“You could say I’m the poster child for intersectionality: a queer person of colour who’s gender fluid, a parent and polyamorous…”

…but you don’t need to look like me for intersectionality to play a part in your life. You may be a lone parent who’s cis gender, has a disability and comes from a working class background. We’re all made up of multiple, intersecting identities.

Intersectionality means understanding how these different identities often create a unique set of barriers for individuals to overcome.

Intersectionality and psychological safety

For an organisation to function not just effectively, but successfully and creatively, employees need to feel they can speak up and share their ideas. In the workplace, this may be raising a hand to contribute to a meeting, or sharing an idea in a working group. These seemingly simple acts of speaking up may feel natural to some, but can induce feelings of intense vulnerability in others.

To explain why, I invite you to picture a busy crossroads. You may be standing on the side of the road without a care in the world, hand in your pocket, watching the traffic go by. Or, due to your intersecting identities, you may be standing in the middle of the road, dodging cars. As vehicles come racing towards you from different directions, you’re wondering – is it because I’m disabled? A person of colour? Gender fluid? This conflict can be external (‘why are they coming at me?’) or internal (you’re religious and also gay, with one identity telling you that there’s something wrong with the other identity).

Whether internal or external, this conflict takes up a lot of headspace and leaves you in perpetual fight or flight mode. The more intersecting identities you have, the more you try to ‘blend in’ in order to safely navigate the world. This can be damaging for you, but also for the people around you – including employers – who are missing out on the gifts you have to share, your ideas and loyalty, as you try not to draw attention to yourself.

Creating a workplace that acknowledges, and is inclusive of intersectionality, can provide the psychological safety employees need to unlock their full potential and creativity, and stop dodging cars.

The Move From ‘Diversity’ to ‘Intersectionality’

 

The word ‘diversity’ has been used to talk about inclusion in the workplace for a long time. The emergence of ‘intersectionality’ – which started as a solely academic term but is now growing in general use – paves the way for a deeper understanding of the multiple identities that make up a person.

Chart from Google Trends, which shows interest (searches) for ‘Intersectionality’ trending up over time

Intersectionality understands that ‘Diversity’ is only part of the story, allowing for a more accurate picture to unfold – one that goes beyond box-ticking and seeks to understand the nuances of the individual.

Diversity asks us to recognise that someone is brown. Intersectionality says that, just because this person is brown, it doesn’t mean they’re the same as another brown person.

Take Pride, for example. In psychotherapy we talk about ‘Coming In’ as an alternative to ‘Coming Out’, where the onus is on the LGBTQI+ individual to knock on the door, to take action, to make people see who they are. ‘Coming In’ acknowledges the right to keep certain elements of your identity private, if you wish.

Not everyone who is LGBTQI+ wants to be on top of a float. They may choose to only tell a select few people about their sexual identity, or not take part in Pride at all. But this perceived reluctance to ‘come out’ can result in negative judgement – even from the LGBTQI+ community itself. Looking through the lens of Intersectionality allows us to understand this possibility, and invites a wider conversation.

Embedding Intersectionality in the Workplace

Understanding the nuances that make up individuals allows employers to better support their teams. This results in a happier, more creative, loyal and productive workforce. But where do you start when intersectionality, by its very nature, seems so far-reaching?

Understanding your own intersecting identities can be a powerful first step. Intersectionality is not just about minority groups: everyone has intersecting identities.

If you think you’re part of a majority group, take a minute to consider the intersecting identities in your own heritage and present life. You may be of Irish descent, and also be a parent, single, belonging to a particular socio-economic class and be a carer for your partner, for example. In five years’ time, you may have additional identities that you don’t have today.

Next, look at ways your workplace groups can be representative of more than one identity. For example, could the Disability Champions group work with the LGBTQI+ group to raise awareness of LGBTQI+ people with disabilities? Bring in a keynote speaker who can talk about things through an intersectional lens to support this. For Pride, for example, bring in a gay person who has a disability and is polyamorous, who can talk about their different identities and how they may be in conflict with each other.

Book Dil for your event

Like this article? Dil is available for conference and keynote speaking and virtual events

In the workplace, as in the rest of the world, identities that are more accepted will be the element of themselves people allow to come forward. The identities that are less accepted will get pushed to the back and become less visible. Starting the conversation about intersectionality can begin to create a sense of psychological safety, where these hidden identities start to come forward.

Instead of asking “how can I create a more diverse workplace?”, try asking “how can I make a workplace that’s inclusive of intersectionality?” Language is powerful, and starting to use the word ‘intersectionality’ alongside (or instead of) ‘diversity’, allows for an evolution of the DEI conversation in a gentle way that invokes curiosity.

What Next?

 

Intersectionality is a Venn diagram, not a straight line. Someone may arrive at a workplace with one set of intersecting identities, which will change and develop over their time in the organisation. You may have previously been in a place of privilege, where doors have been opened, rather than closed, for you: you may now find yourself standing at the crossroads, dodging cars for the first time. You may not like it.

Discussions around colonisation, for example, are adding a whole other layer to intersectionality. You may have been colonised yourself, and aware that what you used to consider your cultural practices are not, in fact, yours, but those of your colonisers. Or you may be second or third generation colonisers, and feel shame about that. That shame can impact yourself and others. Australia’s Welcome & Acknowledgement of Country statements are an example of how opening the discussion on colonisation can be a tool for healing.

Creating an inclusive workplace is not just about productivity; it’s also about improving people’s mental health. Ultimately, becoming self-aware of your own intersectionality is the first step towards unlocking both your own, and others’ potential. It will also open up a fascinating, multi-dimensional world that, rather than putting people in boxes, says “there is no box”.

Start the conversation

Talk to the Mix team about intersectionality in your organisation

Dil Wickremasinghe

Dil Wickremasinghe is an accomplished broadcaster, journalist, workplace facilitator and keynote speaker specialising in gender, sexual and relationship diversity and mental health awareness. She’s available for conference speaking, keynote speaking and virtual events on a range of topics including Pride in the Workplace, Mental Health Awareness, Resilience Building and Unconscious Bias.

Further reading

Is The DEI Backlash A Genuine Concern?

Mix CEO and co-founder Hayley Barnard takes a deep-dive into the ‘DEI backlash’ and asks – why do leading politicians and cultural figures seem to be targeting DEI? And how do we respond?

Read article

Understanding the Models of Disability: The Importance of Reasonable Adjustments

The models of disability help us understand how society defines and talks about disability. There are four main models we will discuss: the medical model, the charity model, the social model, and the celebratory model. Find out more in our quick guide.

Read article

“I Don’t Care Who You Are, I Just Need You To Do Your Job”

DEI consultant and speaker Tom Crawford explains why not caring who your employees are is a problem for leaders. And how understanding employee motivations, self-awareness and role-modelling makes for a more inclusive workplace.

Read article

Appreciating and Engaging the LGBTQ+ Community

DEI Consultant, speaker and coach Tom Crawford shares insights from his personal journey and provides practical tips to engage meaningfully with the LGBTQ+ community. Whether you’re looking to better understand your LGBTQ+ colleagues, friends, or family members, or simply want to be a supportive ally, this guide is for you.

Read article

International Womens’ Day – 6 ways to make it count

Hayley Barnard is the CEO of Mix, a global DEI expert and highly sought-after IWD Speaker who spoke live to audiences in three countries last 8th March. In her latest article, she provides six tips for making International Women’s Day count (every day of the year).

Read article

Sign up for the latest DEI news, best practice and guides from our team.

© 2024 Mix Diversity Limited. Registered Company No 09280349