How to leverage intersectionality to create a more diverse and inclusive organisation

The complexities of our identities mean that we are rarely playing just one role at work or in society generally. It's not as simple as categorising someone as either the oppressor or the oppressed.

Intersectionality, a term coined by US lawyer and civil rights advocate Kimberlé Crenshaw, describes the interconnectedness of social identity. It helps us understand how aspects of a person's social and political identities combine to create different modes of discrimination and privilege.

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Viewing our differences through the lens of intersectionality sheds light on how and why our differences enable some of us to access and hold power in the workplace, while others face more of a struggle.

So how can HR leaders leverage intersectionality to create a more diverse and inclusive organisation?

In the workplace, employers often hold the value of equality as the standard of fair practice at work. Equity goes much further. It creates the type of environment where everyone, regardless of their identity, has the capacity and tools to excel.

Diversity is about the numbers that make up the differences between people in an organisation – but it is not sufficient because employees are far more complex than a single diversity check.

There has been a big push for more women in the workplace and to have those women in decision-making positions. But there is still a long way to go. The FTSE 100 lists six women as CEOs of the UK’s top-performing organisations – compared with 94 men. And although this number itself is abysmal, there are no women of colour represented in the 6%.

Feminism holds patriarchal values to account and advocates for equitable space for women in the workplace and in society. But if this version of feminism only represents a particular type of woman – ie white and middle class then it is not inclusive and crumbles at the hand of its own vision of freedom and equality. 

At work, a black woman may experience racism or anti-blackness, as well as sexism, but this would be experienced differently from the way a white woman experiences sexism or a black man experiences racism. This is because these layers of marginalisation are being experienced simultaneously and there is no true way to separate these identity strands. The same may apply to a person of colour who is part of the LGBTQ community and/or a person with a disability or one who practises a non-dominant religion.

In one aspect of identity, an employee can belong to the privileged end of a power system – for example, being a man in the workplace and reaping the benefits of a patriarchal system. But if this man is also a person of colour, he is simultaneously at the disadvantaged end of the power system of racism.

In cultivating an inclusive environment, HR leaders must reinforce the narrative of 'bringing one’s whole self to work' with action. An intersectional approach will foster a space where there are no expectations of how a member of a particular group 'should' show up. It is important to remove preconceived notions of what professionalism looks like. Such notions are based on our cultural or class backgrounds or on the norms of the dominant culture. If we interrogate them further, it is often a rejection/bias against an aspect of one’s social identity that causes us to perceive someone as 'unprofessional'.

Here are some challenges for HR leaders who desire to create inclusive organisations:

  • Create intentional 'listening' spaces for employees to come together and speak about their intersectional identity. Use employee resource groups, if they exist within your organisation
  • Acknowledge the diverse pool of talent within your company. Celebrate difference – not assimilation
  • Talent acquisition teams should challenge what they perceive to be a 'cultural fit' for an organisation
  • Beware of the ways you showcase diversity in your business. Do not tokenise people from marginalised groups. Once you get listening to employees, the best ways to represent them become clear.

Taniya Sonko is a consultant at global diversity and inclusion training consultancy PDT Global, part of Affirmity


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