Women’s Intersectionality: Why Business As Usual Isn’t Working

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Jess Maynard
Clinically reviewed by
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    While fewer people are quitting their jobs this year, women are quitting at faster rates than men. The Harvard Business Review collected data just prior to the pandemic from MBAs working full time in various industries, and women reported higher rates of burnout, health issues, and worse mental health than men. 

    This was before COVID-19 exacerbated mental health issues and burnout, so it’s not a short term problem caused solely by the pandemic.

    The past couple of years have made it evident that women are suffering at work. When you begin to view this through the lens of intersectionality, it’s easier to see why workplaces often negatively impact women’s mental health.

    Breaking down intersectionality 

    We all experience the concept of intersectionality every day. No one could sum you up in one word, one personality trait, or one experience. We all contain multitudes, complete with complex and dynamic identities, ideas, and experiences that evolve over the course of our lives. 

    How our identities overlap and intertwine is the basis of intersectionality

    The ways in which systems of inequality based on gender, race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, gender identity, disability, class, and other forms of discrimination “intersect” to create unique dynamics and effects.

    Bringing our whole selves into the workplace

    We carry all of our identities around with us, all of the time. Civil rights activist and writer Audre Lorde notes, “there is no such thing as a single-issue struggle because we do not live single-issue lives.” This applies to every area of our lives, including the workplace.

    When we go to work, we don’t cease to exist as complex human beings, and we don’t leave our non-work experiences at the door. For women, this is especially important as the workplace has long been a space hostile to women, their identities, and their experiences.

    The workplace hasn’t been kind to women’s mental health

    While men and women have similar rates of mental health issues, women face different mental health challenges in the workplace, specific to their social identities. 

    According to the APA:

    • Women are twice as likely as men to experience depression, generalized anxiety disorder, PTSD, and eating disorders
    • Women deal with pay inequity, unequal caregiving responsibilities, gender based violence, and sexual harassment
    • Women often have the additional burden of being the token female employee in workplace settings and having to adhere to male dominated standards of “professional behavior”

    An additional barrier that women face was found in a recent Mind Share Partners report: “Women respondents were less comfortable talking about their mental health to managers and HR than men were, but no difference existed when talking to colleagues or friends.” 

    How women experience intersecting identities in the workplace 

    It’s important to note that all organizations and companies have employees with intersectional identities. Humans have always been intersectional—that isn’t new. 

    What is new is having intersectionality as a conceptual tool to analyze and understand the complex ways that social structures interact. We don’t experience our social identities one at a time.

    A queer Black woman contends with racist, sexist, and homophobic interactions, along with microaggressions, fewer opportunities for advancement, and lower salary in the workplace. These may be similar to obstacles that a queer white woman deals with, but they aren’t the same. They both face marginalization due to being women and queer, but the Black employee also faces gender discrimination and homophobia intertwined with racism.

    This is a really important distinction. A queer trans woman of color may exerpience all of those things while also facing trans-specific discrimination. It isn’t that identities pile up in some sort of oppression Olympics. We are all complex beings. Some of us live with identities that have long been marginalized and affect our daily lives in the workplace and in the world. 

    It’s time for companies and organizations to acknowledge that.

    Without intersectionality, there’s no equality

    The Center for Intersectional Justice says this: “All forms of inequality are mutually reinforcing, and must therefore be analyzed and addressed simultaneously to prevent one form of inequality from reinforcing another. 

    “For example, tackling the gender pay gap alone—without including other dimensions such as race, socio-economic status, and immigration status—will likely reinforce inequalities among women.”

    Many women face a choice between hiding their full selves or being marginalized. This is detrimental to mental health and one of the reasons workers are leaving jobs in such high numbers. Remember, toxic workplaces are the number one reason employees quit.

    Making workplaces more innovative, creative, and interesting 

    Workplaces are more interesting and dynamic when the people brought together within them reflect the diversity in our world. When you bring people together for 40 hours a week, the composition of identities matters. If a team is composed of people with similar backgrounds, upbringings, and experiences, they’re less likely to come up with a new way of approaching a problem, new products, or a new way of doing business.

    A group of people with a variety of intersecting identities, different perspectives, backgrounds, and neurodiverse ways of perceiving the world will interact and exchange information in new ways. 

    Intersectionality creates the ideal conditions for:

    • Creativity, catalyzed by bringing together employees with multiple identities and perspectives who are able to be their full selves in the workplace.
    • Lateral thinking, which is better in environments containing diverse minds and different ways of thinking and perceiving the world.
    • A better workplace environment for all employees. Everyone is able to bring their full selves to work. 
    • Better employee productivity, engagement, and mental health outcomes.

    Intersectional approaches strengthen hiring and retention. Building an environment where women are able to thrive also means the conditions for general employee wellbeing are present. As companies are struggling with hiring and retention, implementing intersectionality is a great way to attract and retain talent.

    Here are some ways that integrating intersectionality into the fabric of workplace culture and company policy creates better hiring and retention outcomes:

    • Employees feel free to bring their full selves to work. This makes work a place where people want to be! 
    • More types of people feel comfortable, whether that’s personality types, people from different economic backgrounds, or folks with a range of gender identities and ethnic backgrounds. 
    • It’s more likely that pay inequality and other systemic inequalities are addressed.
    • Intersectionality allows women to have a voice in the workplace when they have often been silenced. Of course women will want to work somewhere that they are listened to and respected.
    • Being the “only” person of a marginalized identity in a space is uncomfortable. When an employee isn’t the only woman in the room, the only queer person, the only BIPOC employee (or some combination of these), it’s more likely that their workplace experience is less exhausting and more positive.

    Including intersectionality in your DEIB strategy

    One way for your organization to begin intentionally focusing on and embracing intersectionality is to include it in your DEIB strategy. DEIB initiatives that address only one identity, as if women only inhabit one at a time, create a narrow approach that attempts to neatly segment human experience into discrete categories. 

    This method doesn’t capture the multiplicity of human experience and tends to reinforce the status quo. For example, even well-meant diversity initiatives focused on promoting women end up centering the experiences of White women, as White people’s experiences are used as the default in our society. In part two of this series, we’ll dive deeper into how People leaders can champion and support intersectionality in their organization. 

    In the meantime, read this blog to learn how to advocate for policies and practices that take women’s varied identities and experiences into account, and create a culture where everyone can thrive.

    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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