We talk about equality. Which is hugely important.
And we talk about diversity. Also of tremendous importance.
And then we work to foster conditions of inclusion, to tackle exclusion. At least I hope we do. And we talk about that too.
What I don’t hear us talking about yet in business circles is the biggest “i-word” of them all. Intersectionality.
Now….I cannot profess to be an expert. I am learning. I am scratching the surface. It even crossed my mind that I shouldn’t write this blog for fear of ‘mansplaining’ something which is frequently associated with the feminist movement. So I checked my intent: to try in my own small way to put this out there and onto the corporate agenda.
It is something upon which I have been reflecting for a variety of reasons. It resonates with me. It is a route into being able to explain a facet which has always troubled me about diversity & equality initiatives. I worry that they put people into groups about which assumptions are made, and that they do not reflect the fact that we are all individuals with our own life experiences, our own complexity and our own needs.
This has been a feature of the inclusive leadership workshops that I deliver: I find myself suggesting that leaders might “get to know the person in front of you”; “try to avoid stereotypes”; “accept that you don’t, without effort, know about or understand the experiences of the individuals you are working with”; “include people as individuals, work out what inclusion means for them”; and so on…..
We need to be much better at understanding intersectionality – a dictionary definition of which is “the complex, cumulative manner in which the effects of different forms of discrimination combine, overlap, or intersect”.
Professor Kimberlé Crenshaw (UCLA School of Law & Columbia Law School) first drew attention to the term in relation to race and gender theory in a 1989 article discussing the experiences of black women in the USA. She asks us to conceptualise discrimination in an analogy to traffic: “Discrimination, like traffic through an intersection, may flow in one direction, and it may flow in another. If an accident happens in an intersection, it can be caused by cars traveling from any number of directions and, sometimes, from all of them. Similarly, if a black woman is harmed because she is in the intersection, her injury could result from sex discrimination or race discrimination.”
For me this is an eye-opener and worthy of deep reflection. Do we even start to understand this in the business world? Do we in any way “get” the experiences of those who come from significantly different backgrounds to us? Do we even try to improve in this area?
Without it being a competition. A league table. That isn’t what this is about. What it does do is drive us towards trying harder to understand, to recognise how we may have enjoyed entitlement compared to others, to avoid generalisations based on any attribute. To accept that a straight, white woman will quite possibly have had a significantly different life experience to a black, lesbian woman and that, therefore, a one-size-fits-all approach to gender equality will not cut it. Or that a white gay man may have enjoyed greater entitlement in life than a black gay man. Or may not. Or that an initiative to equalise the progression of women in the workforce (and boy do we still need those) might, if not thought through, create a new ceiling for black men or gay men who may be facing their own challenges in overcoming discrimination. That a straight white man may have faced barriers of which you are unaware. And so on. As I said it’s not a competition.
It is about creating positive conditions for all, within which all can thrive, in which we do our best to create a level playing field for everyone.
We have a long way to go. Yet, as we become more sophisticated in our thinking about inclusion and agree that fostering inclusive workplaces is, well, the right thing to do (and brings business benefits), we have an opportunity. It’s about leadership choices.
We can choose to shift our thinking.
In fact we can choose to:
- Fight to improve the experience of those who are not like us
- Avoid generalisations; stay away from over-simplified language
- Recognise difference, and that we are all different
- Ensure any teams you belong to are self-aware (e.g. are we ‘all-white’, are we ‘all male’?)
- Welcome difference and watch out for homophily
I’m very glad that I was introduced to this concept, this reality. I have reflected upon it for many hours now. It really is something which could be the route to greater inclusion in society and in our workplaces.