More Than a Buzzword: Intersectionality as a Tool for the Workplace

The Clayman Institute for Gender Research has a tradition of bringing scholars who employ intersectional perspectives to campus. Building upon this history, the Institute’s Center for Women’s Leadership focused its theme on intersectionality at its biannual Corporate Program meeting this fall.

Thought leaders from academia and industry discussed research-driven theoretical frameworks as well as real world data, challenges, and best practices. The concept of intersectionality, coined by Kimberlé Crenshaw in 1989, has been adapted and broadened to refer to the multiple dimensions of a person’s identity—such as race, class, gender, and sexuality—that uniquely shape her life and, consequently, subject her to an equally unique set of systemic oppressions. While the term intersectionality is not new, its application to corporate practice is recent. Throughout the day’s panels, meeting attendees discussed the opportunities and challenges an intersectional lens brings to diversity and inclusion work. This included considering how intersectional perspectives can diversify knowledge in the workplace.

Speakers explained how intersectional perspectives are pivotal to creating better workplaces for all. Dr. Stacy Blake-Beard, a professor of management at the Simmons School of Management, led meeting attendees through an exercise called “The Intersectionality Wheel,” inviting them to recall a specific moment when they experienced overlapping forms of privilege and discrimination. By sharing their stories with others in the room, attendees were able to realize both the uniqueness of their experiences with inequality as well as similarities with others. Blake-Beard stressed the goal of social justice as part of the practitioner work of intersectionality. Organizations can learn how best to address the specific needs of their employees and formally create solutions to create more productive work environments for their employees.

The work of intersectionality involves bringing to the fore those individuals and groups whose perspectives are often devalued in the workplace; in male-dominated fields, for example, the experiences, talents, and leadership of the non-dominant group are often overlooked. This was emphasized by Clayman Institute researcher Melissa Abad in her reflection on the goal of intersectionality to center and shine light on marginalized people. By taking into account the experiences and career trajectories of women of color in male-dominated fields such as technology and finance, for example, recent Clayman Institute research pinpointed the barriers that perpetuate the systemic underrepresentation of women of color in leadership positions. Women of color report being criticized or mocked for their physical appearance; they also experience extreme isolation and routinely have to navigate exclusionary dynamics and awkward interactions where they consequently have to educate members of the dominant group. Many have experienced sexual harassment. While these women report enjoying their work and having ambitions for leadership, they continuously have to navigate a workplace culture that impedes their visibility and belonging. Men of color interviewees also reported experiencing challenges in managing workplace relationships and often feeling undervalued. These findings were buttressed by a research study on the leadership pipeline for women and men of color in tech conducted by Ascend, a professional association of Asian professionals, and shared at the meeting.

Keynote speaker Ella Bell Smith reiterated the importance of centering marginalized people by calling on researchers and practitioners to invest in what she called “deep work.” This type of work begins with assessing the needs of employees and how they fit with their workplace culture, as well as a thorough investigation of the representation data along multiple identity vectors in hiring, retention, promotion, and leadership. This facilitates the development of new language to describe the workplace experiences of women minorities, and can inform the creation of new tool kits to help employees and corporate leaders take responsibility for workplace culture—that affects the extent to which employees, and by extension their companies, thrive. Bell Smith urged practitioners to learn from their company’s histories, successes and failures.

Alongside academic thought leaders, a panel of practitioners discussed approaches to incorporate intersectional perspectives in the everyday operations of an organization. Panelists echoed the need for “deep work” and shared concrete approaches to do so. One suggestion was to engage executive leadership and managers in the process of incorporating intersectional perspectives through ongoing conversations, education, and training. Several highlighted the critical importance of employees sharing personal stories that can be used as tools to build relationships and coalitions across differences—between leaders and also among and between women of different racial and ethnic groups. Relationship building fosters empathy and is a step to facilitate more positive relationships with the organization, more productive teams, and improve organizational outputs. Thoughtful and deliberate relationship building and storytelling are constructive avenues not only to discuss differences but also to foster knowledge building and organizational change. Practitioners discussed the importance of celebrating small wins, and recognized that any work towards creating a workplace where all members can thrive necessitates a deep investment and a long-term commitment to change.

In order to understand the complex systems of inequality that operate in the workplace and the communities in which people live, intersectional perspectives provide tools for both practitioners and scholars. Within a cultural context of increasing divisiveness, this concept provides an important framework to create change and advance inclusive workplaces.