceived by society.
In her 2016 TED talk, Crenshaw uses the example of Emma DeGraffenreid to demonstrate how she devised intersectionality as a framework to explain multi-layered discrimination. DeGraffenreid took a car manufacturing company to court in 1976 for gender and racial discrimination in their hiring process. She claimed the company did not hire her because she was an African-American woman.
However, the judge refused to take both her gender and her race into account as a claim of discrimination. Being black and female, DeGraffenreid existed where the roads of race and gender discrimination intersected, and therefore the court refused to take into account this combined claim. The main reason being, that DeGraffenreid would supposedly have been at an advantage in claiming two accounts of discrimination – two bites of the discrimination pie, if you will.
“So what do you call being impacted by multiple forces and then abandoned to fend for yourself?” asks Crenshaw. “‘Intersectionality’ seemed to do it for me.”
Why is intersectionality important?
Intersectionality recognises that identities do not exist in isolation; they interact and overlap, creating unique and often compounded experiences of privilege and oppression. Therefore, it is a concept that helps us understand the complexity of discrimination. When we acknowledge that individuals may experience discrimination based on multiple aspects of their identity, we are better equipped to address and avoid these when reviewing or introducing workplace practices, models or policies.
Analysing our organisational culture and the employee experience through an intersectional lens also mitigates the risk of oversimplifying issues related to inequality and inequity. A trap that many organisations wander into (albeit with goodwill).
Let’s take the Gender Pay Gap as an example. The gender pay gap for all employees currently stands at 14.9%. However, this gap widens significantly for women from ethnic minority groups, women over 50 years old, disabled women and those who are mothers. Indeed, a 2023 report by the Fawcett Society demonstrated how the intersection of sexism, racism and the motherhood penalty significantly impacted the lifetime income of Black and minoritised mothers.
Therefore, focusing on one identity isn’t necessarily progressive; rather it’s a one-dimensional approach that overlooks the wider and varying systemic issues at play. Intersectionality, however, promotes inclusivity by acknowledging the experiences of all helping to create a space where everyone’s experiences are recognised and validated.
What are the benefits of getting to grips with intersectionality?
- We will be better allies
An understanding of intersectionality enhances our ability to be effective allies. When we open our eyes to the unique challenges faced by individuals with multiple marginalised identities, we can provide better support and amplify their voices.
- We develop proactive empathy
Understanding intersectionality fosters empathy by encouraging us to step into the shoes of others and consider the complexities of their experiences. This empathy can drive positive change by motivating employees and employers to take action.
- We can dismantle stereotypes and biases
Stereotypes and bias stem from simplistic, one-dimensional views of identity groups. By embracing intersectionality, we challenge these stereotypes and promote a more nuanced and accurate understanding of people.
- We are more creative and collaborative
Intersectionality promotes a culture inclusion and belonging for diverse employees. When individuals from different backgrounds and with different lived experiences work together, an intersectional perspective supports effective collaboration by valuing each participant’s unique contributions.
- We grow
On an individual level, understanding intersectionality fosters personal growth and self-awareness. It encourages self-reflection and a deeper appreciation of the diverse experiences that shape our own lives and the lives of others.
Embracing intersectionality is essential for an equitable workplace. It is a foundation on which inclusive organisations – that is, where everyone’s experiences and identities are valued and respected – are built. At Tell Jane, we’re here to support you in creating an equitable and inclusive workplace where all employees can thrive. Talk to us today about our training workshops and leadership coaching, or ask us to take an intersectional lens to your workplace culture through employee experience analysis, establishing Employee Resource Groups or our policy review service. Simply email email@example.com to get started.