September 10, 2020
Would you like to become a more inclusive leader? Work on building a company that’s thoughtful about intersectionality.
(If you’d like to learn more about what intersectionality is, including some intersectionality examples, read Part 1 of our series.)
We spoke with diversity and inclusion consultant Ashley Oolman to get some advice about intersectionality at work. Read on for practical tips you can use to build a more inclusive culture at work.
“What are you tracking?” Oolman asks employers.
You should have data that paints an accurate picture of the representation at your company, including the makeup of your leadership team. One way that companies get this data is by running voluntary, anonymous surveys of employees. Small businesses with fewer employees may need to use other methods. (Be sure to work with your HR department to carefully design any surveys and maintain employee confidentiality.)
Oolman suggests looking at metrics across demographics. For example, it’s valuable to know how many of your employees have disabilities. It’s also valuable to know how much representation you have from Black employees. But do you know how many of your employees are at the intersection of both of those identities?
The data you have helps you build an authentic plan for improvement.
Do you have employee resource groups, such as a group for employees with disabilities? Oolman suggests having the groups overlap or interconnect. “We’re making people’s existence more complicated when we put them into boxes,” she says.
That doesn’t mean dismantling your employee resource groups. Affinity space can be a helpful source of mentorship and support for your employees. But it means that each group should acknowledge the diversity of its members. Often, a group focused on a particular issue can end up replicating harmful dynamics that exist in the larger workplace.
An example might be a disability affinity group where all of the decisions are made by white members. When that’s the case, some group members might not feel welcome. They may start to leave the group.
One way to prevent situations like this is by providing training for all employees in inclusion and intersectionality. You could also look for ways to build formal connections between your employee resource groups.
For example, could your disability resource group collaborate with your resource group for Black employees? Encourage your employees to see the groups as overlapping circles, rather than as standalone efforts.
An intersectional plan for inclusion starts from the top.
A recent study from Deloitte showed that two-thirds of millennial and Gen Z employees—those born between 1983 and 1999—believe that business leaders simply “pay lip-service” to diversity and inclusion efforts. That’s not great news for companies, especially as more and more employees prioritize authentically inclusive workplaces.
Let your employees know that you value intersectional thinking. And expect employees to follow the lead that you set for them. Intersectional inclusion requires buy-in, and when supported properly results in culture change.
The concept of intersectionality may be unfamiliar to some employees. So provide them with intersectionality examples. Explain why an intersectional approach is a critical part of building an inclusive working environment for all employees.
There are many resources available that you can use to learn more about intersectionality as it relates to disability and the workplace.
The term intersectionality itself was coined by Kimberlé Crenshaw. In her TED Talk, she gives an accessible overview of what it means. This video of her talk can provide a good introduction for employees who might be unfamiliar with the concept.
Does your workplace have a book club? Try using it to spark discussions about intersectionality in the workplace.
Here are some book suggestions from Oolman:
To build an inclusive workplace that takes everyone’s identities into account, you’ll need to invest resources. Think in terms of an allocated budget amount and identified staff hours.
Oolman notes that this work is not always easy. Companies need to make it a priority. To be effective, intersectional thinking needs to cut across all of your workplace activities—not only the efforts specifically dedicated to inclusion.
Oolman says that’s one of the keys to true success: “Do you want to look diverse? Or do you want to feel and sound diverse? Do you want to create surface level change? Or do you want to transform your workplace?”
This article is Part 2 of a two-part series on intersectionality in the workplace:
Jamie Studenroth is a disability inclusion coordinator at the Workplace Initiative by Understood. She has supported people with disabilities in settings such as schools, camps, nonprofits, and employment. She is a longtime advocate for disability justice in the workplace and beyond.
Reviewed by Ashley Oolman. Founder and inclusion consultant of Allied Folk, Oolman guides partners through evidence-based best practices, product development, and progressive thought leadership. From large corporations to individual allies, she transforms strategic business initiatives and advances equitable community spaces. With more than a decade of leadership experience in advocacy, employment, and workplace culture, she understands how to navigate complex environments and provide actionable insights for growth.
We'll send you resources and updates about disability inclusion in the workplace.