Could intersectionality be the key to success?

Blessing Buraimoh, Head of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion, takes the lead in voicing her opinion in our series of One Voice articles.

July 11, 2022

Intersectionality is an approach to diversity that acknowledges how someone’s race, gender, class, age and other characteristics all interconnect to form a personal experience - of life and of work – bringing both disadvantages and privileges. This lens, first coined by Kimberlé Crenshaw in 1989, is critical for true inclusiveness in the workplace, but because it can be difficult to grapple with how these multiple layers impact someone’s experience, companies tend to shy away from it.

I’ve worked with lots of clients that want to focus on diversity and inclusion yet think only about one dimension of diversity. Many companies, for example, 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 some progress, but it does not represent true progress both for gender equality and for the broader diversity agenda.

So, the question whether intersectionality is moving the dial on diversity, equity and inclusion in the workplace – that’s a big question mark for me because I'm not really seeing any broad adoption of intersectionality in companies I’ve worked with. At JLL, we recently ran a Diversity, Equity & Inclusion survey which showed that Intersectionality was the area where companies had the least focus.

Diversity needs intersectionality

Where a company takes intersectionality as a priority, people feel seen and heard.  Regardless of what their intersections are, they belong, and they feel psychologically safe. This impacts their day-to-day experience, their wellbeing, how they contribute within their teams and how productive and innovative they are.

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. An intersectional diversity programme would highlight not only gender but also intersections with age, class, ethnicity, disabilities, and other divisions.

The vast majority of diversity and inclusion specialists agree that if we do not take intersectionality into account, we cannot bring about the whole system change that is needed to level the playing field.

What can companies do?

I do a lot of strategy work with clients and one key thing I have seen is the importance of education. There is a need for more employers and employees to understand this concept and how it contributes to progressing the diversity and inclusion conversation. Companies need to help their employees understand the intersections of privilege and disadvantage and how this can be put to use to level the playing field.

Another important factor is data. Collecting employee workforce data and cutting that by different demographics as much as its possible, while maintaining anonymity, makes it easier for companies to take an intersectional approach in devising their strategies. It also helps to track the effectiveness and impact of various initiatives. One issue is that data collection may be problematic with smaller, more easily identifiable workforces, or in countries with certain prohibitive data laws.

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 their privilege to support their colleagues.

In my view, mentoring can really progress diversity, equity and inclusion. I’ve seen it change lives. People have somebody to guide them and share their experience, and both sides learn from the journey. I’m happy to say that at JLL, we are piloting a cross-company mentoring program across the property and construction industry.

Leadership matters

As a whole, though, the property sector is lagging on intersectional diversity. Financial services and management consulting firms tend to be ahead of the curve.

Those companies that are leading the way place value in diversity and inclusion and invest resources, so they make tangible progress. It’s a journey they have been on for some time, so their understanding of diversity can become more nuanced and the concept of intersectionality more embedded. I have worked with a global tech company who invested in virtual reality to tackle ingrained biases, enabling people to step into the lived experience of somebody else.

For diversity and inclusion to become part of the culture, people throughout the organisation need to feel ownership. But leadership drives the culture of any organisation. When there is that intersectional diversity at senior level, leaders will be far more empathetic with different lived experiences, and far more inclusive in the way they act and the way they lead their teams.

It will take time for intersectionality to truly bed in as a lens within companies’ diversity and inclusion initiatives. We’re slowly heading in a positive direction but it’s for now a leadership ideal that the industry does not currently have. 

So yes, an intersectional approach to diversity and inclusion is what will make workplaces more diverse. Right now, however, even the most progressive companies are only beginning to scratch the surface.

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