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Understanding Intersectionality

Updated: Sep 7, 2023

What is Intersectionality

As a society, we oftentimes pinpoint marginalized groups under one umbrella category of oppression. However, in 1989, the term “intersectionality” was coined to bring tangibility to multiple layers of oppression that an individual may face. Developed by American critical legal race scholar, Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw, intersectionality was originally used to explain the oppression of African American women and the intersection between race and gender as they related to discrimination claims. Intersectionality is described as a lens through which you can see where power comes and collides, where it interlocks and intersects. It is not simply that there is a race problem here, a gender problem here, and a class or LGBTQ+ problem there – that framework may erase what happens to people who are subject to all of these layers of marginalization.



The Oxford Dictionary defines intersectionality as “the interconnected nature of social categorizations such as race, class, and gender, regarded as creating overlapping and interdependent systems of discrimination or disadvantage.” For a lot of us, it’s not easy to pick one aspect of our identity to focus on. Our life experiences define who we are to a certain extent, as do our identities: race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, etc. We are complex individuals who have multi-dimensional identities, and it can be frustrating to feel like you have to pick one aspect of your identity that speaks to the realities we face in society.




Where do we see the relevance of Intersectionality?

As companies and organizations confront historic and current workplace disparities, ranging from pay gaps to hiring and promotions, it’s important that they consider more aspects of our identities than race or gender.


According to data compiled by the World Economic Forum, in 2020 white women in the U.S. were earning an average of 81 cents on the dollar compared to white men; in comparison Black and Hispanic women lagged, earning an average of 75 cents on the dollar. The impact is clear when we take into consideration how long it would take for women to achieve parity with men. If the gap isn’t addressed both socially and in the workplace, white women would achieve parity with men much sooner than all women, even when similarly qualified. Projections by the World Economic Forum indicate White women would achieve parity by 2059; while Black and Hispanic women wouldn’t realize parity until 2130 and 2224, respectively. That shouldn’t be a concern just for minority women, but for all women and men as well.


It’s true that minority men in the U.S. also experience this type of disparity. In 2019, a study conducted by Payscale examined earning disparities between similarly qualified men of color in the relation to what their White male peers earned. The study relied on a sample of almost 2 million employees over a two-year period and found that Black and Hispanic men earned 89 cents and 91 cents on the dollar, respectively. However, the same study also found that Asian men in the U.S. earn 15 cents ($1.15) more than their white similarly qualified peers.



The role of Employers

The question remains, are leaders really listening and taking action fast enough, especially for minorities and other marginalized groups?


Truth be told, there are no easy fixes. We’ve been aware of these disparities for decades but companies, both large and small, have been slow to respond. Now that there is tangible and credible data to confirm discriminatory practices, whether conscious or unconscious, leaders must consider the overlapping identities and life experiences of employees when hiring, promoting, or providing access to training and development programs. It’s important to analyze the proprietary data they have on hand to ensure that there is equity at all levels of the company. It’s no small task and takes real visionary leadership, but those that do will stand to benefit greatly in a number of ways, such as improved recruitment, lower turnover, more employee engagement and higher employee morale.



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