OPINION: Is Intersectionality Just Another Word for Humanity?

Contributed by
world flags against a blue sky
27 Sep 2019

OVER the last couple of years, the diversity and inclusion narrative has seen a very significant shift from focusing on individual groups (or diversity strands) to exploring the overlap between them. This has been very powerful, especially when applied to the workplace, as it has brought to the surface the multiple layers of discrimination and challenges faced by those whose identities are at the intersection between more than one protected characteristic, may that be gender, race, sexual orientation, age, or socio-economic background.

For example, we know that the interaction between gender and race can produce very different outcomes for a particular individual depending on their identities. Looking at the legal sector, Law Society statistics (Annual Report 2017) show that the likelihood of a white male becoming a partner in his career is 73.5%, compared to only 13% for Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic (BAME) females. Interestingly, BAME males still fare better than white females when it comes to the likelihood of making partner – as for the former the chances are 29.1% compared to 18% for the latter.

This is why talking about intersectionality really matters. Without such a concept we would run the risk of overlooking the big picture, and we would be more likely to focus on diversity strands in isolation, without realising that it is the totality of one’s experience and identity as a whole that must be addressed.

However, in order to utilise the concept of intersectionality, one must embrace the reality that every individual experience will be different and that workplaces must take a truly holistic approach to recognise the specific challenges different people might face, and give them the tools to overcome these and thrive.

We asked I. Stephanie Boyce what intersectionality means to her as the first Black woman to become an office holder of the Law Society in the 175 years of its history as an institution.

Boyce told us that “intersectionality is not about how many identities one has or which groups one should be an advocate for. It is about understanding the experiences of each individual and how to best support them.”

Boyce is determined to leave the profession more diverse and inclusive than the one she entered when she became a solicitor, but she is also clear that she does not want to be seen as “one or two things” – she does not want the profession to simply expect her to champion just the rights of women and/or BAME solicitors. She wants to use her position to promote a positive narrative and a shared sense of commitment that, in her words, “must start with the genuine conviction that diversity adds value and it is needed around the table.”

“…intersectionality is not about how many identities one has or which groups one should be an advocate for. It is about understanding the experiences of each individual and how to best support them.”

The way to achieve this is to promote the understanding that the concept of intersectionality (which might sound abstract, technical or academic to many) is simply the reflection of our identity – it is in fact just another way of describing humanity and the spectrum of experiences that make each individual who they are.

However, here is a word of caution from Boyce: “If the concept of intersectionality is to help individuals and workplaces in their journey towards true equality and inclusion, one must not solely focus on discrimination and challenges, but instead strive to create a positive narrative around equal rights.”

The risk of using intersectionality in a divisive way is real, as shown by a simple Google search for ‘intersectionality’: the first result (an advert) invites you to ‘Calculate your oppression, check your intersectionality.’ The very notion that one should measure their level of oppression or discrimination compared to others is fuelling the exact opposite dynamics to what is needed.

While raising awareness of the experience of groups that are at the intersection of different diversity strands – and fully recognising the multiple layers of discrimination they might face – is a vital part of the inclusion journey, it most certainly cannot be the destination of such journey.

That’s why many valuable initiatives like affinity groups or diversity awareness raising days don’t seem to have the desired outcomes of reducing inequalities; they tend to focus on a particular dimension of diversity and often fail to engage those who are in a position to make a difference, including middle and senior managers.

A focus on intersectionality, on the other hand, helps to avoid the temptation to pick only one or two issues that feel more comfortable or familiar, and it enables a more holistic reflection of individual experiences, thereby allowing every single one of us to relate to it.

The next step in the journey described above must focus on using the concept of intersectionality to fully explore the impact of our innate biases. Every individual is born with bias. In fact, bias is a key tool for survival and evolution. Individuals develop biases throughout their lives responding to stimuli from the environment around them, e.g. from their families, friends, at school/university, in the community and in the workplace.

Like our identities, biases have multiple layers and are unique to each individual. So far, cognitive behavioural scientists have coded over 180 different types of bias, all of which help us to function on a daily basis.

However, biases also have a significant impact on our decisions and perceptions of the world, which can lead to unequal (not to say discriminatory) practices in workplaces if decision makers are not aware of their biases.

To address this, organisations must invest in regular bias training and embed subliminal messages about the impact of biases in a range of different conversations, from those centred on performance management to those focused on leadership.

To those who may say ‘I don’t have a prejudiced bone in my body,’ Boyce would respond: “That might be true consciously, but subconsciously you may have at least as many biases as you have bones in your body,” and that is why the most important things individuals and companies can do is to focus seriously and systematically on our humanity (or intersectionality) and on understanding how our biases influence our decisions on a daily basis.