A diverse group of people working together on a project around a boardroom table, showing intersectionality at work.
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6 ways employers can improve on intersectionality

14 Dec 2022

Hays’ Sandra Henke explores how embracing intersectionality can help employers improve the experience of all employees.

Diversity is not a linear issue. As companies seek to be representative of the communities they operate in and that make up their workforce, many still consider their diversity efforts in distinct, singular characteristics. For example, gender, race, ethnicity, sexuality and disability. But the reality is that any number of these categories overlap and intersect.

So, why is intersectionality such a key issue for businesses to be aware of? Adwoa Bagalini, engagement, diversity and inclusion lead at the World Economic Forum, says it’s a blind spot that’s easy for many organisations to miss.

“All stages of the employee journey may be impacted by intersectionality, from recruitment to onboarding, performance reviews and promotions to turnover rates. Who is leaving and why? Who is being referred to the organisation by friends or colleagues?

“If employees sense that they are not welcome and cannot bring their full selves to work, then they will likely find it difficult to advance, will not refer the company to others in their network, and will probably leave sooner than others.”

So, while it is clear that it’s important for organisations to recognise and understand intersectionality, what can they do to improve in this area?

Recognise individual identities

Companies should seek to develop a better understanding of intersectionality and recognise an individual’s multiple identities that may overlap. Awareness is key here, but as Bagalini explains, the willingness to acknowledge the ‘blind spot’ also needs to be addressed.

“More often than not, leaders may be complacent about practices within their organisations and believe that, since they and their colleagues feel welcome at work, the same is true for everyone,” she explains.

Developing empathy and being sure to check in with others who identify differently is important to get a sense of what could be done better.

Enabling employees to identify their diversity dimensions voluntarily is a crucial starting point, as are employee engagement surveys where data is reasonably disaggregated by several of those dimensions. Doing so can then reveal the different experiences of different groups.

Capture data to improve intersectionality

“It’s important for every organisation to have good, up-to-date diversity data,” says Monica Parker, founder of data analytics company Hatch Analytics.

“This is most easily collected by anonymous surveys sent out to the business. The key for this type of data is to get very high response rates, as otherwise its extrapolation may not be accurate, especially when looking at intersectionality.”

She says that achieving this is dependent on employees having high levels of trust in their organisation. They must be clear that equality, diversity and inclusion (ED&I) is more than just a box-ticking exercise.

And while anonymous data may not identify specific intersectional segments, it can begin to give a broader picture on the nuances of the lived experiences of various team members. Organisations can then use this data to support ED&I initiatives such as affinity groups, conscious inclusion training and benchmarking.

The final part of the data journey is to respond. “This is the simplest and hardest element of any ED&I initiative,” Parker says. She encourages organisations to set a goal, try to deliver on it, and make the whole process transparent.

“I believe that if you collect data about ED&I, you have an obligation to do something tangible and measurable with it.”

Create a culture of acknowledgement and understanding

Companies need to understand the scope of intersectionality so they can address those challenges directly. But how can businesses support their employees in reaching their full potential, without labelling them?

Bagalini suggests consulting with the employees concerned to seek their input, and encourages companies not to necessarily shy away from labels, but use them to prompt conversations instead.

“Many employees from under-represented groups do embrace labels as a way of reclaiming their identities and being empowered by them, instead of shying away. It is frequently hurtful for people of colour to hear from well-meaning colleagues that they ‘don’t see colour’, thereby effectively erasing their experiences of discrimination and absolving themselves of any responsibility to act,” she explains.

Obtaining a culture of acknowledgement and understanding helps to build and sustain an environment of openness and inclusion, giving confidence to both a company’s employees and customers that they are socially responsible and trustworthy.

Capture diversity of thought

A workforce made up of people from different backgrounds with various abilities and experiences has a positive impact on the organisation as a whole.

According to McKinsey’s Diversity Wins report, published in May 2020: “There is ample evidence that diverse and inclusive companies are likely to make better, bolder decisions – a critical capability in the [Covid-19] crisis.”

While Bagalini agrees that diversity of thought is important, she warns against companies overtly striving for this, “as it tends to provide an excuse or a cover not to address the thornier aspects of inclusion work”.

She explains that, even in the same family, it would be difficult to find two people who think exactly alike, so it can be safely assumed that an organisation will have diversity of thought present regardless.

“The same principles that go into harnessing the advantages of all other kinds of diversity apply here, namely when employees feel psychologically safe and can express themselves without fear, companies will better be able to reap the benefits of having employees who think differently from each other.

“Therefore, I am fairly confident that in pursuing goals of inclusion and equity for everyone regardless of identity, diversity of thought will be enhanced rather than suppressed.”

Help leaders to understand intersectionality

Intersectionality is important and complex, and organisations need to give consideration to how they equip their leaders with the confidence and skills to address these issues.

Each of us has a unique view of the world that has been shaped by our own unique, lived experience and our overlapping identities. Organisations should be asking themselves how to build high-trust cultures and environments in which people are given the permission and the confidence to have meaningful conversations, encouraging people to have a curiosity about others’ lived experiences.

I am not suggesting that this is easy to navigate; it’s challenging, delicate and confronting. I recommend engaging an external specialist to help facilitate conversations about bias awareness. This can help to build confidence and give leaders a set of tools and a vocabulary to help them to have these conversations with each other and with their people.

Inclusive leadership is about creating a high-trust culture; proactively seeking out or inviting divergent points of view, rather than being the single point of authority with all the answers. This can feel counterintuitive, but leaders who ask for – and really listen to – others’ points of view tend to build higher trust environments for their colleagues.

Organisations can help develop more inclusive leadership practices by clearly articulating why inclusion is important. If people think your messaging is to ‘tick boxes’, they will not engage with it. It is also important to support your most senior leaders in their development so that they can be role models of more inclusive leadership behaviours.

Educate colleagues on intersectionality

While leadership is important, to positively progress a company’s diversity and inclusion interests across a whole organisation, a level of understanding must exist across the entire workforce.

Colleagues can be allies by trying to understand, and directly acknowledging and addressing, how privilege contributes to oppressive systems.

Bagalini says that, as well as using intranets or other internal communications channels to share information on the topic of intersectionality, it is worth encouraging employee resource groups to form and share information with their peers.

“Making sure that this is embedded within ongoing events and initiatives rather than seeing it as an entirely separate workstream” is also crucial.

“Within almost every topic that organisations communicate to employees about, there are opportunities to point out how these support goals of diversity and belonging – so the task is to find those opportunities and use them, and eventually make sure that this becomes second nature,” she concludes.

By Sandra Henke

Sandra Henke is the group head of people and culture at Hays. A version of this article previously appeared on the Hays blog.

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