Embracing Intersectionality: Recognizing people’s whole selves is better for business

By: Nichelle Grant, Head of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI)

Over the past decade, the word intersectionality has come more and more into mainstream use. Yet not everyone fully understands what it means, or can explain its significance.  

 

So, let’s start there: What is intersectionality? And how does a term arising from academia present a powerful concept for business? 

 

Intersectionality illuminates and celebrates the complexity in all people. Too often, diversity itself is described too narrowly while people are viewed too one-dimensionally. Diversity is not only reflective of gender, age, race, ethnicity, and sexual orientation; it also represents attributes that are acquired, like education, socioeconomic background, and religion. Every individual consists of much more than one major attribute. I may present as a Black woman, but I’m also a woman of color with Cherokee heritage who is able-bodied with a STEM education and who has overcome discrimination, and who is capable of manifesting my ideas and dreams into reality. 

 

While complex, intersectionality asks us to open our eyes to the ways that all aspects of a person's social and political identities are all in play at once. Some intersections experience discrimination while others can gain privilege—a lot depends on situational context and the biases within a group setting.

 

But without a doubt, when someone shows up for work, they bring all of their identities with them, those that are seen and others unseen. By acknowledging these various intersections and being an ally for those who could be impacted negatively, we can bring transparency to the value these intersections have for individuals and society. The result would be better understanding, greater empathy, and real social progress. This is what intersectionality is all about.

When someone shows up for work, they bring all of their identities with them, those that are seen and others unseen. By acknowledging these various intersections and being an ally for those who could be impacted negatively, we can bring transparency to the value these intersections have for individuals and society. The result would be better understanding, greater empathy, and real social progress. This is what intersectionality is all about.

A successfully implemented Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) strategy takes into account intersectionality and enables people to embrace it. So, now, why this is crucial for business? Here are four reasons.

  1. Attention to the intersectionality of your people is essential to inclusion. You do not have real inclusivity if you’re not welcoming and recognizing all facets of employee identity. As I’ve said before, real inclusivity is inevitable, which will only heighten the visibility of intersectionality.
  2. Intersectionality has a major impact on employees’ sense of belonging, which has a positive effect on retention. People who know they belong in their workplace feel enabled to be their true selves and tend to stay. Belonging underpins our central mission at Siemens, because it actively enables the creation of technology with purpose. As we say at Siemens, “Belonging transforms.” Its opposite, disengagement, comes with a staggering cost: $450 billion per year in lost productivity to the overall U.S. economy.
  3. Organization known for engaging intersectionality attract talent. Job candidates who know they will enjoy a true sense of belonging will have the comfort and confirmation that all people need to perform at their highest levels. A Glassdoor survey found that 67% of job seekers view a diverse workforce as an important factor when evaluating companies and considering job offers.
  4. People learn from people. And, the more interaction a person has with people who are different from them, the more they can understand and appreciate who they work with, something that almost always boosts performance and career development. A Forbes study found that diverse teams make better decisions up to 87% of the time.

Thus, the workplace relevance and importance of intersectionality are abundantly clear. The key question for the organization is: how can we implement an effective workplace culture that accounts for the multiple layers and nuances of people’s intersectional needs, and get past the single-concept approach of DEI that historically has looked at gender or age or disability as single matters, when, in fact, matters of identity are always combined? Four essential approaches can answer that:

  1. Support an intersectional approach at work through employee resource groups (ERGs). And while such groups exist to help drive a focused agenda for underrepresented groups, they also advocate for equity. Intersectionality plays a key part in this advocacy. When intersectionality is ignored, and people are seen as one dimensional—I'm a woman only, or I'm Black only—this would falsely put me in a single category and wouldn’t recognize the various dimensions that make me me. This is why we want people to embrace intersectionality: acknowledging and recognizing all the dimensions of a person deepens our understanding of each other and increases our ability to connect and interact. ERGs bring people together around common goals for inclusivity and create networks for people to interact with one another.
  2. Set expectations of allyship behavior at all levels of the organization. Being an ally for intersectionality makes a person's allyship strong and impactful because their actions are directed in supporting another human being’s fullest expression of self. And the more they understand all the intersects that makes that person uniquely themselves, the better ally they are to them.
  3. Reviewing your company’s values, policies, and procedures can bring transparency to where change needs to occur. What is the contrast between what is intended and what actually happens in a workplace governed by written values, policies, and procedures (and not just for DEI strategy)? How inclusive are the governing documents? Are they unintentionally excluding someone? A business needs to ensure that their systems are built and implemented with an intersectional approach.
  4. Don’t make assumptions. Find out if people at all levels of your organization feel they belong, and what would make their workplace a more inclusive and intersectional culture. This could be accomplished through several different structured methods: specific questions on an employee survey, or focus groups, or planned conversations between team members and management.

Ultimately your methods for supporting and promoting intersectionality and its allies will impact the culture of the workplace and the organization’s business reputation. Engaging intersectionality is an act that makes clear your company values, and this resonates in the business world. Doing so also builds new layers of understanding between coworkers, teams, managers, and business units, something that has direct positive impact on performance, supply chain management, and customer relations.

 

Life at work and life at home are more complex than they’ve ever been. We’re facing a variety of demanding challenges, some that we know well and many that are quite new. Intersectionality might look like a new challenge, when actually it provides a new method for insight into complexity. We live and work in a multi-dimensional world, and we’ll navigate that world much more successfully if we recognize and acknowledge the full dimensions of the people around us.

Published: July 6, 2022