What Intersectionality Is and Why It Matters to Your Organization

A black woman works on a laptop

Understanding intersectionality and the experiences of employees who belong to more than one marginalized social group is critical to achieving success in diversity and inclusion initiatives.

Intersectionality and leadership go hand in hand when it comes to diversity and inclusion initiatives, but the relationship is often overlooked, which can keep organizations from truly achieving their goals. Diversity can be achieved through fair hiring practices and internal mobility, but true inclusion relies on intersectionality, a concept that many business leaders are just beginning to learn about.

Considering intersectionality requires leaders to look past the numbers and statistics, and to focus on the actual human experience of employees in their organization.

What is Intersectionality?

In the context of diversity and inclusion (D&I), intersectionality describes the interconnected relationship of social categorizations (such as race, gender and sexual orientation) as applied to an individual or a group. Belonging to more than one group that is often discriminated against can increase the likelihood of a person facing unfair treatment and could make it more difficult to determine which aspect of their identity is being targeted.

As an example, consider the experience of a queer Black woman in the workplace. "That individual is all three different kinds of elements of diversity," said Ted Kopta, VP of Marketing at ADP. "They are all of those things, and all of those things make up their experience, so I think what we really need to focus on going forward is coming together as diverse groups and thinking about that intersectionality, and how much more powerful that can be from a diversity perspective than viewing groups as residing in swim lanes or silos."

Diversity and inclusion programs often segment groups based on just one element of identity to promote diversity, without addressing the experience of employees who belong to multiple groups. While it is typically well intentioned, this siloed approach to diversity can actually result in exclusionary behaviors, as it fails to recognize the whole, complex identity of many employees.

In order to achieve the 'inclusion' part of D&I, organizations need to understand and address intersectionality and leaders need to make it a priority as they assess initiatives, set goals and design programs to promote diversity.

Intersectionality is the "Pivot of Diversity"

Effective business leaders understand that diverse perspectives lead to better business outcomes through innovation, efficiency and organizational culture. However, when leaders focus too narrowly on programmatic approaches to D&I that rely on categorization, the actual human experience of employees is often overlooked, if not ignored completely.

By taking time to understand the experience of employees who belong to multiple social groups, leaders can learn how oppressions are interlinked and see that these issues cannot be solved in silos. Refocusing on developing an understanding of the role of intersectionality is the diversity pivot that enables leaders to offer real support to employees from all walks of life.

When employees feel supported and accepted, regardless of the social categories to which they belong, the organization can celebrate progress in the "inclusion" area of D&I. Truly inclusive workplaces tend to see better results, as their employees feel comfortable and safe to express their ideas and share diverse perspectives that drive value.

Business leaders already have intersectional workforces. The key to unlocking the benefits of diverse perspectives in the workplace lies in understanding and appreciating the varied experiences of your employees. Learning how intersectionality affects employees within your organization is the first step in creating a truly diverse and inclusive workplace where all employees feel supported and encouraged to show up to work with their whole selves.

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