What is Intersectionality and Why Does it Matter?

We exist through intersections, but our conversations about diversity regularly push us to pick one identity for ourselves at the expense of others.” ― Rohit Bhargava, Beyond Diversity

Let’s talk about “Intersectionality.” But before we do, it’s important to explain what it is and why it is so important when we talk about diversity, equity, and inclusion. the Oxford Dictionary defines intersectionality as the interconnected nature of social categorizations such as race, class, and gender, regarded as creating overlapping and interdependent systems of discrimination or disadvantage.”

For most of us, it’s not easy to pick one aspect of our identity to focus on—especially in the workplace. Our life experiences define who we are to a certain extent—as do things like our gender, race, ethnicity, and sexual orientation, to name but a few. We’re all complex individuals with often complex rather than one-dimensional identities. And as stated by Bhagariv, it’s frustrating to have to pick one aspect of our identities to speak to the realities we face in the workplace and society at large. 

The Origins

The concept isn’t new, although it’s become a buzzword in the past few years as a result of an evolving awareness of workplace and social disparities that remain too obvious to ignore. Originally conceived in the late 1980s by legal scholar Kimberlé Crenshaw, it initially focused on how Black women in the U.S. and the intersection between race and gender as they related to discrimination claims. For example, racial discrimination claims by Black women failed if Black men were not a party to the case, and gender claims failed because White women or women of other races or ethnicities might be employed by the same company. It seemed near impossible for people to imagine that Black women might experience sexual harassment and discrimination differently than their other female peers. 

Since then, the term has been broadened considerably to apply to other types of “intersections,” like sexual orientation or disability status. A person may come from a traditionally marginalized group and face challenges based on far more factors than race or gender. Identities overlap, and while some may not face discrimination in the workplace based on gender or race, they may experience discrimination or bias based on some other factor—like sexual orientation or disability status. 

Why it Matters in DEI

As companies and organizations confront historic and current workplace disparities, ranging from pay gaps to hiring and promotions, it’s important that they consider more aspects of our identities than race or gender. 

For example, according to data compiled by the World Economic Forum, in 2020 white women in the U.S. were earning an average of 81 cents on the dollar compared to white men; in comparison black and Hispanic women lagged behind, earning an average of 75 cents on the dollar. The impact is clear when we consider how long it would take for women to achieve parity with men. If the gap isn’t addressed socially and in the workplace, white women would achieve parity with men much sooner than all women—even when similarly qualified. Projections by the World Economic Forum indicate White women would achieve parity by 2059; while black and Hispanic women wouldn’t realize parity until 2130 and 2224, respectively.  That shouldn’t be a concern just for minority women, but for all women and men as well. 

It’s true that minority men in the U.S. also experience this type of disparity. In 2019, Payscale conducted a study on earning disparities between similarly qualified men of color in the relation to what their White male peers earned. The study relied on a sample of almost 2 million employees over a two-year period and found that Black and Hispanic men earned 89 cents and 91 cents on the dollar, respectively. However, the same study also found that Asian men in the U.S. earn 15 cents ($1.15) more than their white similarly qualified peers. 

The Role of Employers

There’s been a lot of talk about “equity” in recent years, especially among DEI teams and professionals. The question remains, are leaders really listening and taking action fast enough, especially for minorities and other marginalized groups. 

Truth be told, there are no easy fixes. We’ve been aware of these disparities for decades but companies—large and small—have been slow to respond. Now that we have lots of credible data to confirm discriminatory practices, whether conscious or unconscious, leaders have to consider the overlapping identities and life experiences of employees when hiring, promoting, or providing access to training and development programs. It’s important to analyze the proprietary data they have on hand to ensure that there is equity at all levels of the company. It’s no small task and takes real visionary leadership. Those that do, stand to benefit greatly in a number of ways—including improved recruitment, lower turnover, more employee engagement and higher employee morale.