How People Leaders Can Approach DEIB Through Intersectionality: A Guide

Understanding the concept of intersectionality is vital for People leaders as it directly concerns workplace dynamics, outcomes, and policies.

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Jess Maynard
Clinically reviewed by
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    While “intersectionality” may sound intimidating or unfamiliar, it holds significant relevance beyond academia. Understanding this concept is vital for People leaders as it directly impacts workplace dynamics. 

    Every workplace is filled with individuals who have intersecting identities, leading to diverse and overlapping experiences in their daily lives.

    In part one of this series, we explored the concept of intersectionality, its relevance to employees, and how it contributes to workplace innovation and diversity.

    In this article, we'll delve deeper into practical ways for People leaders to integrate intersectionality into the workplace. We’ll also provide illustrative examples and discuss its role in shaping diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging (DEIB) initiatives.

    What is intersectionality and how is it relevant to the workplace?

    In 1989, Kimberlè Crenshaw introduced the concept of intersectionality, describing it as a "lens, a prism, for seeing the way in which various forms of inequality often operate together and exacerbate each other. 

    “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."

    This principle remains true in the workplace. Employees don’t leave behind their identities when they enter. For People leaders seeking to enhance employee well-being, engagement, hiring, and retention, recognizing how intersectionality can help address workplace inequities is a valuable tool.

    A recent Deloitte survey found that:

    • 80% of employees prioritize inclusion when evaluating potential employers
    • 39% would contemplate leaving their current job for a more inclusive organization
    • Over half of millennials, the largest percentage of the workforce, report they’d change jobs for a more inclusive workplace
    • One-third of surveyed employees had already left a job pursuing a more inclusive work environment

    Clearly, inclusion holds great significance for employees. Achieving genuine inclusivity involves an intersectional approach that acknowledges the complexity of individuals’ identities and experiences.  

    What’s the difference between diversity, inclusion, and intersectionality? 

    Distinguishing commonly used terms related to diversity, inclusion, and intersectionality can provide clarity:

    • Social identity: how we construct our personal categories of identification about other people, such as race, gender, sexuality, and country of origin.
    • Underrepresented group: a subset of the population whose representation in society—such as workplaces, industries, positions of power, and media—is disproportionately lower than their numbers in the broader population. 
    • Intersectionality: the intricate interplay of various systems of inequality based on factors like gender, race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, gender identity, disability, and class. These factors intersect to produce distinctive dynamics and consequences.
    • Workplace diversity: policies and practices that bring individuals from diverse backgrounds into an organization, mirroring the world’s diversity. An example is a company highlighting racial or gender diversity within its rank.
    • Inclusion: the extent employees feel a sense of belonging in the workplace. It encompasses whether employees from diverse backgrounds are embraced, experience a sense of belonging, have their voice heard, and enjoy equitable access to opportunities and resources.

    Let’s look at how these concepts play out in the workplace.

    What are examples of intersectionality in the workplace?

    There are real human costs to ignoring intersectionality in the workplace. Policies and practices aimed solely at addressing inequalities tied to a single aspect of an individual’s identity may fall short, potentially exacerbating the issue. 

    Consider the following workplace examples that highlight intersectionality’s impact.

    Pay gap 

    A recent report from the Pew Research Center found that American women earn 82 cents for every dollar earned by men. However, when viewed through the lens of intersectionality, a deeper analysis reveals that Black women earn only 70% of what White men earn, and Hispanic women earn only 65%. 

    Focusing solely on the gender aspect of the pay gap disregards the distinct challenges faced by women of color whose race and gender overlap. Women of color and White women do not experience the pay gap in the same ways, even though they both belong to the category of women. 

    C-suite representation 

    While one in four C-suite leaders is a woman, only one in twenty is a woman of color. But this statistic doesn’t represent a complete picture. 

    Factors such as limited access to training, fewer mentorship opportunities, and reduced interaction with senior leaders disproportionately affect Black women versus White women. 

    Hiring discrimination 

    A recent meta-analysis of hiring discrimination studies indicates that job applicants from marginalized racial, ethnic, disability, or older groups face a one-third lower likelihood of receiving positive responses. However, this analysis focuses on individual identity categories rather than intersectional ones. 

    When someone belongs to multiple marginalized groups, their experience isn’t a simple accumulation of disadvantages. The world is more complex and dynamic than that, and the intricate interplay demands a more nuanced understanding. Kimberlè Crenshaw has pointed out that intersectionality challenges “the conceptual limitations of the single-issue analyses.” 

    How to apply intersectionality in the workplace

    A fundamental step for HR leaders, supervisors, and other workplace managers is to actively engage with voices on the margins. This entails fostering open dialogues through one-on-one discussions, anonymous surveys, or departmental meetings.

    Systemic barriers often result in employees from underrepresented groups having limited positions of authority within organizations. Managers and supervisors hold the capacity to amplify the voices of individuals positioned lower in the organizational hierarchy. 

    This is key as individuals might not be conscious of barriers they haven’t personally encountered. Initiating conversations with those who possess diverse life experiences and have confronted systemic challenges constitutes a significant starting point.

    Collect employee data

    It’s impossible to use intersectionality in the workplace without understanding the dynamics of your workforce. Here are several constructive approaches to achieve this. 

    Multiple perspectives from employee data: 

    • Rather than focusing on a single statistic, such as the number of women in the workforce, delve deeper
    • Recognize that the experiences of women of color and/or queer women may differ from those of straight White women
    • To gain insight, gather granular data that sheds light on these nuances

    Feedback loops:

    • Extend your efforts beyond the initial implementation of policies or initiatives
    • Assess the impact of these policies over time
    • Gauge employee sentiments after three months, a year, and beyond
    • Encourage open-ended responses in anonymous surveys to capture candid thoughts
    • Adapt strategies based on feedback, creating a cycle of improvement

    Anonymous information collection: 

    • Emphasize the absence of negative consequences for honesty when collecting information anonymously
    • Genuine data can only be acquired if employees feel safe expressing their views

    Experiment with policies and initiatives: 

    • Resist settling on a single strategy
    • Explore diverse approaches adopted by other companies, adapting them to your organization’s context
    • Maintain open communication with employees and sustain the feedback loop
    • Recognize that change takes time and may not yield immediate results
    • Even unsuccessful initiatives hold learning value and provide insights for future attempts

    Blend quantitative and qualitative data: 

    • Combine numerical data with stories to gain a richer understanding
    • The synergy of numbers and stories often offers comprehensive insights

    Inclusion in exit surveys:

    • Incorporate questions related to inclusion, intersectionality, and diversity in exit surveys
    • Determine if departing employees seek a more inclusive culture elsewhere or face neglect or discrimination tied to their identity
    • Many individuals are willing to switch jobs for greater inclusivity—HR leaders can leverage this data to gain support for DEIB initiatives

    Consider the entire employee life cycle

    Workplace leaders might take a comprehensive look at more than one area where intersectionality is helpful. An intersectional approach can be woven into various stages of the employee life cycle, beginning from day one. 

    • Recruitment: Focus on attracting individuals from underrepresented groups to ensure a diverse talent pool. 
    • Onboarding: Right from the start, communicate that inclusivity forms a core part of the company’s values. Equip new hires with knowledge about procedures against discrimination and provide information on who to approach if issues arise.
    • Training: Implement training sessions for managers and employees that enhance awareness of social identities, intersectionality, allyship, and the organization’s stance on DEIB.
    • Decision-making: Prioritize the perspectives of underrepresented groups in decision-making contexts. Foster environments that enable their active participation.
    • Employee Resource Groups (ERGs): Encourage ERGs to collaborate and acknowledge that members may embody multiple relevant identities. This acknowledgment enhances the richness of their workplace experiences.
    • Internal mobility: Create pathways for internal growth supported by training, upskilling, and mentoring programs specifically catering to employees from underrepresented groups.

    How to ensure mental health benefits align with intersectionality

    To promote the mental well-being of employees with intersectional identities, HR and benefits leaders can take steps to enhance their support systems. This includes reviewing and strengthening policies and benefits to ensure they’re robust and practical for diverse employees. 

    A comprehensive, innovative mental health benefit must provide: 

    1. Access to a varied pool of providers who possess insight into the experiences of individuals with intersectional identities, fostering a strong therapeutic alliance
    2. A selection of care options, including therapy and coaching, to cater to different preferences and requirements  

    Intersectionality is foundational for DEIB initiatives

    Implementing DEIB initiatives without an intersectional lens can perpetuate discrimination. While intentions may be positive, addressing issues like the gender pay gap while disregarding factors like race, immigration status, or neurodiversity can inadvertently exclude those with multiple marginalized identities.

    Consider a working-class person of color who is neurodiverse. This individual’s experience in the workplace is shaped by all their identities, not just one. Disparities in wages, leadership representation, hiring practices, and even office setups affect employees with diverse social identities. DEIB initiatives that recognize and accommodate this reality are more effective in achieving their intended goals. 

    For HR and benefits leaders, applying an intersectional approach to DEIB efforts offers a more comprehensive understanding of employees. It illuminates how individuals with layered identities experience discrimination and guides the creation of inclusive measures that embrace employees in their entirety. This perspective enhances the effectiveness and authenticity of DEIB initiatives. 

    Learn how to create successful DEIB initiatives that reduce negative experiences, unlock diverse strengths, and promote growth potential among employees. 

    About the Author
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    Jess Maynard

    Jess is a seasoned writer who has completed graduate work in women’s studies. She also works at a domestic violence shelter facilitating support groups for children and teens. Jess follows her curiosity devoutly and is committed to using her accumulated knowledge and life experiences to articulate facets of being human.

    About the clinical reviewer
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