Intersectionality has become a buzzword in recent years.
Depending on who you ask, intersectionality is either:
- A scholarly theory
- An advanced level of wokeness
- Black women
- Anyone who is ‘multiply marginalized’
- A critique of white feminists and white feminism
These multiple and conflicting definitions have also been used as prescriptions for corporate diversity and inclusion initiatives, with many industry magazines and blogs claiming that ‘intersectionality’ enhances organizational inclusion, employee engagement, and performance and profit.
Despite these well-intentioned aims, there’s unfortunately little evidence for the organizational benefits of intersectionality in the workplace for three reasons:
- First, intersectionality was never designed as a framework for organizational practice.
- Second, very few organizations properly understand intersectionality.
- Finally, even fewer organizations have attempted meaningful ways of implementing intersectionality in their structure, leadership, and day-to-day operations. There are simply not enough empirical cases to research the effects of intersectional interventions.
In this post, I’m going to help clarify the meaning of intersectionality. I’ll cut through some of the popular misunderstandings and misuses of intersectionality and explain exactly what an intersectional approach means for workplace diversity and inclusion.
I’ll discuss why and how intersectionality matters in the workplace (spoiler alert: it’s not about generating performance and profit), and I’ll share some ideas for what intersectional leadership would look like.
What is Intersectionality?
Intersectional feminism is an intellectual and political movement that identifies and challenges the ways interlocking systems of oppression impact social life.
What this means in practice is understanding how people who have multiple marginalities, such as women of color, are often left unprotected by social, organizational, and legal frameworks.
If we assume people of color are by default men and women are by default white, women of color are caught in a bind where they may struggle to receive recognition and redress for the racism and sexism they face.
Intersectionality is not just confined to thinking about people’s marginalized identities. A critical dimension of intersectionality that Kimberlé Crenshaw later distinguished and emphasized as “structural intersectionality” is concerned with the gendered, sexual, racial, and economic systems of oppression in our society.
Kimberlé Crenshaw developed intersectionality theory in part out of the legal case of DeGraffenreid v General Motors. The plaintiffs were five Black women who sued their former employer General Motors in 1976 for discriminating against Black women following their collective layoff.
They lost the case because the law could only deal with one form of discrimination (racism or sexism) at a time. It was unable to recognize discrimination against workers who were both Black and women.
General Motors could prove they hired both Black people (Black men) and women (white women) so the plaintiffs lost their case on charges of racism and sexism. They were failed by the very laws that were designed to protect subordinate groups like themselves.
So the elephant in the room I have to address now is that organizations have historically benefited from intersectional injustice. General Motors had an operating income of US$5.481 billion in 2019 and this was not because they championed intersectionality.
I can’t pretend that all organizations would want to implement intersectional principles in their diversity and inclusion policies.
It requires a powerful drive to be different and to do differently.
It requires a commitment to systemic social transformation.
Kimberlé Crenshaw’s pathbreaking theory showed how intersectional discrimination happens in organizations.
Now 30 years since the publication of her article where she defined ‘intersectionality’ for the first time, intersectional discrimination and harassment remain persistent features at work.
For example, women of color are more likely to experience sexual harassment than white women at work. Disabled LGBTQIA+ women are more likely to experience sexual harassment than disabled men and non-disabled women.
As can be expected, intersectional discrimination and harassment have terrible psychoemotional consequences for marginalized people. In a study by psychologists NiCole Buchanan, Isis Settles, Ivan Wu, and Diane Hayashino, everyday forms of gender harassment (e.g., expressing negative stereotypes) enhanced depression, while more severe forms of unwanted sexual attention, sexual coercion, and racial harassment triggered trauma.
The overrepresentation of highly privileged cisgender heterosexual able-bodied middle-to-upper class white men in organizations is a legacy of European colonialism.
On its own, simply counting the number of bodies that look ‘different’ is not adequate for intersectional inclusion or justice.
This ‘body count’ approach to diversity can often end up in tokenism.
Tokenism in the workplace is the instrumental appointment of someone from a marginalized social group with the primary goal of deflecting criticism and give the impression that the organization is fair and equitable.
Hiring and promoting marginalized employees as a tokenistic gesture can exacerbate their senses of alienation and isolation, leave them vulnerable to bullying, and ultimately burn them out in their fight to survive in an inhospitable environment.
To meaningfully address underrepresentation, organizations need to be committed to creating a conducive ecosystem within and beyond the workplace.
Diversity ≠ Women
Intersectionality offers a powerful framework to help understand how interlocking systems of oppression shape dynamics at work. It recognizes the complex, messy, and nuanced particularities of identity and power that mainstream diversity and inclusion frameworks can neglect.
In the wise words of Audre Lorde…
There is no such thing as a single-issue struggle because we do not live single-issue lives.
Yet without a deliberate framework for intersectionality in the workplace, organizations tend to champion the issues that seem like low-hanging fruit.
The most common example of this is specifying ‘women’ as the primary, if not only, ‘diversity’ focus. Most gender initiatives reflect 19th Century liberal feminist aims, such as equal rights to work and pay.
‘Flexible work’ initiatives are often included in these diversity policies because organizations understand that women (still) tend to bear the greater burden of care, so flexible work arrangements allow them to do their paid work around their unpaid work.
Unfortunately, flexible work arrangements usually reinforce the unequal division of domestic labor, while perpetuating the economic exploitation of workers of all genders through the growing expectation that we are ‘available’ to work at all hours.
In my research, race and racism tend to remain much more unspeakable in workplaces. Some organizations have the misbelief that simply talking about race is racist. If employees of color attempt to raise racial concerns to management, they’re either accused of pursuing their self-interests (i.e., to get a promotion or a pay raise) or being a troublemaker.
An interesting trend is that many organizations are increasingly willing to embrace LGBTQIA+ agendas. I suspect a reason for this is because while discussions of racism can trigger white shame, discussions of homophobia are less likely to trigger ‘straight shame’. As a consequence, LGBTQIA+ inclusion can sometimes seem less threatening than racial inclusion.
Two things here:
- Heteronormative culture and straight people have played a brutal role in homophobic and transphobic violence and we do need to reckon with guilt and support LBGTQIA+ activists in creating a more hospitable world.
- Like with gender equality, the LGBTQIA+ agenda in corporate diversity and inclusion initiatives are usually watered down to vague celebrations about ‘pride’ or placing rainbow filters over corporate logos. Although it is hugely valuable and important for organizations to publicly stand against homophobia and transphobia, this commitment needs to be reflected in the day-to-day realities of the workplace.
- At the individual-level, LGBTQIA+ people need to be treated equitably in recruitment, pay, and promotion.
- At the organizational level, there needs to be a zero-tolerance policy for violence against LGBTQIA+ people, while recognizing that their marginalization is compounded with other intersecting subdominant identities such as being disabled, a person of color, and/or a woman.
- At the systemic-level, the organization needs to work towards dismantling cis-heteropatriarchy and its reproduction in imperialism, white supremacy, and capitalism.
Intersectionality helps us to avoid oversimplistic generalizations, such as seeing women as universally and unilaterally disadvantaged, and focussing on very narrow measured of ‘equality’ at the expense of true social justice.
Social justice, then, is not a vision that most for-profit organizations desire because it would mean undermining their core business agenda.
Why Intersectionality in the Workplace Matters
Intersectionality matters in the workplace, frankly, because it matters everywhere.
I could show you evidence that truly diverse (not just gender diverse) organizations report better performance, more creativity and innovation, lower turnover, and thus argue that intersectionality is good for profit… but this rationale goes against the very principles of intersectionality.
Intersectionality matters in the workplace because organizations that don’t center social justice are killing us.
Organizations, whether they’re a for-profit corporation or a charitable foundation, are products of the culture around them.
In the white-dominated West, our society is characterized by bell hooks as an imperialist white supremacist capitalist patriarchy. She describes our society as a dominator culture, one that has naturalized and normalized oppression and violence as taken-for-granted ways of life.
Organizations within dominator culture tend to reproduce economic (and physical, emotional, intellectual) exploitation. They are typically dehumanizing places to work and yet many of us are forced to stay because we’re dependent on our wages to survive.
With the exception of a privileged few, contemporary workplaces are sites of exhaustion, stress, and overwhelm.
Intersectionality imagines a world where work can be sites of collaborative ownership, personal and collective fulfillment, and solidaristic care.
Workplaces where social justice is the primary, if not only, purpose.
Creating justice in the workplace requires nothing short of a fundamental transformation of the systems of power.
This vision requires unique leadership practices to bring about. When I say ‘leadership’, I’m not referring to popular cultural ideas of an exceptional and heroic individual who rides in on his white horse to single-handedly save the organization (and the world).
Rather, an intersectional approach to leadership operates from four radical principles:
- Aimed towards dismantling interlocking systems of oppression and exploitation.
- Center marginalized people, especially Black, Indigenous, women of color who have traditionally been sidelined from the work of leadership.
- Focus on the ongoing processes of leading rather than the individual leaders who hold positions of power.
- Nurture the collective over the individual and struggle towards distributed, dispersed, shared, and collective power, rather than hierarchy.
An intersectional approach to leadership is therefore incompatible with traditional organizational structures under capitalism.
Although some of the principles above may inspire more ethical and inclusive leadership practices within organizations, it wouldn’t be in line with the fundamental ethos of intersectionality to claim that a capitalistic organization is enacting or can enact an intersectional politics.
To learn more about these principles of intersectional leadership and how they can be practiced, please read my post on leadership for social transformation.
This post has demystified some of the confusing misinformation about intersectionality circulating around the industry and the Internet.
Specifically, I’ve challenged the unsubstantiated claims for intersectionality’s corporate benefits and shown how it’s inherently opposed to organizations that are born from and reinforce the imperialist white supremacist capitalist heteropatriarchy.
Despite this, intersectionality is vital to our organizations and society if we want to create hospitable places where all people, not just the multiply privileged, can thrive.
To hear three multiply marginalized corporate professionals discuss what intersectionality means for them, please watch this fascinating and insightful panel below.
Although this discussion exhibits some of my criticisms about how intersectionality is used in the workplace, it nevertheless shows how much inclusion and belonging means to people working within corporate environments in the United States.
Helena Liu (2020) Redeeming Leadership: An Anti-Racist Feminist Intervention
This post contains affiliate links and I may be compensated if you make a purchase through my link at no additional cost to you.
Featured image by Gemma Chau Tran