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What is Intersectionality and What Does it Mean for the Workplace?

Updated: Apr 7, 2023

If you've been paying attention to anything related to diversity, belonging, and accessibility lately, you may have heard the term intersectionality being tossed around.


So, what is intersectionality?


Intersectionality is a social categorization based on many identifiable factors, such as race, gender, sexual orientation, gender identity, socioeconomic status, religion, age, disability status, etc. It looks at how a person’s various identities overlap, interact, and are combined & perceived by others around them.


Some identities are visible, like race, and some overt disabilities.

Some are invisible like some disabilities, sexual orientation, and religious affiliation.

Some can change throughout one’s life like socioeconomic status.

Some are based on perception like people being “white passing.”



What makes intersectionality complex is that someone can be discriminated against in some areas but privileged in others. For example, a white woman who is a lesbian and lives with an invisible disability has certain unearned privileged because they’re white, but oppressed and unwelcome in some spaces because of their sexual orientation. Considering their disability is invisible adds another element to consider, because they may or may not disclose their disability, but regardless it is part of their identity and must be factored in for accessibility, accommodation, and how they move through the workplace and hiring process. Just because you can't see it doesn't mean it doesn't impact them.

Intersectionality is important to consider when interacting with others. For example, if someone is a racialized recent immigrant and that’s what you focus on when interacting with them, then you’re ignoring other sides of them. They could have left their home country due to persecution for being gay, but completely ignoring that part of them doesn't do any favours for relationship building.


Some people may not want to disclose certain things about themselves, and no one owes you disclosure. Use social cues to judge whether someone feels uncomfortable in conversation and respect their boundaries. They could be experiencing shame or embarrassment, so let's not push. Survival is the priority here.


You may have your own opinions about how intersectional identities are supposed to or not supposed to intersect. For example, I know several Muslims who are part of the 2SLGBTQIA+ community and receive quite a bit of backlash because there are many folks who perceive homosexuality as “illegal” within the faith. Blair Imani is one example. Leave these discriminatory perceptions alone and treat everyone with respect.


What does this mean for work?

In our Western society, there tends to be a defaulted white cis-heteronormative culture where the able-bodied white cisgendered straight man is the “norm” and everyone else is marginalized, othered, different, or placed on the peripherals. This default is no longer the case. Our society is so much more diverse and complex than that. Our workplaces need to be reflective of the wonderfully rich and culturally vibrant communities we live in. There are so many benefits to diversity, equity, and inclusion that it should be the norm.


The structural and systemic barriers imposed on different groups can be compounded for intersectional folks. For example, there is already a known gender pay gap, but it is exacerbated even more for a woman who is disabled. This could also be the case for a work environment where there is a lack of equitable opportunities for advancement, so a racialized woman with a low socioeconomic status is even harder hit here than a white woman from a middle-class family. Providing equitable opportunities that are based on performance rather than who the supervisor is friendly with is key.


At work, we cannot assume anything about our colleagues. We may perceive them to be a certain way, but their past experiences and interactions have shaped who they are. You may come across people who are perceived as loud but in their past job, they were the only woman and had to fight to have their voice heard. You may think someone is cheap, but they had a very poor upbringing. You may think someone is antisocial, but they are neurodivergent.


Understanding that everyone comes with a different perspective is what makes diversity exciting. There is so much to learn from one another.


How can we Combat Discrimination Against Intersectional Identities?

  1. Ask Staff - Survey employees and provide them with the voluntary opportunity to disclose their identities, as well as employee engagement. This gives the organization the chance to respond to deficiencies in experiences by certain groups.

  2. Check Yourself – Reflect on your own unconscious bias. Do you feel a certain way when you see someone you perceive as trans? Do you flinch when you see a foreign sounding name on a resume? The best way to overcome this is to educate yourself. Take a trans 101 course, do some DEI training, and truly get to know people from vulnerable and marginalized communities.

  3. Watch Your Mouth - Use inclusive language. If you’re having a watercooler chat, you may want to second guess that off-hand joke about those certain groups who unfortunately get the brunt of it. You may think you're among safe people, but you never know, so avoid offensive sarcastic comments and jokes. Be mindful that some words that are normally used within our society have derogatory beginnings. Avoid words like crazy, insane, and ghetto.

  4. Don't Assume - Just because someone looks like you doesn't mean they are exactly like you. They had a whole life of experiences prior to you meeting them. We can't tell someone's values and beliefs by looking at them, nor can we see their past.

  5. Create a Safe Space - Combat a toxic environment by addressing discrimination and microaggressions. This starts with the company culture. Truly safe and inclusive environments mean that staff can bring their authentic selves to work, and are more likely to disclose those invisible identities. This would also create an environment where they will be more likely to contribute their ideas, provide feedback, feel confident in their work, and overall be a more engaged and content employee.




At the end of the day, we need to treat everyone with respect. Assume you know nothing about anyone and be curious.

 

Hi, I'm Samantha, an Inclusive Leadership Coach that is eager to support you with breaking free & living a limitless authentic life after being pushed aside in society. Think of it as solution focused Coaching with a social justice twist. Whatever you want to work on, leadership or otherwise, you'll transform your life and experience shifts you never thought possible.


As a person obsessed with leadership, I want to see an increase the number of equity seeking people - women, racialized, disabled and 2SLGBTQIA+ folks - in leadership roles. I want to create the most diverse and equitable workforce where everyone can bring their full selves to work.


Interested in assessing whether a company has inclusive practices? Download your FREE two-page Inclusive Workplace Checklist here.


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Keep in touch here.




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