crossroads representing intersectionality

Intersectionality at Work

In Blog, Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion by Erika Powell

Examining issues in the workplace through an intersectional lens is paramount to conversations about diversity, equity, and inclusion. When working to create a more inclusive and equitable workplace, we cannot overlook the fact that power, identity, privilege, and oppression are inextricably linked. When we do, we run the risk of perpetuating systems of oppression and inequities towards other groups. Intersectionality is a popular term these days that gets referenced frequently during conversations and exchanges related to diversity, equity, and inclusion. But do you know what it means, how the term came about, or even how to put it into practice in your workplace and daily interactions?

Meaning and Origins of the Term 

The term “intersectionality” first made its way into the pages of the Oxford English Dictionary in 2015, and was defined as:

“The interconnected nature of social categorizations such as race, class, and gender, regarded as creating overlapping and independent systems of discrimination or disadvantage.”

Two years later, Merriam-Webster followed suit with a definition that centered the experiences of marginalized individuals and groups, and that emphasized the complex and cumulative impact of discrimination on these populations.  

While dictionaries officially recognized the term only within the past six years, the term has actually been around since 1989. It was first coined by Kimberlé Crenshaw, a law professor and social theorist, who sought to describe the interconnected and overlapping nature of social identities such as race, gender, mental/physical ability, spirituality, sexual orientation, etc.

In her seminal paper, Crenshaw built upon the work of early Black feminists who struggled to identify with and relate to mainstream feminist movements, which privileged and catered mainly to the experiences and concerns of White middle-class women. Crenshaw’s work has had a powerful and long-lasting impact because it challenged limited notions of feminism by centering the experiences of Black women. In doing so, she drew attention to the intersection between blackness and womanhood while also broadening feminism’s definition and scope. To detail why this is necessary and important, Crenshaw wrote:

“Black women are sometimes excluded from feminist theory and antiracist policy discourse because both are predicated on a discrete set of experiences that often does not accurately reflection the interaction of race and gender…The intersectional experience is greater than the sum of racism and sexism, any analysis that does not take intersectionality into account cannot sufficiently address the particular manner in which Black women are subordinated.”   

Crenshaw’s work highlights the differences in experiences among people with different overlapping identities. For her, individuals experience multiple aspects of their identity simultaneously and conceptualizing discrimination solely along the lines of a single identity category negates the ways in which various forms of oppression and inequity operate in tandem and exacerbate each other. 

Let’s look at a practical example of intersectionality at play. Imagine an LGBTQ+ Black woman with a disability, and an LGBTQ+ able-bodied White woman in the same workplace. Each will experience different levels of discrimination and oppression based on their respective identities. However, while the former may experience homophobia, racism, and discrimination based on her mental/physical ability, the privilege and power connected to the latter’s whiteness will always protect and shield her from the racism and oppression that the other woman experiences.

Paying Attention to Intersectionality at Work

If you’re wondering how to add an intersectional lens to your interactions and/or strengthen your diversity, equity, and inclusion efforts by taking this framework into account, consider these tips:

Recognize the Overlap

We can’t bypass the intersectional nature of an individual’s experience in the workplace by assuming that “all women” or “all Latinx” behave or believe a certain way. Doing so leads to oversimplification and generalizations. Instead, work towards leveraging intersectionality by recognizing that people experience the world differently based on how their identities overlap.  

In practice, this could mean that when you analyze data at your organization, you and your team look at it from multiple perspectives. So, instead of looking at engagement or even promotion data from a broader category of “women”, you drill down to examine and understand how “Black women”, “Latinx women”, “LGBTQ+ women”, etc. experience your workplace and organizational culture.  

Ensure Intersectional Representation

Applying an intersectional lens requires that we not only examine an issue from multiple perspectives but that we also ensure that multiple voices are represented and have a seat at the table. As intersectionality teaches us, people’s experiences aren’t one-dimensional. Having separate siloed programs and initiatives for each singular identity can weaken our efforts.  In the long-term, this can be counterproductive to addressing the imbalances of power that contribute to inequity.  

So, for example, if you’re trying to increase support, create programming, or make decisions related to LGBTQ+ employees at your organization, it would be critical for you to include the perspectives of BIPOC LGBTQ+ in the conversation as well as LGBTQ+ with disabilities and/or that vary with regards to their family status or composition. Another way to ensure intersectional representation is to encourage collaboration between various employee resource groups (ERGs).  

Examine your privilege 

In thinking about what steps you can take towards embracing an intersectional framework, take the time to continuously reflect on where you hold privilege, how it impacts the ways in which you experience and move through the world, and also how the places where you hold privilege impact your interactions with those around you. Remember, each of us has multiple identities that are tied to varying amounts of privilege and access.  

In practice, work towards normalizing having conversations that acknowledge the roles that power and privilege play in an interaction, dynamic, or exchange. Also examine how power and privilege can impact decisions and outcomes for those identities that are most impacted by deep-rooted bias, oppression, discrimination, and racism in the workplace.  

Nowadays, intersectionality is considered to be essential to any type of social justice and/or equity effort. At its core, intersectionality requires us to locate and situate our identities within political and social factors that hugely impact our standing and status. It also requires us to acknowledge that everyone has a unique experience of oppression and discrimination based on their overlapping social identities. This framework has proven necessary in helping us understand how power, oppression, and privilege impact aspects of our identity and our experiences moving through the world.   

Want to learn more?  Check out these resources to deepen your knowledge and understanding of intersectionality:

  1. Dr. Crenshaw’s dynamic 2016 TED talk 
  2. George Washington University’s Resources on Intersectionality
  3. What’s Intersectionality?  Let These Scholars Explain the Theory and Its History (Time Magazine)
  4. She Coined the Term ‘Intersectionality’ Over 30 Years Ago.  Here’s What It Means to Her Today (Time Magazine)
  5. Intersectionality 101 (Teaching Tolerance Video)

Are you ready to find out more about how intersectionality can show up and have an impact in the workplace? Learn about our online course, Unconscious Bias in the Workplace!