How intersectionality plays out in the workplace

Ample research reveals that black women in the workplace face intersectional discrimination and have fewer professional development opportunities to further their careers, says Michelle Moore. So what is the solution?

We all want to be seen, heard, and understood and especially in the workplace. This makes us feel valued and recognised for our individual contributions. This however does not apply equally to all people, women, and especially Black women.

Black women experience discrimination differently, because they stand at the crossroads of interlocking sets of oppression that make their individual experience multifaceted.

This is known as intersectionality, a term coined by world-renowned academic and expert Professor Kimberlé Crenshaw, who uses it as a metaphor to understand the prism of multiple inequalities through which race inequality is viewed, alongside other inequalities such as those based on gender, class, sexuality, or immigration status; people are often subject to some or all of these, and each exacerbates the others. The intersections of oppression therefore impact on every facet of the lives of Black women, including the workplace.

As an example, a black woman experiences sexism and racism, but her experience of sexism will be different from a white woman, and when she experiences racism, this is different in comparison to a black man.

The experience of both racial and gender stereotypes further compounds the negative impact on the individual and intensifies the experience. These oppressions are inextricably intertwined at a structural level in organisations, their different layers creating unequal outcomes for black women and other groups of women of colour. For instance, in the UK both the ethnicity pay gap and the gender pay gap serve to doubly impact and bind black women, yet where these pay gaps are reported, they are reported on separately. This division serves to erase black women but also conceal their experiences. Their invisibility compounds the effects of racism in employment and negatively impacts their mental health.

Due to the impact of structural racism and the combination of racism and sexism, black women entering the labour market are often forced to take jobs well below their qualification level. They are significantly underrepresented in the highest paid leadership roles across industry.

In the UK, across the public and private sector just 1.5% of the 3.7 million business leaders are from a black or ethnic minority background. Women make up just over one in 20 chief executives of FTSE 100 companies and none are black or from an ethnic minority background.

Ample research reveals that black women in the workplace face intersectional discrimination and have fewer professional development opportunities to further their careers, and therefore have less access to leadership positions compared to white women. This is a result of limited access to training, mentorship, sponsorship, and opportunities to interact with senior leaders.

Emotional tax

All of this speaks to the emotional tax and labour black women endure in the workplace – the additional barriers they face, their unremunerated efforts, and the harms they experience, and the toxic impact all this has on their mental health. In her talk for The New York Times events, the US activist Brittany Packnett writes powerfully on how Black women’s unique oppression in the workplace is revealed not simply in lost wages, but in ‘lost time, in lost energy, in energy wasted’, even if, despite this ‘emotional and cognitive tax’, black women thrive. ‘[W]e just shouldn’t have to,’ she declares.

Companywide approaches that take account of intersectionality are paramount in creating more inclusive working cultures. Understanding how power and privilege are used to exclude or discriminate against different groups of women provides the starting point to increase knowledge on how to best serve the needs of black women in the workplace.

Professor Kimberlé Crenshaw sums this up well, arguing that intersectionality is not just about identity, but about how institutions use identity to exclude and privilege against different groups of women. In any industry, if the governance and leadership fail to understand the ways in which oppressions intersect, they fail to cater for the people they serve. Inclusion without intersectionality is not inclusion.

Leaders who are serious about tackling racial inequities and creating safe and inclusive spaces must centre the voices of black women and include them in processes to identify solutions, develop programs and create policy which leads to antiracist outcomes. This must be done in a way that is safe because the impact of revealing racism at work can be re-traumatising, and so finding different ways to understand the lived experiences through anonymous surveys or focus groups to identify improvement strategies is vital.

Forensic examination

Organisational leaders must undertake a forensic examination of every part of their ecosystem, identifying the places where structural racism can lead to unfair decisions and racial and gender inequities. This can include bespoke leadership programmes to support Black women into leadership positions or performance-related pay linked to antiracism targets for all employees. Accountability and a strong leadership commitment to anti-racism and inclusion are paramount. As with any strategic wide business priority, leaders must engage the right expertise to tackle systemic oppression to create the organisational and cultural change so urgently needed.

Leading and managing teams of people from a wide range of backgrounds with overlapping identities requires managers and leaders to be skilled enough to manage and understand the different perspectives and styles of learning and communication, and to harness this to achieve the team goals. That is why high-quality leadership and race equity training are required to ensure an organisational workforce is fit for purpose. Practice must be intentional and thought through. Recognising greater diversity will introduce healthy cognitive dissonance to homogeneous teams, which is what all teams need to create high productivity and creativity.

Appreciating and respecting our differences is an integral part of inclusive work cultures. To do this, senior and middle managers and leaders must understand the nuances and the overlapping ways in which discrimination interrelates based on an individual’s identity in all its aspects.

As Audre Lorde – writer, feminist, womanist, and civil rights activist – highlights, none of us is just one thing and leads a single-issue life.

Leadership Coach, Speaker and Author Michelle Moore is the author of Real Wins: Race, Leadership and How To Redefine Success.

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