We all identify with a variety of inherent attributes, or characteristics, that determine how we see ourselves and how others perceive us. A single attribute rarely determines who we are, but rather a combination of several make up the whole individual. Attributes like gender, sexual orientation, race, disability, and ethnicity overlap and weave together to form our unique identities in a phenomenon known as intersectionality.
Unfortunately, those attributes that make us unique are often the same attributes that can lead to marginalized treatment, particularly in the workplace, and especially for women. When women, who already experience unequal treatment based on their gender, identify with additional marginalized identity elements, they experience a double, triple, or even quadruple, disadvantage.
Intersectionality and its Impact on Women in the Workplace
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The term ‘intersectionality’ was first introduced in 1989 by lawyer and civil rights activist Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw to describe how different elements of a person’s identity can overlap, resulting in the potential for discrimination. This is especially problematic for women who are already subordinated in a society that has been primarily male-dominated throughout history. Some of the problems women face as a result of intersectionality include limited employment opportunities, lack of advancement opportunities, pay gaps, sexual harassment, and non-inclusivity.
When faced with a double disadvantage, women often find themselves having to work harder to prove themselves, regardless of their qualifications or capabilities. While intersectional issues often result in fewer job opportunities and lack of advancement, women can also feel left out of the work culture altogether and may distrust employers who don’t make a genuine effort to create a positive, inclusive environment.
Disadvantaged employees tend to feel that their ideas and contributions are not equally valued, or credited to them, which can lead to those individuals underperforming and not reaching their full potential. Members of the LGBTQIA+ community, for example, often feel left out of their workplace culture simply by not fitting into the heterosexual male-dominated work culture that exists in many corporations. These employees often feel unsupported by their peers and supervisors and may report feeling like outsiders within their organizations.
When employees experience these feelings, they are less likely to share ideas, contribute to group discussions, network with others, and engage in problem-solving, and they are also more likely to leave for environments where they feel more comfortable and accepted. In these situations, nobody wins. The employee is at risk of developing negative self-worth, and the organization misses out on the benefits that different perspectives and skill sets can bring, while also suffering the financial burden of high employee turnover.
When the workplace is diverse and inclusive, there are more opportunities for sharing viewpoints and ideas. Diverse work cultures excel in creativity, which makes them better equipped to develop solutions to problems and are able to attract a broader customer base. According to a 2019 McKinsey Report companies which scored in the top quartile in gender diversity at an executive level were 25% more likely to achieve above-average profitability than companies scoring in the lowest division of the four groups. In other words, when diversity is embraced, it results in a more productive and profitable work environment.
Tackling Intersectionality in the Workplace
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Often, the behaviors associated with intersectional prejudice are rooted in deeply ingrained beliefs that have become embedded over centuries and are very much institutionalized. Therefore, organizations need to consciously focus on achieving greater balance in the beginning.
Having the right leaders in place is critical to success. Because of the nature and importance of the issues we’re facing, it is worth considering coaching all leaders in the business about the causes and effects of intersectional prejudice, and the business and employee benefits of addressing it.
Leaders should be equipped to observe and rectify behaviors, encourage equal sharing of ideas, and notice when that is not occurring, so they can explore the root cause of the problem.
Effective leaders must lead intentionally and by example, with accountability and humility, working to address their own shortcomings and make adjustments whenever needed. They should also learn to recognize problems in all areas of the organization and take appropriate action to fix those problems quickly.
A positive workplace should have leaders that present themselves as visible allies to all employees, including LGBTQIA+ women who need to know they have a voice in the workplace culture and leadership that supports and protects them. Leaders who assert themselves as supportive allies not only gain the respect of their employees, but their efforts result in higher productivity and lower employee turnover.
However, addressing intersectional prejudice is not an issue for leaders alone to be conscious of; it impacts all team members in an organization. Employees should be encouraged to discuss difficult topics in an environment that fosters positive change rather than negativity. Each employee within an organization, whether they realize it or not, has a role to play in their workplace culture and is affected by the environment. So, working towards recognizing and correcting any problems is also the responsibility of each employee and in the best interest of the organization as a whole. One way of encouraging the right attitudes and behaviors is to involve employees in the creation of organizational values and principles, through workshopping, brainstorming, and assigning responsibility for creating goals and ideals that everyone can buy into and work towards.
Addressing intersectionality requires organization-wide policies that prevent hostility and protect the rights of every employee. The psychological well-being of employees is as important as any other workplace concern. Demeaning, discriminating jokes and language should not be tolerated, and employees should be held accountable for their actions. Even employees who do not participate in negative behaviors and actions should feel empowered to influence change when it’s needed. By observing harmful actions in the workplace and ignoring them, employees who may not feel they are part of the problem are actually helping propagate a negative environment. Lack of action is an action and failing to speak up makes the employee complicit in the harm.
Inequality is a systemic problem that is present at every level of the organization, and we must all work together, every day, to undo the different layers. That begins with recognizing its existence and the damage it can cause. Education, awareness, and support are key to tackling this problem. The more we understand our differences, the more we understand why they should unite and strengthen us instead of dividing us. By confronting inequities head-on, with organization-wide strategies designed to promote inclusion and equality, all employees will have increased feelings of belonging and self-worth.
Businesses that are unable, or unwilling, to ensure the workplace is diverse, inclusive, and supportive, are unlikely to meet their full potential. Problems like employee dissatisfaction, high employee turnover, low productivity, and lack of innovative ideas are sure to plague any business that does not enact a plan to tackle the negative effects of intersectionality. We all need to understand that none of us has a singular identity and that people are the sum of many elements. Then, we should work to ensure that no one is marginalized within an organization. Businesses have unlimited potential for success because when employees are happy, secure, and productive, they provide invaluable contributions to the organization’s success.
This post was previously published on medium.com.
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