Diversity in Business: A Spotlight on Intersectionality

Imagine this: You're an African American woman applying for a position at a prominent manufacturing company. You go through the first round of interviews and find out that you were not selected to continue forward in the hiring process. At first, you think nothing of it. Maybe, you weren't qualified. Maybe, it wasn't a good fit. Then, you see that other African American women are not making it past the first interview phase. It seems weird, but maybe they weren't qualified either. Then, you discover that the workforce at this company is comprised of white men, white women, and black men. The white men are managers, the white women are in administrative positions, and the black men are machine operators.

The more you think about it, the more you believe that you have been discriminated against by the company. You talk to the other African American women and consult with an attorney. Collectively, you file a lawsuit. In the lawsuit, you proclaim that your race and gender were both targets for the discrimination you faced. You're positive that it was a combination of both. You go to court and plead your case, only to be told by the judge that you can't double dip. You are told that you cannot benefit from racial and gender discrimination (as if that's truly a benefit). 
You must choose and prove which one type of discrimination you endured. You consider saying that it was a case of racial discrimination, but are quickly reminded that African American men didn't endue the type of discrimination you are claiming. Then, you consider saying it was a case of gender discrimination. Again, you are quickly reminded that white women weren't discriminated against. What do you do? You have no legal argument, but you know you were discriminated against. You wonder why the law hasn't considered this before. Consequently, your case is dismissed.

This is what happened when Kimberle Crenshaw, the forward thinker behind intersectionality, agreed to assist the legal team for Emma DeGraffenreid and other African American women, in a suit against an employer. Jobs at this company were segregated by gender, an unwritten rule, of course. There were jobs for women, such as administrative jobs, and there were jobs for men, such as machine operating jobs. These jobs were also inherently segregated by race. In the end, black women were not hired for the administrative jobs because they were black, and they were not hired for the operating jobs because they were women. This effectively meant that black women could not work at this company, resulting in a discrimination suit. However, they were faced with a legal stumbling block.
White extremely beneficial for many Americans, the anti-discrimination laws catered primarily to the 'single dimension' population. White women could attribute the discrimination they faced, clearly to gender. African American men could attribute the discrimination they faced, clearly to race. Differently-abled people could attribute the discrimination they faced, clearly to disability. But what happens if you don't fit neatly into one of these marginalized groups? Intersectionality occurs when a person identifies with two or more minority or marginalized groups. For example, African American women identify with two groups: African American and woman. Lesbian white women identify with two groups: Lesbian and woman. Disabled, gay, African American men identify with three groups: Disabled, gay, and African American. There is no limit to the number of minority groups a person can belong to, but the more marginalized groups a person identifies with, the more difficult it is to explain her or his experience.
Early research into intersectionality showed that identifying with two or more marginalized groups, such as being an African American woman, meant that one had experiences congruent with being African American (regardless of gender) and being a woman (regardless of race). African American + woman= African American woman. However, recent research on intersectionality has discovered that instead of a math equation, where the result is predictable based on the equation, intersectionality is best described as a recipe. The individual ingredients in a recipe come together to create an entirely new experience. If the final product in a recipe doesn't turn out perfectly, it can be difficult to determine which ingredient caused the issue. The same concept can be applied to situations where intersectional individuals feel harassed or discriminated against. Determining the source of the discrimination can be difficult to pinpoint and describe.
The law has since caught up with the concept of intersectionality, but the invisibility of intersectional individuals in the business world is still very prominent. Business leaders are unaware and uninformed on intersectionality. As a result, it's become the diversity topic we aren't talking about.


Pat Summitt’s fight with Alzheimer’s ended June 28 and anyone who knows sports knew that Pat’s led an amazing basketball program. I grew up playing basketball and looked up to a number of greats. The way Pat led her players towards greatness was admirable and made aspiring athletes, like me, want to spend more time in the gym. To me, Pat Summitt was a great basketball coach. Period. However, upon her passing, a number of news outlets headlined their articles or reports using gender based language. The Wall Street Journal titled their article, Pat Summitt, Champion of Women’s Basketball, Has Died at 64. People Magazine released an article titled, How Legendary Basketball Coach Pat Summitt Changed Women’s College Sports.
          If we want to speak in silos and be very specific, then yes, Pat Summitt is a great women’s basketball coach. But why do we put women’s accomplishments in a silo? Pat Summitt led her team to 1098 wins out of 1306 games. In other words, for every 100 games Pat’s team played, they won 84. When comparing that winning record to other coaches in both the men’s and women’s divisions, Pat outperformed them. Not only that, but every student that Pat coached, graduated. This shows that Pat was a great basketball coach, not just a great female coach in women’s basketball.
          Women often feel as though they have to work twice as hard to get the same level of recognition and validity as their male colleagues. Pat Summitt has accomplished more in her career than any other male or female, yet her accomplishments are belittled to gendered boxes. Have you ever wondered why we have a WNBA, Women's National Basketball Association, and not a MNBA, Men's National Basketball Association? Why are associations, leagues, and conferences automatically assumed to be male oriented? We never hear of a men's leadership conference or a men's association, but a search of "women's conference" yields over 34 million hits. Women are always placed in situations where they seem to be "catching up" to the standard set by men in the workplace. 
          What can we do to ensure that women's accomplishments are not limited to the pool of women, but instead are among the ranks of all people's accomplishments?
1. We must be aware that we are minimizing women's accomplishments. We must recognize when we, or those around us, categorize women's accomplishments into limiting boxes and call it out. Most people are unaware of what they say, no matter how hurtful it can be towards others. Respectfully bringing these issues to the surface can help others learn how to be more inclusive to women in the workplace.
2. Form a group of allies who will celebrate your successes. Sometimes referred to as "circles" these are supporters who are excited to tell others about you and your accomplishments and recommend you for growth opportunities. Your supporters can be your golden ticket to your dream career or client. You know the saying "you are an average of the 5 people you surround yourself with most". Make those 5 people count.
3. Be a supporter! Surround yourself with people you enjoy promoting. Being a supporter is two-fold: you are recognized for being an encourager and your person is recognized for their accomplishments. "A rising tide lifts all boats". Share in the success of those in your circle. Success is contagious. 
4. Own your success. You are talented, you worked hard, and the world needs to know how you did it. By downplaying your success, you deny the world of the best you. The world needs the best you!
5.  Spread the word. Create a special hashtag or phrase that you and your circle use when supporting each other. This will show others that you #LeanInTogether. Nothing is more powerful than a group of people who gather together to uplift one another. 
        Together, we have the power to change the workplace. Recognizing women's achievements is one step in the right direction.


Diversity in Business: The Part we Aren't Talking About

     Growing up, my dad would give me sit-down serious talks about making good decisions and being a good person. One of the important lessons he bestowed on me was the disadvantages I would face as an African American woman in the world. He told me that being an African American man is hard, but being an African American woman would be even harder and that I would need to work really hard in school and work to be successful. This is very similar to the conversation many people of color are having with their kids. A particular level of priming is reinforced to children to help prepare them for the inequality that awaits them at the front door of adulthood. Admittedly, I didn't quite understand what my dad meant. At that time, my life was filled with sports, piano lessons, and carefree living. Fortunately, I hadn't been able to recognize the biases that people have that negatively impact women and people of color. It wasn't until I grew up and began working in corporate America that it became abundantly clear that there is an unknown force that I had to fight. A force that can't be identified or quantified. It can't be seen nor felt by all and any mention of its presence yields defensiveness, hostility, and denial.

     Diversity is on the agenda of every conference and the topic of every leadership meeting. How do we improve diversity? Where do we find diverse individuals? How do we increase inclusion? The list of questions regarding diversity are endless. Today's version of diversity covers, among many other things: gender, race/ethnicity, age, disability, sexual orientation, sexual identity, religion, and veteran status. Everyone fits nicely into these categories. According to statistical reports, people fit into only one of these categories at a time. We compare men to women, white people to people of color, and cis gender and straight to LGBTQ.

     Many leaders, consultants, and experts discuss solutions to increase the number of women in senior leadership positions or eliminate age discrimination or create an inclusive environment for the LGBTQ community. The problem is that these solutions are one-dimensional.

     The studies and research that we base our solutions on did not have diversity in mind. Most researchers, whose mission was to identify inconsistencies between men and women, gathered responses from white men and white women. After the numbers were crunched, researchers then apply those findings to all women. For example, there's been so much research to dispel the myth that the traits stereotypically assigned to women, such as kindness and compassion, are not the traits necessary to be great leaders. This line of research goes back to at least the early 2000s. It has come to light that the majority of the people participating in this research were white men and white women. Yet, we have taken the results of the research and applied it to men and women of all races, ages, and sexual orientations. This incorrectly assumes that white women and women of color have similar experiences.

What happens at the intersection of race and gender?
     What leaders aren't talking about, is intersectionality. Intersectionality is when a person falls into two or more minority or oppressive groups. Kimberle Crenshaw coined this term in 1989 and has completed extensive research in this area. An example of intersectionality is African American women, they fall into two groups: African American group and woman group. One of the biggest issues with intersectionality is that it can be difficult to determine which group can be attributed to failure. African American women often ask, "is it because I'm African American? Is it because I'm a woman? Could it be a little of both?" There's no magic answer, and that can be frustrating.

     It is time to begin thinking about intersectionality in the workplace. The more we focus on singular groups, the more people we exclude from the table. Just as women and African Americans bring unique experiences to the table, African American women bring another set of unique experiences that should be accounted for, lesbian white women bring another set of unique experiences, and disabled, gay men bring another set of unique experiences and so on.

It's impossible to account for every combination of people at the decision table, but the sooner we begin thinking outside of the singular groups, the sooner we can begin to truly understand the experiences people from multiple groups have that make them the right people to have at the table. 

About the author: Demetria is the Founder and CEO of Decide Diversity, a company focused on increasing the presence and effectiveness of women and minorities in the workplace, specifically in leadership positions. Demetria's experiences and education has energized her to take action and lead a new generation of leaders away from traditional stereotypes and self-inflicted limiting behaviors that prevent qualified people from reaching their highest potential.