The ABC of Intersectionality

Intersectionality as a term has caught up in the recent times. The Webster Dictionary defines Intersectionality as the complex, cumulative way in which the effects of multiple forms of discrimination (such as racism, sexism, and classism) combine, overlap, or intersect especially in the experiences of marginalized individuals or groups.

In order to establish equitable workplaces, organizations will have to see people with multi-faceted in their social identities. As leaders comprehend with Diversity, Equity & Inclusion (DEI), it is also important to remember that our social identities are not limited to race, gender, sexuality, disability and socio-economic background. Individuals’ experiences shape up intersectionality and we must view the world from the perspective of those individuals.

Who is intersectional?

A person who is at the intersection of multiple identities, with one or more markers such as sexual orientation, ability / disability, age, religion, veteran status, class status   and cognitive diversity is said to be intersectional. They experience the world through multifaceted lens of discrimination and disadvantage as well as progress and pride. These markers interact to affect the lived experience and contribute to unequal outcomes in ways which cannot be attributed to one dimension alone.  This is also termed as multi identity in common parlance.

What does intersectionality mean to organizations?

Organisations who aim to be inclusive should take an intersectional approach to look at HR practices and work place culture to address invisible discrimination based on multiple identities, which would otherwise not be addressed by a single dimensional silo approach to diversity. Intersectionality would mean a more focussed approach diversity and inclusion practices in organisations. Organisations which do not view with an intersectional lens, fail to recognise micro in equities. Businesses which do not consider intersectionality in diversity and inclusion may ultimately lose out from high staff turnover.

How do various people’s intersectionality add layers of complexity in the context of workplaces?

Workplaces often silo D&I efforts which is counterintuitive to creating an environment that is that is fully intersectional, where employees’ various identities are just as valued as their professional development or productivity.

Organizations who do not view D&I efforts through the intersectional lens, tend to have risks of greater wage inequality amongst affected groups. It is said that white women would reach gender parity with men by 2059, black women would do it only by 2130 and Hispanic women would be successful only by the year 2224. Disabled people also have a lower pay than normal people.

Lack of professional development opportunities, discriminatory hiring and inequities in unemployment have been seen in workplaces for intersectional people and research supports these negative effects.

  • LGBTQI women with disabilities face sexual harassment than others in the disabled category.
  • Employees who face discrimination linked to intersectionality leave the organisation which results in higher turnover rates.

Why is intersectional diversity crucial in today’s context?

In today’s context D&I efforts include equity as a dimension which means giving equal opportunity for everyone, considering their background, development needs and challenges. Companies should try new methods if existing processes do not address equity across diverse sub segments. It is not sufficient to have D&I programs with measurable targets but go beyond to examine issues which complicate issues and create by innovating meaningful solutions to address the impact of intersectionality. 

How can the leaders engage with the workforce to remove the complexities and build more inclusive workspaces?

Leaders should work towards dismantling the oppressive systems of power that privilege certain people more than others who have multiple identities which are affected by deep rooted biases. They should assess the culture, to understand the root causes of inequities and should lead the way by building modelling an inclusive culture, encourage and model intersectional viewpoints.

Do socio-economic differences influence the decision making of employees? Are these unconscious biases?

Socio economic differences or class status results in people feeling excluded due to negative work experiences. Class based bias, like any other bias gets into systems and processes in the work place and these unknowingly affect work environments and career progression of class migrants   

How does a leader build inclusivity in a team with women employees from both urban and rural backgrounds?

Intersectionality starts at the top and leaders need to acknowledge the unconscious bias which that the intersection becomes invisible at times and they should state and live the intent to promote inclusivity.

A leader has to firstly bust the myth, by sharing stories of class migrants who have been successful due to their work ethics, positive attitude and daring nature; secondly, encourage and listen to open talk about differences between them particularly paying attention to those aspects that can bridge differences such as class, status, exposure; hold facilitated conversations with both segments to see what works well and what does not. Thirdly, educate and train both segments of  women on self-awareness and biases that impact decision making; not discount subtle biases and microaggressions noticed; take into account instances of exclusion and their impact track and monitor process and point out where there is a breakdown of equity and ensure all tools and processes mitigate biases ; fourthly, shore up skills of employees by peer coaching, encourage team members to support each other ; have a buddy program and a mentorship initiative.

Often it is seen that in a bid to be impartial, managers tend to put self-awareness or rooting out biases in the back-burner. How can one ensure meritocracy in the organization without having to discriminate?

Merit based practices in organisations can unintentionally create disparities based on gender, class, origin or race. Establishing systems for collection of data on people related processes and outcomes -people analytics, monitoring and evaluating them for fairness and being free from bias will help minimise discrimination in work places.

How do micro-inequities manifest in workplaces?

Micro aggression microinequities are primarily due to prejudices and assumptions about other people without applying thoughtful judgement and a sense of security in gravitating towards who you are identified with. Micro inequities are hard to recognise and often difficult to explain. Any complaints against these are often taken lightly and the victim is perceived as being unduly sensitive. The results of microaggressions are being given roles without thought based on stereotypes, facing unfound assumptions and reactions there from, being interrupted more than other preferred people, not getting superior roles no matter how exceptional the performance is.

Intersectionality results in micro-inequities which are directed at people with less power, such as women, people of color, and lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer people. For instance, when we consider gender the pay gap has been bigger for women of colour and this starts at the entry level and stays through her career. Such women also experience other inequities such as challenges for their decisions and questions in their aera of expertise. They receive less support from managers and sponsorship opportunities are fewer for them. This is applicable for all women of color who have to build strong relationships across and up and down and across the organisation. There is a lack of role models, professional growth, and career opportunities for such women. Leadership advancement is a challenge, and they remain stagnant in the organisation.

People of color who experience micro aggression have an emotional tax burden as they always have to be on guard to protect against bias, discrimination and unfair treatment. Lesbian women socialise less and get lesser access to their leaders. Half of these women report having faced sexual harassment. They often have to modulate their identities to be accepted at the workplace and research shows that 77% of transgender employees hide their identities at work. This increases their stress, decreased engagement and decreased retention. Women with disabilities are almost invisible amongst advocates for women and disabled. They earn lesser remuneration than others without disabilities.

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