What are employers doing to address intersectional problems?

How can employers better embrace intersectional issues at work? Lucie Mitchell reports.

Woman at home looking at laptop


Many employers have taken huge strides in improving diversity and inclusion in the workplace in recent years; but if they want to continue to be mindful and supportive of the experiences of all marginalised groups, and create a truly inclusive culture, they must embrace and address intersectionality in the workplace too.

What is intersectionality?

Intersectionality is the way in which different parts of our identity overlap and interact, explains Aaron Taylor, head of School of Human Resource Management at Arden University. “Someone might belong to multiple minority groups and therefore experience multiple layers of oppression and discrimination. Intersectionality describes how inequality around gender, race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, gender identity, disability, class, and other forms of discrimination connect; it acknowledges that everyone has their own unique experiences of discrimination, and we must consider everything and anything that can marginalise  people.”

Salma Shah, author of Diversity, Inclusion and Belonging in Coaching, says that intersectionality “considers all identity markers that apply to an individual in combination, rather than considering each factor alone, and how they impact different modes of bias, discrimination, privilege, and equity”.

A recent report by Catalyst, which surveyed over 2,700 women from marginalised racial and ethnic groups from around the world, found that 51% of women from these underrepresented groups have experienced racism at work; with transgender and queer women, as well as those with darker skin tones, more likely to experience racism at work, compared to heterosexual and cisgender women, or women with lighter skin tones.

According to the report, the survey respondents’ experiences reveal that racism occurs in an intersectional way, and “frequently targets not only a person’s race but also their other marginalised identities such as gender, sexual orientation, religion, and immigration status”.

The report authors recommend that leaders address racism at work “through an intersectional lens”, otherwise they risk any anti-racist efforts falling short.

How much do employers understand intersectional issues?

It’s important that employers fully understand how intersectionality impacts their workforce during all stages of the employee lifecycle – from recruitment, onboarding and retention to performance and progression. However, some organisations still have a way to go until they fully understand how to take an intersectional approach, says Taylor.

“Intersectionality is becoming a more popular topic for HR teams to manage and publicise, particularly as equality, diversity, and inclusion (EDI) is rising up the agenda; and many employers are making EDI a big part of their values and company culture,” he remarks. “I would say, however, that despite there being a growing understanding of what intersectionality means, and why it is important to address it, employers are not quite there yet in terms of finding an effective intersectional approach, and there’s still more work to be done.”

Nicola Inge, social impact director at Business in the Community, says they have seen an increase in the number of employers understanding the importance of intersectionality from its Times Top 50 Employers for Gender Equality. “However, employers need to recognise that not all employees can be grouped based on certain attributes, and that the only way for employers to make the best decisions for their employees is to be guided by evidence,” she adds.

Most employers are only scratching the surface from the perspective of intersectionality and diversity, adds Shah. “Taking gender diversity as an example, this is high on the agenda with International Women’s Day. However, in many cases if we look at gender diversity through an intersectional lens, large groups of women aren’t represented, or don’t feel seen or heard. Employers need to look beyond the optics of glossy marketing material and correlate quality data.”

Yet whilst understanding intersectionality has become more data driven, correlating the data can be challenging for some organisations, remarks Taylor. “For instance, in 2018, the Equality and Human Rights Commission found that half of employers said they faced barriers to collecting employee ethnicity data, including data collection being intrusive. As valuable as data is, speaking to individuals and promoting two-way communication in the workplace is just as important.”

Inge believes that collecting workforce data and using it to review and amend existing workplace policies is essential. “No two employees will have the same circumstances inside and outside work, and no one workplace policy will meet the needs of everyone. For example, employees who are over 50 and have caring responsibilities will need different
workplace support compared to a single parent who also has a disability. It is critical that employers use workforce data when creating policies to support their employees, as not only is it the right thing to do, but it will increase the chances of it being a success.”

How can employers improve on intersectionality?

There are a variety of ways employers can embrace and improve on intersectionality in the workplace, including training, collating data, fostering a culture of inclusion and creating safe spaces such as intersectional employee network groups.

According to Taylor, it all starts with ensuring HR teams have a strong EDI programme in place that promotes belonging for every single employee. “We need to recognise individual identities and capture data, so we understand the discrimination they are facing. HR teams need to engage with employees to get insight into how diverse their teams are.”

He adds: “It’s important for employers to create a culture of acknowledgement and understanding, and to help champion diversity at all levels in the workplace. HR teams can do this by helping leaders to understand intersectionality, so they can be considerate of it when managing their team members. When employees see their leadership teams practicing and promoting an open, understanding workplace culture that respects diversity, employees will soon feel comfortable enough to share their stories and experiences. It’s important to remember that everyone’s story is different, so adopting a holistic, fluid approach is best here.”

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