• Intersectionality is the complex, cumulative way in which the effects of multiple forms of discrimination combine in the experience of marginalized individuals or groups.
  • Institutions now need to incorporate an understanding of intersectionality into their policies and practices.
  • This will involve building intersectionality into recruitment strategies, making sure people have opportunities to discuss these issues, and an open and empathic style of leadership.

In recent years there has been much discussion about the impact that racial, gender-based and class-based discrimination and discriminatory practices have on society. Dr. Kimberlé Crenshaw has been one of the leaders in this field. She first coined the term ‘intersectionality’ which she defined as the complex, cumulative way in which the effects of multiple forms of discrimination combine, overlap, or intersect, especially in the experiences of marginalized individuals or groups.

“Intersectionality is a lens through which you can see where power comes and collides, where it interlocks and intersects”, Crenshaw has said. “It’s not simply that there’s a race problem here, a gender problem here, and a class or LBGTQ problem there. Many times, that framework erases what happens to people who are subject to all of these things."

Institutions now need to incorporate an understanding of intersectionality into their policies and practices. Below are lessons from women social entrepreneurs from the Schwab Foundation’s community. The lessons include what can be accomplished both as a sector as well as institutionally and individually.

1. Build intersectionality into your recruitment strategy

Research shows that companies with greater ethnic and racial diversity are 35 percent more likely to yield higher results; those that have gender diversity are 15 percent more likely to outperform the industry average. Diversity in the fullest sense must be a recruitment priority for the entire organisation – including the board of directors.

2. Provide internal feedback opportunities

Organizations should build internal structures that encourage discussion and questioning regarding these critical issues. First Book works hard to develop an internal culture that invites feedback. Even the most junior members of the team are encouraged to innovate and to weigh in on organizational discussions. We need to open ourselves and our organizations to full scrutiny – this will also help us to develop the next generation of leaders.

An image showing the cumulative effects of intersectional discrimination
Intersectionality is the complex, cumulative way in which the effects of multiple forms of discrimination combine
Image: First Book

3. Leverage vendor relationships

To make a wider equality impact, organizations must make conscious decisions regarding the vendors they choose, the offices they rent, and all the major purchasing decisions they make. They must ensure that those businesses are also supporting diversity.

4. Prioritize your own wellbeing

Taking care of our own wellbeing gives us the emotional resources to help those around us. In fact, one study found that happier people are more likely to care about the problems of the world and to take action to alleviate suffering – perhaps because they have more personal agency and energy to do so. Another study in Germany found that happier people tended to be more involved citizens; that they voted, volunteered, and participated in community activities more than less happy people. To tackle social issues at large, start by taking care of your wellbeing as a leader first.

5. Lead with empathy

Leaders who demonstrate empathy and who consider the perspectives of others are more likely to make people feel that their experiences have been taking into account. These strategies are supported by research: data suggests that employees are drawn to leaders who are kind and who they trust. They also value leaders to whom they can look up to for human qualities and values.

What is the World Economic Forum doing to champion social innovation?

Social innovators address the world’s most serious challenges ranging from inequality to girls’ education and disaster relief that affect all of us, but in particular vulnerable and excluded groups. To achieve maximum impact and start to address root causes, they need greater visibility, credibility, access to finance, favourable policy decisions, and in some cases a better understanding of global affairs and access to decision makers.

The Schwab Foundation for Social Entrepreneurship is supporting more than 400 late-stage social innovators. By providing an unparalleled global platform, the Foundation’s goal is to highlight and expand proven and impactful models of social innovation. It helps strengthen and grow the field by showcasing best-in-class examples, models for replication and cutting-edge research on social innovation.

The Schwab Foundation for Social Entrepreneurship’s 2021 Annual Report evaluated the work of its 2019 and 2020 Awardees. It shows that despite challenges presented by the COVID-19 pandemic, the foundation’s community has found new ways to join forces, respond and develop the movement of social innovators.

Our global network of experts, partner institutions, and World Economic Forum constituents and business members are invited to nominate outstanding social innovators. Get in touch to become a member or partner of the World Economic Forum.

6. Get comfortable with being uncomfortable

Personal reflection inevitably leads to growth, as well as causing some growing pains. Discomfort is not inherently a bad thing. It's an internal alarm that sounds in your brain, telling you to pay closer attention to something. Feeling uncomfortable can be a symptom of growth. Instead of being defensive in an uncomfortable situation, take a minute to ask yourself “what can I learn from this situation?” or “what can I do to help?”.

7. Design accountability into your workplace and your sector

An intersectional leader understands that they can create change by making sure that their governance policies align with their inclusion goals. Don’t assume a traditional organisational design is better – you have a blank canvas.

The poet Audre Lorde said: "there is no such thing as a single-issue struggle because we do not live single-issue lives." Putting intersectionality to work will take more than just the eight points mentioned above – but those will be a start. It’s up to all of us to create spaces where individuals can express and be their multifaceted selves – and to support each other as we push for comprehensive change. Follow the Bold Action for Women in Social Entrepreneurship initiative – a collective effort to use an intersectional approach to supporting women social entrepreneurs.