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What is intersectionality and how can it help businesses tackle diversity and inclusion?

A member of the LGBT community gets ready to participate in the annual Diversity March, which this year has been downscaled amid the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic, in downtown Montevideo, Uruguay September 25, 2020. Picture taken September 25, 2020. REUTERS/Mariana Greif - RC2I6J94RKJ6

The many different shades of diversity that make up an individual’s identity mean a holistic approach is required to harness human potential. Image: REUTERS/Mariana Greif

Caroline Casey
Founder and Director, The Valuable 500
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This article is part of: The Jobs Reset Summit
  • The diversity and inclusion battle will only be won when people are seen as multi-faceted in their social identities: intersectionality.
  • Intersectionality is a way of understanding how and why every individual’s view of the world is different.
  • From disability to race to age inclusivity, none should be tackled in isolation. Inclusion means everyone all the time - not some people some of the time.

Inclusion and social justice have been thrown into sharp relief during the global pandemic, from the #BlackLivesMatter movement to the unequal impact of the crisis spanning general support, financial impact and a host of healthcare issues.

As we try to comprehend the status quo, we must remember that our social identities are not limited to just one facet – not race, gender, class, marital status, faith, sexuality, disability, socio-economic background nor age.

Instead, all these factors interact in a complex web with myriad intersections. Suffice to say, a person’s experience of the world is shaped by the particular “intersectionality” only they experience.

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Viewing only one aspect of identity in isolation can often detract from the experiences of exclusion and discrimination a person may face. Simply focusing on one form of inclusion, and seeing it as operating in a silo — ignoring the multitude of things that make us who we are — can be damaging and divisive.

And so, in looking to reshape the world with COVID-19 as the wake-up call, it is imperative that businesses understand why business sustainability and equity initiatives need to be viewed through this same lens: intersectionality.

Diversity and inclusion cannot be seen as distinct. Nor can related matters be sidelined until external pressure forces businesses to be seen to be acting.

When companies pick and choose their diversity strategies as if they were in a sweet shop, we call them “divers-ish”. The Valuable 500’s #diversish film perfectly encapsulates this phenomenon.


Awareness of diversity, inclusion and equity in boardrooms is nothing new. Breaking it down, we have seen huge strides in inclusion, and witnessed the power of business in shifting the dial.

However, we are still not seeing the desired holistic approach to tackling those systematic inequalities that are embedded into business actions throughout the supply chain. Add to that the fact that the number of people from underrepresented backgrounds moving up the corporate ladder remains dismal.

Disability alone tells a sorry tale. 90% of businesses claim to care about diversity, yet only 4% include disability within this. That said, we are beginning to see increased awareness of the need for disability inclusion globally, but inclusion means everyone all the time - not some people some of the time. We will never fully realize our human potential until all areas are included.

We are still not seeing the desired holistic approach to tackling those systematic inequalities that are embedded into business actions throughout the supply chain.

Time and again, we have seen businesses focusing on diversity, inclusion and equity disjointedly. For example, announcements about “diverse” board members are a laudable start, but if the key factors cited as being looked into are gender and race, this misses a whole host of inequality issues from disability to social mobility.

In California, for example, government legislation stipulates that hundreds of California-based corporations must have directors from racial or sexual minorities on their boards, and at least one female director. These are important directives indeed, and yet further aspects of diverse social identities, such as disability and age, are notably absent.

An intersectional approach as a key string to today’s leadership strategy bow

There is reason to be hopeful that intersectionality and inclusion can be hardwired into the future of businesses, and throughout their supply chains. Disability inclusion can provide a useful case study here.

While recent research from The Valuable 500 highlights that no business is scoring full marks across disability inclusion – for example, only 11% of companies surveyed regularly include people with disabilities in their marketing communications – momentum is growing when it comes to taking action in this space. Compared to this time last year, 87% of global organizations feel they are better placed in terms of disability accessibility and inclusion initiatives.

Image: World Economic Forum

For example, Vodafone announced last month it is embedding purpose commitments to diversity, inclusion and the environment throughout its supply chain. For new tenders, suppliers will be asked to demonstrate policies and procedures supporting diversity in the workplace, including gender, ethnicity, LGBT+, age and disability.

The collective awareness and empathy engendered by lockdown can be bottled up and used. Companies will not necessarily get it right first time round, but if the will is there, the business community can grow together. And step one should be for them to listen to the lived experiences of a diverse population in a way which considers every aspect of their social identity.


What is the World Economic Forum’s Jobs Reset Summit?

We stand poised at a key reset moment for business globally and look out towards various possible renditions of a post-pandemic world. Yes, intersectionality is a big word for simply being human. But only by seeing life from this perspective can the talent and potential of any vast community be unlocked.

And that same community has the potential to contribute significantly to the work being done to meet the SDGs across industries globally.

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The views expressed in this article are those of the author alone and not the World Economic Forum.

Related topics:
Forum InstitutionalEquity, Diversity and Inclusion
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May 21, 2024

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