Insights on Intersectionality: Creating Diverse and Inclusive Workplaces for All

Jessamy Amic

Posted: August 16, 2023

Table of Contents

Despite the South African government’s B-BBEE Codes of Good Practice – legislation largely based on race and gender – many businesses struggle to create diverse and inclusive workforces. Even more concerning, they are paying little heed to understanding intersectionality and the experiences of employees who belong to more than one marginalised social group – a practice critical to achieving success in Diversity and Inclusion (D&I) initiatives.

On the back of our popular Diversity & Inclusion Course, we take a deeper dive into the multi-faceted nature of D&I and intersectionality – the need to recognise new classes of protected minorities at the crossroads of marginalisation.

What is intersectionality, and why is it important?

In 1989, Professor Kimberlé Crenshaw coined the term intersectionality to explain how diversity markers such as race, ethnicity, religion, gender, sexual orientation, etc. intersect and overlap and contribute to (and compound) unequal outcomes in ways that cannot be attributed to one dimension alone. For example, a woman facing gender-based exclusion may also experience discrimination related to her class, race, or ability.

Crenshaw wrote about the intersection: “Racism road crosses with the streets of colonialism and patriarchy, and ‘crashes’ occur at the intersections. Where the roads intersect, there is a double, triple, multiple, and many-layered blanket of oppression.”

The work of Crenshaw and others, coupled with the evolution of the workforce, has expanded the definition of diversity (from purely race and gender) to include these other markers. True diversity now recognises people of all ages, religions, classes, castes, nationalities, and ethnicity, as well as people with disabilities or illnesses, people from a migrant background, those with low socio-economic status or are at risk of poverty, and members of the LGBTQ+ community – in essence: multiple, intersecting identities.

According to WeForum, people who work for companies whose D&I programmes don’t take intersectionality into account are at risk of pay inequality, lack of professional development, hiring discrimination, increased sexual harassment, and the companies themselves risk lower productivity and higher staff turnover rates.

How can business leaders use intersectionality to enhance the employee experience?

According to Center for Intersectional Justice, intersectionality is not about tackling all forms of discrimination at once — this would be impossible. Instead, any intersectional approach to inequality and discrimination should identify and address the role of intersecting disadvantages within anti-discrimination efforts that would otherwise focus solely on one dimension.

For example, when business leaders implement gender equality policies meant to correct the wage gap between men and women, they should do it in a way that doesn’t widen inequalities between women. They say: “It is about fighting discrimination within discrimination, tackling inequalities within inequalities, and protecting minorities within minorities.”

Here are 10 ways business leaders can make intersectionality a priority and fully achieve the “inclusion” part of D&I when setting goals, assessing initiatives, and designing programmes that promote diversity.

  1. Establish Employee Resource Groups (ERGs) that cater to various intersectional groups and provide a safe space for employees to connect, share experiences, and support each other.
  2. Conduct training sessions and workshops to raise awareness of intersectionality and foster workplace empathy, understanding, and allyship.
  3. Revise HR policies and practices to ensure they are equitable and considerate of intersectional identities.
  4. Implement mentorship and sponsorship programmes that bring individuals from diverse backgrounds together. 
  5. Empower marginalised voices by actively seeking their input and involvement in decision-making processes and project assignments. 
  6. Ensure benefits and pay equity by regularly reviewing compensation practices to mitigate disparities.
  7. Conduct anonymous employee surveys to gauge the experiences and needs of various intersectional groups and use this feedback to make informed improvements.
  8. Strive for diverse leadership representation to ensure more inclusive policies and a better understanding of the challenges faced by employees with intersecting identities.
  9. Address harassment and discrimination through a zero-tolerance policy. Implement robust reporting mechanisms and ensure all complaints are addressed promptly and fairly.
  10. Senior executives must acknowledge that their unconscious bias could prevent them from recognising talent and publicly state their intention to create an inclusive workplace.

Learn to implement multi-faceted D&I practices in your workplace

While diversity can be achieved through fair hiring practices and internal mobility, true inclusion requires leaders to look past numbers and statistics and focus on the actual human experience of their employees.

Find out how you can understand the role of intersectionality in your company culture with our Diversity & Inclusion Online Short Course.

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