DEI data collection and analysis is not a neutral process. It can hold as much potential to conceal as it does to reveal. As Dr Kimberlé Crenshaw once highlighted, your frame of perception affects what you can see, which means you need to to build intersectionality into your DEI analysis approach from the outset.
What is Intersectionality and Why it is Important
Catalyst describes intersectionality as “a framework for understanding how social identities—such as gender, race, ethnicity, social class, religion, sexual orientation, ability, and gender identity—overlap with one another and with systems of power that oppress and advantage people in the workplace and broader community.”
Intersectionality was first coined by Dr Kimberlé Crenshaw in 1987 to introduce a frame through which the intersectional discrimination faced by black women (greater than the sum of racism and sexism) could be made visible. Intersectionality creates a lens where we can see the different ways oppression exists, and how it is compounded when there are multiple dimensions. For example, bell hooks challenged white middle class feminism for being blind to its own race and class privileges and ignoring interlocking webs of oppression for others - leaving many out.
Through the lens of intersectionality, the impacts of identity are greater and more complex than the sum of its parts. Today, intersectionality has expanded. From skin color to gender to ableness to sexual orientation to neural wiring, multiple aspects of self affect experience and contribute to outcomes in ways that cannot be attributed to only one dimension. Consider the influence of gender and ableness, race and neurological condition, age and gender, race and sexuality, gender and marital status, and parental status and economic class.
Ways that intersectionality shows up in the workplace include: greater wage gaps and lower promotion rates for women of color, hiring inequities for women of racial minorities, varied levels of sexual harassment for LGBTQ+ people depending on ethnicity or ableness, and both increased sexual harassment and higher turnover rates for black women.
Breaking out of Silo Perceptions of Diversity
Sequential or siloed approaches to DEI only focus on one attribute of diversity in isolation, as do ERGS and targeted recruitment efforts. While individuals coalesce around common group identities, siloed initiatives often fail to support those who have intersecting identities while overlooking particular experiences of exclusion. As asserted by the World Economic Forum, “inclusion means everyone all the time - not some people some of the time.”
An intersectional approach to diversity and inclusion is an “and” approach that honors our multitudes not an “or” approach that fractures them. It demands consideration of interweaving identities. Even necessary group labels still compartmentalize and proliferate discrimination. When we describe people by their difference, even for DEI, how often do we reassert the norm (male nurse, black senator, gay couple) or recast the power status quo (marginalized, disadvantaged)? An intersectional lens forces us to dissolve the assumptions that group identities create and recognize individuals as unique, multifaceted centers of experience.
Unlike the Catalyst definition we chose, many definitions of intersectionality focus solely on layers of discriminations and disadvantages. But consider when Lee Jourdan, former CDIO at Chevron, shared his own privilege as a “straight black able-bodied man” - which does not negate the challenges he’s faced as black. Intersectionality today requires a nuanced mix of disadvantages and advantages relative to systemic power dynamics. Because intersectionality leads us to celebrate and value individual difference - to ultimately see and change those dynamics.
How to Incorporate Intersectionality in your Diversity and Inclusion Analysis
Like any process in your organization, DEI analysis itself is not immune to unconscious bias!
Unless your organization is taking an intersectional approach from the outset, you could create more blindspots with poor data collection and analysis - which exacerbates exclusion, because now, rather than not knowing, you think you know.
When inclusion is intersectional, it is comprehensive in addressing barriers and impacting decision-making at all levels. "Inclusion from the margin” is an approach that suggests by creating the changes that will include the most marginalized, organizations also remove most barriers for the many. Ludmila N. Praslova, PhD speaks to both access barriers that limit the entry of marginalized individuals into the organization and success barriers that limit access to development, promotion, representation and leadership opportunities.
So, is there anyone we could be leaving out? Is there anything we could be failing to consider?
The answer is yes. Which is why you have to approach diversity and inclusion analysis itself with an intersectional, inclusive framework to minimize that risk and maximize learning.
1) Include diverse voices in the process.
DEI analysis is as subject to the observer effect (or observer bias) as physics. So it’s important to involve diverse voices and perspectives into the DEI data approach. Not only should you be asking all stakeholders who are impacted by your organizational culture to report on their individual experiences, but it’s also critical to include diverse perspectives upfront to identify gaps and opportunities in the data collection process. What questions are you not asking?
This principle of inclusion from the margins applies along every step of the DEI analysis journey: from collecting DEI data to data analysis and narration to strategy to practices and process change to tracking change
Within Pulsely’s scientific framework, we leverage our experience of unearthing the unspoken insights that are likely hidden The DEI data analysis reveals the lived experience of your culture across 8 inclusion pillars that we are able to correlate with key performance indicators for the business.
2) Conduct DEI data analysis along multiple axes of identity
Approaches like these can blind you to intersectional employee experiences and opportunities to improve inclusion: questions which force choices that misrepresent a person’s sense of identity or force choosing between intersectional identities; statistical analysis which shows conveniently aggregated data.
It’s important to create questions which provide the option for people to self-define rather than be boxed into preset identities (eg gender). It’s essential to separate out variables that relate to identity (race, gender, sexual orientation, physical ability, religion, etc) and to breakdown and disaggregate data in your DEI data analysis (to the extent which it remains stable) to identify the more subtle dynamics at play for different individuals at various levels.
3) Explore insights at every level of the employee lifecycle
Intersectionality means that organizations must consider not only how different groups experience the workplace differently, but also how individuals within the same group experience the workplace differently. That includes dynamics around hiring, recruitment, pay, recognition, advancement, mentorship, sponsorship, retention and leadership.
At Pulsely, we consider employee’s direct lived experiences of work-life effectiveness, managerial relationships, career support, belonging, team psychological safety and their organizational perceptions of equal opportunity, behavioral accountability and visible DEI leadership. By assessing these aspects of inclusion, it becomes clearer where intersectional impacts come into play and the subtle ways in which experiences differ.
4) Seek solution space
“If we can’t see a problem, we can’t fix a problem.” –Kimberlé Crenshaw
Crenshaw introduced intersectionality in order to create the frame through which the problem could be addressed. Infinitely seeing problems alone will never create solutions. Approaching DEI analysis through intersectionality means looking for new, intersectional solutions.
We hear more and more people speaking about managing to the individual, focusing on the what not the how of the work, hiring for the skills not the prescribed background. These are intersectional approaches that contribute to individual inclusion, enabling each person to contribute to their full potential.
Through the lens of intersectionality, we realize that every individual’s view of the world is different and shaped by a myriad of influences. And as such, businesses must create practices, policies and cultures which value, recognize, and support every individual.