How to Explain Intersectionality to a Coworker (or Friend)
Updated: Dec 14, 2020
Welcome to my weekly Q&A roundup. (Scroll down to find the Q&A.)
If this is your first time here, welcome. I spend a fair amount of time speaking at events and conferences. At the end of my presentations, I leave space for audience members to ask questions—tough questions, brave questions, you name it.
The level of candor and curiosity always inspires me, and I want to share that sentiment with you. So each week, I pick one question that I believe others would find most instructive and publish my response to it here.
The purpose of this weekly tradition is transparency and inclusivity.
• Transparency: a behind-the-scenes look at my day-to-day.
• Inclusivity: bringing others along in the journey.
Explaining Intersectionality in Simple Terms
How can I have conversations about racial justice without sidelining the conversation around gender equality, and vice-versa? I feel like I’m walking on eggshells at work because I’m scared I’ll do or say the wrong thing.
There’s a tool you can use to avoid undermining important equity issues in favor of others. It’s called intersectionality, and I want to explain how you can apply this tool to your workplace in clear, straightforward terms.
First, if I asked you to identify yourself, how would you respond?
- Sexual orientation.
- Physical ability.
These are all categories you might choose to identify yourself with. Maybe you identify with one category, or maybe you choose several. And that’s ok because these categories are not mutually exclusive. Being a man does not exclude you from being Asian. Nor does being a Gen Xer exclude you from being a lesbian.
Intersectionality recognizes this overlap. It’s as simple as that.
Now, once you recognize this overlap, you can begin to understand how your unique combination of identities impacts how you experience life.
With intersectionality, employees are no longer siloed into buckets of identity. This changes how you talk about diversity and inclusion at work.
Racial justice is not a catchall for non-white employees, gender equity is not a catchall for women, and categories of identity are not in competition with each other
That’s step one. Understanding and acknowledging intersectionality. It’s not step one-and-done.
Intersectional data-disaggregation comes next. If you measure employee turnover, go beyond tracking this data by level or department. You should also track data by gender, by race, by age, etc.
For an excellent example of intersectional data-disaggregation, look no further than the April and May 2020 jobs reports. In April, the unemployment rate for all women was 16.2%, whereas the unemployment rate for black women was 16.4%.
When the May jobs data came out, many people cheered the drop in unemployment, which had fallen to 13.9% for women. However, the news hit differently for black women, whose unemployment rate actually rose to 16.5%.
Imagine how policies could be more effective—whether they be public policies or workplace policies—if they took into account data that was intersectionally-disaggregated.
By properly disaggregating data, you’ll be able to capture and view new dimensions of the employee experience. This approach will likely expose blind-spots (areas of improvement) to help you build a more inclusive workplace.
These Q&A roundups can be delivered directly to you—a week before I publish them here.
(All you need is an email address.)