Diversity is on the agenda of every conference and leadership meeting. Leaders ask, “How do we improve diversity? How do we find diverse candidates? How do we increase inclusionary behaviors?” The list of questions is endless, and everyone is looking for answers. To solve this riddle, leaders group people into categories in an attempt to understand their experiences. So, we group people together by race, ethnicity, gender identity, age, disability, and so on. Everyone ‘fits’ neatly into one of these categories. Still, notice that we start by trying to simplify identity into a series of checkboxes.
We compare men to women, white people to people of color, and cisgender and straight to LGBTQ. Many leaders discuss solutions that impact these discrete categories; the problem is that these solutions are one-dimensional.
Even the popular lines of research from which diversity solutions are derived lack diversity! For example, there’s been a lot of research to dispel the myth that the traits stereotypically assigned to women, such as compassion and kindness, are not the traits necessary to be great leaders. This line of research goes back decades. But, when you dig into the demographics of the data sample used to support this research, you realize that the vast majority of the people in the sample are white men and white women. Yet, we have taken the results of such research and applied it to women of all races, ages, and sexual orientations. This one-dimensional view of diversity incorrectly assumes that all women experience the world and the workplace in the same ways.
If leaders really want to solve diversity “problems” in their companies, we have to move past this one-dimensional, siloed analysis of diversity.
We have to talk about intersectionality.
WHY IS A CHANGE NEEDED?
Imagine that you are a college-educated, African American woman. You’ve spent the last few weeks looking for the perfect job and finally, an amazing opportunity just became available at a local manufacturing company. You reviewed your resume with a fine-tooth comb to ensure that the important job skills pop out to the hiring manager, and spent hours practicing answers to interview questions you might be asked. You even prepared for some off-the-wall questions such as “If you were stranded on an island with three things, what would they be?”
The interview day finally arrives. You anxiously drive to the office building. The closer you get to the building, the more butterflies you feel in the pit of your stomach. Your favorite song is on repeat and is giving you the confidence you need to ace the interview.
You briefly close your eyes and visualize yourself getting the job. After you pull into the parking lot, you spend a few minutes gathering your thoughts. You take a few deep breaths and make your way into the building. You’re immediately greeted by the hiring manager with a firm handshake and a smile, which puts your mind at ease. You feel at home and, sure enough, you ace the interview. A few anxious days pass as you wait to hear from the hiring manager, who promised to get back to you by the end of the week. You check your email every two minutes until finally, it arrives! You open the email and it reads, “Thank you for taking the time to interview with our company. We were impressed with your skills and experience, but we are moving forward with other candidates. We will keep your resume on file and contact you if your skills and experience match any open positions.”
Your heart falls into your stomach as a wave of disappointment washes over you. How could this happen? It felt like the perfect match. The interviewer seemed to really like you!
You meet your friends for dinner and they ask how your job search is going. You explain your lackluster experience and they try their best to console you. One friend even says they recall hearing about a similar experience at the same company, but you pay it no attention.
After dinner, you do some research-just because you’re curiousand discover that there are other African American women who had experiences just like yours, some at the same company. These women detail every step of their interview and then make the outlandish claim that they were discriminated against. You think to yourself: that can’t be true, can it? No way! That’s the kinds of stuff you hear about on the news, but it doesn’t happen here. Could this be more than a coincidence? Could this major manufacturing company have discriminatory hiring practices?
After a bit more research, you discover that there aren’t any African American women employed at this company. You take this bit of information to your lawyer and he tells you that you might be onto something, that you may actually have a legal case against the company. He investigates further and finds out that the workforce is comprised entirely of white men, white women, and a few African American men. With virtually no exceptions, the white men are in managerial positions, the white women are in administrative positions, and the African American men are machine operators. The company has, effectively, segregated its workforce by race and gender.
You and a few other African American women proceed to file a suit. Your claim states that your race and gender were both targets for discrimination-not one or the other, but both. Because you’re a woman, you weren’t hired for the manufacturing positions; because you’re African American, you weren’t hired for the administrative positions. A few weeks later, you head to trial.
“You can’t double dip,” says the judge hearing your case. “You cannot benefit from racial and gender discrimination at the same time. Pick one and prove it.”
( Just in case you were wondering, there are absolutely zero benefits associated with discrimination!)
So, you confer with your lawyer to try to determine which type of discrimination you endured. You decide to go with racial discrimination. That’s it! You were discriminated against because you’re black.
“Sorry, you can’t go with racial discrimination. Black men were employed as machine operators, so they can claim the source of discrimination isn’t tied to your race,” explains your lawyer.
Then, you decide to go with gender discrimination. Yes, that’s it. But your lawyer quickly reminds you that white women are employed in administrative positions, so you can’t claim gender as the discriminating factor either.
What do you do? What can you do? Legally, you can’t prove gender or racial discrimination, but you know it was both. In the end, the judge dismisses your case.
Believe it or not, this really happened. This case highlighted a gap in the legal system, but it also reflects how most diversity and inclusion programs operate in business.
WHAT IS INTERSECTIONALITY?
Intersectionality occurs when a person identifies with two or more underrepresented or oppressed groups. The term was coined in 1989 by Kimberle Crenshaw. She assisted the legal team in the revolutionary case of the African American women bringing discrimination charges against the manufacturing company. However, the concept of intersectionality can be dated back to Sojourner Truth’s 1851 “Ain’t I a Woman?” speech.
Early research into intersectionality showed that identifying with two or more marginalized groups, such as being an African American woman, meant that one had experiences congruent with being African American and experiences congruent with being a woman. Here’s where it get trick: what society grasps about “being African American” tends to reflect the experience of African American men, and what society grasps about “being a woman” tends to reflect the experience of white women.
In other words, we’ve talked this whole time as though African American + Woman = African American Woman. However, recent research on intersectionality has illustrated that such an experience is not ‘mathematical,’ where the result is predictable based on the equation; rather, intersectionality can best be imagined as a chemical equation.
Think about the periodic table of elements. (Yes, take it back to your high school chemistry days.) The periodic table of elements is a one-stop glance at each elements number of protons, electrons, and other chemical properties. As you may recall, the elements are organized by their similarities. It’s important to understand each of these elements alone. For instance, understanding how oxygen works by itself is great! We need to know how our bodies and plants use oxygen, at least in the most basic ways. But thinking about oxygen only in singularity prevents us from understanding how water, or H2O, works. The combination of hydrogen and oxygen creates a completely different compound.
Leaders in business need to think about diversity the same way. In the Table of Diversity (found at tableofdiversity.com), the “elements” of diversity are grouped together based on identities such as race, gender identity, and disability. As with chemistry, it is vital for leaders to understand how each of the diversity elements operates on its own, but very few people identify with only one marginalized identity. The gold is at the intersections of our identities!
LOOKING THROUGH AN INTERSECTIONAL LENS
As you develop and lead your organization’s diversity and inclusion program, keep intersectionality in mind. Here are 3 ways to truly be inclusive:
Stop relying on stereotypes and start focusing on individuality. Approaching solutions with a specific identity in mind is great, but don’t assume that everyone who identifies with that group has the same needs.
Ask questions and, more importantly, listen to the answers. In order to create a culture where employees feel comfortable and safe, ask for the thoughts, opinions, and perspectives of those whose voices are normally silenced. Utilize the Table of Diversity to ensure that a platform is intentionally provided to those who are different from your organization’s norm.
Highlight the ideas and stories of intersectional leaders. Intersectional leaders recognize the experiences they bring to the workplace and their ability to solve problems based on those experiences. Your workforce (and future workforce!) needs to see and hear that your organization utilizes the strengths intersectional leaders possess. That’s inclusion!
With all things related to diversity and inclusion, keep in mind that “those who are closest to the problem, are closest to the solution, but are often the farthest from the resources to bring the solutions to fruition” –Author unknown.
Demetria Miles-McDonald is the Founder and CEO of Decide Diversity, a company specializing in increasing the presence and effectiveness of women and other underrepresented groups in leadership positions by focusing on intersectionality. Demetria is an author, trainer, and consultant for community and corporate organizations. To learn more, email Demetria at demetria@ decidediversity.com or visit www.decidediversity.com.