Author and activist James Baldwin once said, “You have to decide who you are and force the world to deal with you, not with the idea of you.” Interacting with people from diverse backgrounds is part of what makes up our community, whether in the office or in our neighborhoods. 

Looking at individuals through a single lens and expecting the policies we enact to work for everyone simply doesn’t work. In the end, enacting diversity and inclusion (D&I) initiatives and practices, including gender-based ones, is not a one-size-fits-all approach.

Women, men, and those who are non-binary have multiple layers of diversity that require different ways of dealing with personal and professional challenges. This sentiment resonates with individuals striving to embrace and highlight the many layers of uniqueness they bring to their organizations. For companies, it spotlights their important role in valuing and promoting employees’ differences to create a diverse work environment with synergy, collaboration, discourse and creativity.

This awareness also underscores the challenges that come with addressing and overcoming barriers associated with various aspects of identity, including intersectionality: the ways in which a person’s social, physical, ethnic, racial, sexual and political identities combine, overlap and reinforce one another. Since these converging differences can ultimately affect opportunities, privilege and discrimination in the workplace, acknowledging and addressing intersectionality is vital to the success of an organization and the well-being, satisfaction and productivity of its employees and future leaders.

What Is Intersectionality

The term “intersectionality” was coined in 1989 by lawyer, civil rights advocate and critical race theory scholar Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw in a paper she authored about how race and gender have traditionally been considered mutually exclusive categories of experience. In it, she pointed out that when several forms of discrimination intersect, it can compound oppression and obstacles.

Though intersectionality was initially used in the context of the Black feminist movement, the term has since broadened to encompass attributes like other races and ethnicities, gender (including the absence or fluidity of one), age, physical and mental ability, sexual orientation and other distinctions that affect life experience, interactions and contributions. Company leaders must consider intersectionality as an integral part of diversity and inclusion.

#LeadingTheWay Masterclass: Women’s Intersectionality and the Many Layers of Identity

Embracing Identity Can Be Daunting for Those in the Middle

From a personal standpoint, my identity as a woman, woman of color, Muslim, and mother have impacted everything from the way I talk to how I am perceived to the barriers I face. As a leader navigating these difficult spaces, I have found it empowering and affirming to take pride in my uniqueness; admittedly, it’s not always easy for people in the earlier stages of their careers.

New hires receive training and ongoing support, while leaders at the top are afforded attention and authority. So how can employees at the middle tier foster inclusion and intersectionality? By activating their networks. When you aren’t in the room, you still want the conversation to be about you. You want your advocates telling your story, sharing anecdotes and championing how your uniqueness brings out your strengths, best attributes, skills and abilities.

Flexibility and Empathy Are Key to Workplace Inclusivity

For their part, organizations need to be mindful of implementing practices geared towards employees who feel uncomfortable in large settings where they might be “the only.” That could mean holding smaller meetings and conferences to encourage more open dialogue or private conversations for employees to candidly voice ideas and concerns. And because a policy that’s beneficial for one individual within a group might not be helpful for another, companies should remain aware of nuances, distinctions and disparities when implementing solutions. Intersectionality can come into play with hiring practices, promotions and employee interactions including microaggressions, daily verbal or behavioral slights that can be intentional or unintentional yet stigmatize or stereotype a marginalized group and lead to unconscious bias and discrimination.

Each of us has a role to play to make sure that sharing the essence of our uniqueness with others is validating not intimidating, collaborative rather than divisive, uplifting instead of uncomfortable. Only then can we bring authenticity and confidence to our roles, both in and out of the workplace.

Here are some best practices for diversity and inclusion, including intersectionality:

Four ways organizations can make a DEAL with employees to focus on diversity and inclusion:

D – Dig into the Data
Rather than looking for, thinking about and analyzing data in a one-dimensional way using a single diversifying lens like race, ethnicity or gender, consider statistics and trends as they overlap and intersect.

E – Encourage
Encourage dialogue within employee groups, between employees and leaders and within leadership teams.

A – Act
Walk the walk by not only talking about diversity and inclusion, but by doing the work via authentic, earnest initiatives. Two-thirds of millennials and those in Gen Z believe companies only give D&I lip service, according to the 2018 Deloitte Millennial Survey.

L – Learn
Understand that actions and programs are not always going to work out of the gate. Be willing to act, assess, learn, modify and try again.

Four ways individuals can LEAD the way with diversity and inclusion:

L – Lean In
To borrow the term from Sheryl Sandberg, discover what makes you you and leverage that. Don’t suppress your uniqueness.

E – Educate
Educate others on your culture, uniqueness and challenges, while also taking responsibility to learn about traditions; it’s a two-way street.

A – Activate
We are often told to network, but you also need to get your network to advocate for you. Don’t be a passive player.

D – Dissent
This term often associated with Ruth Bader Ginsburg doesn’t mean to be disagreeable or start a revolution. Dissent is expressing an opinion or conviction different than one that was previously or broadly held, and not accepting things as they are. This is how you bring about change.

Learn more about Freddie Mac’s Diversity, Equity and Inclusion initiatives.