Are employers addressing intersectionality?

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

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There have been huge strides forward in improving diversity and inclusion in the workplace in recent years, with many employers. 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 address and embrace intersectionality in the workplace too.

What is intersectionality?

Intersectionality is the way in which different elements 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 discrimination and oppression. Intersectionality describes how inequality around gender, race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, gender identity, disability, class, and other forms of discrimination connect; it acknowledges that we all have our own unique experiences of discrimination, and employers must consider everything and anything that can marginalise people in the workplace.”

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 alone, and examines 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 and those with darker skin tones more likely to experience racism at work, compared to heterosexual and cisgender women, or those with lighter skin tones.

Intersectional racism

According to the report, the experiences of survey respondents 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 authors of the report recommend that leaders address racism at work “through an intersectional lens”, and that otherwise they risk any anti-racism efforts falling short.

Do employers understand intersectional issues?

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

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

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

The importance of data

Most employers are only just scratching the surface in terms 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 still aren’t represented, or don’t feel that they are seen or heard. Employers need to look beyond the optics of glossy marketing material and correlate this with quality data.”

Whilst understanding intersectionality has become more data driven, collecting 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 seen as intrusive. As valuable as reviewing this data is, speaking to individuals and promoting two-way communication in the workplace is just as important.”

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

How can employers improve?

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

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

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

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