‘Intersectionality’ is today a commonly used phrase in discussing diversity in the workplace, but the term has a longer history. If you’ve heard the term intersectionality but wondered what exactly it means and how it presents a new lens on workplace diversity and inclusion issues, you’re probably not alone. Better understanding this term, and the way it was first applied by legal scholar Kimberlé Crenshaw in the 1980s, can help illuminate not only its meaning, but some of the shortcomings of standard approaches to discrimination in the workplace – and beyond.
Debates about diversity typically have a conceptual or academic tradition. Often, before making it into areas of practice, they have been debated and explored for how they shed light on established forms of thinking. Yet sometimes in their transition from the academic field to the field of practice this small insight can get lost – that new concepts and ideas aren’t just useful for how they help us act in new ways, but for how they can help us think in new ways. Intersectionality presents one such example.
In its simplest usage, ‘intersectionality’ refers to intersections of identity – most commonly the intersection of gender and race or ethnicity. It is used to draw attention to the fact that these markers of identity are treated as if they represent parallel lines that don’t intersect, when, actually, they do. Intersectionality, then, refers to the way that those assumed parallel lines of gender and race/ethnicity do, in fact, intersect – and that their doing so matters to our identity and to the way discrimination occurs.
In her now famous 1989 essay on the subject, Crenshaw examines a case brought before the courts where five Black women claimed that their employer had discriminatory policies that negatively impacted them. The Judge presiding on the case found against the complainants – and his rationale for doing so is revealing. He concluded that the women could be discriminated against on the basis of their gender – however he found that the employer had fair employment practices regarding women (who all happened to be white), so this was not found to be a valid basis of discrimination on his reasoning. He further considered that the women could be discriminated against on the basis of their race – however he also found the employer to have fair practices towards Black people (who were all men), so he found that this was not valid grounds for a discrimination claim either.
In other words, the women had brought the case that they had been discriminated against specifically as Black women, and the judge had found that discrimination law did not protect them as Black women. The law would recognise them if they were discriminated against as women or if they were discriminated against as Black people – but the law would not recognise them being discriminated against as Black women. Here again we have those presumed parallel lines of identity.
Crenshaw highlighted that, because of the way identity was being thought about, in terms of a single axis, the law failed to recognise, and thus protect against, discrimination that occurs at the intersection of identity characteristics. Crenshaw argued further, though, that this was not just a failure of the legal system and the way discrimination law is conceptualised. It is a limitation in the way we think about identity – particularly in debates about gender equality, women’s rights and feminism.
While there has since been some development in the way that discrimination in the workplace is conceptualised in Australia, contemporary examples can still be seen in the way workplace diversity data are typically reported. Diversity groups are still talked about and counted as if we all fall into neat parallel lines – we might track data on women’s participation rates, alongside data on the participation rates of people from ethnically diverse backgrounds, alongside data on the participation rates of lesbian, gay, bisexual and/or transgender people. Correspondingly, diversity initiatives tend to focus on single aspects of identity, in ways that can reproduce existing social hierarchies.
Treating these aspects of identity as discrete means, not only that we have a partial picture of what happens at their intersections, but it also reproduces the idea that women’s issues are about white women, and that issues to do with race and ethnicity are about men. The experience of women from diverse ethnic groups is, as Crenshaw highlighted back in 1989, lost when we let our constructions of identity become siloed and narrowed in this way.
So, what is intersectionality and why does it matter to workplace diversity and inclusion initiatives? Intersectionality is a way of thinking about identity and discrimination. It provides us a language and lens to recognise the complexity of discrimination – both in law and in more mundane workplace policies. But, the question lingers, how do we ‘do’ intersectionality? As Crenshaw herself describes it, intersectionality is a prism for thinking about matters of identity, particularly in understanding disadvantage. Operationalising the concept is both as complicated and as straightforward as that.
As a starting point then, we can ask, how do we describe discrimination and harassment in our workplace policies? Do our policies recognise discrimination as something that happens at intersections of identity or just along a single axis? We can look too at the data that we keep on ‘diversity’ groups. Whose experiences does that data really capture: how diverse is our diversity data? When we design diversity and inclusion initiatives we can ask, how inclusive are they? Are there opportunities for different diversity networks to come together, for example, for women’s networks to discuss issues of sexuality and for ethnic-based networks to discuss issues related to gender in the workplace? When we adopt an intersectional understanding of identity and of discrimination, we deepen our understandings of what diversity and inclusion requires, and, in doing so, we can begin to improve our workplace practices and cultures.
Dr Angie Bletsas is a senior consultant with Rapid Context. She has expertise in critical analysis, academic and applied research project design and management. Specialist expertise in social policy.