Future of Work

5 ways intersectionality affects diversity and inclusion at work

From higher turnover rates to income inequality. Image: Unsplash/Christina @ wocintechchat.com

Adwoa Bagalini
Engagement, Diversity and Inclusion Lead, World Economic Forum
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  • Intersectionality describes how different elements of a person’s identity can be discriminated against - with negative outcomes.
  • Businesses that don’t consider intersectionality in diversity and inclusion programs may ultimately lose out from high staff turnover.
  • Here are five impacts intersectionality can have in the workplace.

It’s been 30 years since Kimberlé Crenshaw coined the term ‘intersectionality’ to describe how discrimination against different facets of a person’s identity can overlap and impact their lives.

Have you read?

In her 1989 work Demarginalizing the Intersection of Race and Sex, the US lawyer and civil rights advocate wrote: “Because the intersectional experience is greater than the sum of racism and sexism, any analysis that does not take intersectionality into account cannot sufficiently address the particular manner in which Black women are subordinated.”

The colour of your skin, your gender, disability and sexual orientation all interact to affect your lived experience and contribute to unequal outcomes in ways that cannot be attributed to one dimension alone.

Black and Latina trans women are victims of homicide at much higher rates than white cisgender women or Black or Latina cisgender women, for example, while maternal mortality is 2-3 times higher for Black, American Indian, and Alaska Native women in the US.

The effects of intersectionality are also felt in the workplace, where employees who belong to two or more underrepresented categories experience oppression and lack of opportunity in unique ways.

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What's the World Economic Forum doing about diversity, equity and inclusion?

Company diversity and inclusion programs that do not take intersectionality into account risk overlooking these experiences, which include:

1. Greater wage inequality

In 2020, while white women in the US earn 81 cents for every dollar a white man earns; the same figure for American Indian, Alaska Native, Black, African American, and Hispanic women is 75 cents.

race gender pay gap equality
There's still a long way to go to reach gender pay equality. Image: PayScale

Read another way, while white women will reach gender parity with men in the States in 2059, the data shows that for Black women this date is 2130, and 2224 for Hispanic women.

Wage inequality is also seen for people with disabilities in the workplace, and increases with intersectionality: in the UK, men with disabilities from the Bangladeshi community experience a pay gap of 56% (compared with non-disabled white British men).

2. Lack of professional development

Research shows that Black women have less access to training, have received less mentorship and sponsorship, and have less frequent opportunities to interact with senior leaders. These all result in fewer opportunities to develop their careers, compared to white women.

As a result, while only 21% of C-suite leaders in the US are women, only 4% are women of colour, and only 1% are Black women.

gender race corporate pipeline diversity
The state of the corporate pipeline. Image: McKinsey & Company

When San Francisco Bay Area technology companies implemented diversity programs, the representation of white women in management significantly improved, exceeding their representation as employees.

But the same was not true for any racial minority women group, and race played a more significant role than gender in breaking the glass ceiling.

A focus on gender diversity had reduced the gap between men and women, but did not improve the chances for Asian women to be promoted into leadership roles.

3. Hiring discrimination and inequities in unemployment

Intersectionality also affects who is on the job market, and who is hired.

An experimental study in Belgium found a ‘double jeopardy’ problem for Maghreb/Arab women applying for high-cognitive demanding jobs. Their resumés were overlooked by HR professionals even though they were as well qualified for the roles as native/Belgian applicants.

People with disabilities, especially those from underrepresented groups, are overrepresented in the ranks of the unemployed: Data from the 2018 Annual Disability Statistics Compendium showed only 28.6% of US African Americans with disabilities aged 18-64 had a job, compared to 73.7% of African Americans without disabilities.

More recently, during the COVID-19 pandemic, Black women in the US have been nearly twice as likely as white men to report that they’d either been laid off, furloughed, or had their hours and/or pay reduced.

Immigrant women in Canada, and those from racial minorities, are more likely than any other group to be either unemployed or underemployed in jobs that do not reflect their education or experience.

4. Increased sexual harassment

Research from the UK has shown that LGBTQI+ people’s experience of sexual harassment and assault at work varied significantly depending on their ethnicity.

More than half of lesbian, bisexual and trans Black and minority ethnic women (54%) reported unwanted touching compared to around one third of white women (31%).

LGBTQI+ women with disabilities reported significantly higher levels of sexual harassment than both men with disabilities and non-disabled men and women.

Black women were found to be much more likely to be subjected to sexual harassment in the workplace than their white peers, in a US study looking at data from 1997 to 2016.

“The shift from sexual harassment of white women to African-American women indicates that harassers are conscious of power relationships, and choose to target more vulnerable women in their workplaces,” the authors wrote.

5. Higher turnover rates

It’s bad news for employers, too, as employees who face discrimination linked to intersectionality are more likely to leave the organization.

People of colour who experienced microaggressions in the workplace were more likely to quit: more than a third (35%) of Black professionals intended to quit within two years compared with 27% of white professionals, with rates slightly higher for Black women (36%) than Black men (33%).

This could be due to the “emotional tax” Black women bear at work, where the inequalities they face lead to an environment in which they are always “on guard to protect against bias, discrimination and unfair treatment”, according to nonprofit Catalyst.

In general, women of colour (24%) are more likely than men of colour (11%) to be on guard because they expect both gender and racial bias.

gender microaggressions workplace work
Microaggressions at work. Image: LeanIn

What companies can do to address intersectionality

Today, most diversity and inclusion efforts include equity as a dimension, giving everyone equal opportunities to develop and considering their background and the unique challenges they face.

To make sure no one is left out, companies need to collect and analyze data on pay and employee engagement, separating out variables of race, gender, sexual orientation, or physical ability.

Targets for diversity and inclusion programs must include gender representation but also racial inclusion at different levels of the organization, and any unconscious bias training must be designed with intersectionality in mind.

Companies should be willing to try new approaches if the usual initiatives do not result in people with intersectional lived experiences receiving equal access to opportunities for pay, recognition, and advancement, measures that can only be assessed through disaggregated data.

Addressing intersectionality starts from the top. CEOs and senior executives need to acknowledge their unconscious bias, which makes talent at the intersections at times invisible to them, and publicly state their intention to create an inclusive workplace, particularly for people at the intersections of unique identities.

Implementing a diversity and inclusion program with measurable targets is a first step in ensuring that companies can reap the many benefits of an inclusive workplace, including greater productivity, profitability, and employee engagement.

However, we can go a step further in examining how intersectionality complicates these issues and use this lens to create and refine innovative and meaningful solutions that truly include everyone.

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