Intersectionality is an approach to diversity that acknowledges how someone’s race, gender, class, age and other characteristics interconnect to form a personal experience – of life and work – bringing both disadvantages and privileges.
This lens, first coined by race scholar Kimberlé Crenshaw in 1989, is critical for true inclusiveness in the workplace, but because it can be difficult to grapple with how these layers affect someone’s experience, companies tend to shy away from it.
Many firms focus solely on gender equality and may have more women in senior roles, but the women are a homogenous group, typically white, educated to degree level, straight and middle-class. Some might view this as progress, but it does not represent true progress for gender equality and the broader diversity agenda.
The question of whether intersectionality is moving the dial on diversity, equity and inclusion (DE&I) in the workplace is a big one. JLL recently ran a DE&I survey that revealed intersectionality was the area where firms had the least focus.
Diversity needs intersectionality
In firms where intersectionality is a priority, people feel seen and heard. Regardless of what their intersections are, they belong and feel safe. This affects their day-to-day experience, their wellbeing, their contribution and their productivity.
Without an intersectional approach to diversity, companies inadvertently exclude a lot of demographics. For example, the experience of an older, black female – who has multiple layers of disadvantage – is very different to the experience of a younger, white female. The majority of DE&I specialists agree that if intersectionality is not taken into account then the change that is needed to level the playing field cannot come about.
What can companies do?
Education is vital – employers and employees need to understand how it contributes to progressing diversity and inclusion. Companies need to help employees understand the intersections of privilege and disadvantage and how this can be used to even things out.
Another important factor is data. Collecting employee workforce data and cutting it by demographics, while maintaining anonymity, makes it easier for companies to take an intersectional approach in devising their strategies, while helping to track the effectiveness of initiatives.
Understanding intersections within a workforce can help build strategies to support those who may be disadvantaged but also empower those with some privilege to recognise and use it to support colleagues.
As a whole, the property sector is lagging on intersectional diversity. Financial services and management consulting firms tend to be ahead of the curve. Those firms that are leading the way place value in diversity and inclusion, having invested resources to make tangible progress.
For diversity and inclusion to become part of the culture, people throughout an organisation need to feel ownership. But leadership drives the culture of any organisation. When there is intersectional diversity at senior level, leaders will be far more empathetic with different lived experiences and more inclusive in how they act.
But while progress is being made, even the most progressive companies are only beginning to scratch the surface, highlighting the opportunity ahead in creating truly diverse workforces.
Blessing Buraimoh is head of DE&I for work dynamics at JLL