Intersectionality 101: Why “we’re focusing on women” doesn’t work for Diversity & Inclusion

Image credit: Rosie the Riveter (Modern)

It’s ok to admit you’re not yet comfortable with the concept of intersectionality. It took me awhile to fully wrap my head around it, too.

Yet, it is incredibly important that we understand and apply intersectionality for truly impactful Diversity & Inclusion (D&I) work. It’s a key part of my conversations advising companies, and when I was leading D&I at a previous startup, Lever — where I was the first female employee and 100 employees later, reached a 50/50 gender balance, among other markers of diversity.

So what does intersectionality (coined by Kimberlé Crenshaw) mean? Here’s an answer from the “Explain Like I’m 5” subreddit:

“If I’m a black woman, I have some disadvantages because I’m a woman and some disadvantages because I’m black. But I also have some disadvantages specifically because I’m [a] black woman, which neither black men nor white women have to deal with. That’s intersectionality; race, gender, and every other way to be disadvantaged interact with each other.” (u/Amarkov)

Let’s expand on this a bit further.

With the high level of attention in D&I across multiple industries these days, many well-intended companies are falling into a common trap: “We’re focusing on women first.”

This approach, while well-intended, also makes me cringe a bit. And unfortunately, I’m hearing it increasingly often. Maybe you’ve heard it in your organization, or you’ve even said it yourself — it’s all right, let’s consider it as a learning opportunity and unpack it.

Take for example, a fairly prominent issue: the gender pay gap. You may have heard a statistic that shows women make approximately 72 cents for every dollar that a man makes. But that number doesn’t tell the full story.

According to research, Black, Latina, and Native American women make far less than their white counterparts. In fact, the pay gap between white women and women of color is the fastest growing wage gap according to the Economic Policy Institute. But beyond pay gaps, this is about how who gets hired, heard, promoted, supported, and everything in between, all the small and big things that add up to big inequities.

Thus, the singular focus on one identity — gender — can take away from solving the broader systemic problem. Diversity & Inclusion work is about paying attention to the experiences of marginalized groups, to correct collective biases and obstacles to ensure an equal playing field. Just focusing on gender may end up only benefitting a subset of the population that already is further ahead.

Since women make up 50% of the population, the “Women first” strategy might seem to make sense for senior leaders who prioritize D&I initiatives based on pure numbers of people impacted. But the numbers-driven approach to D&I is just one part of the equation.

Imagine you’re a Black woman working for a company that touts “we’re focusing on women.” You’re being implicitly told, “sure, we care, but only a part of your identity, one that *we* are familiar and comfortable with.” Despite the good intentions, there’s an insidious implication behind the message — “Wait your turn. We’re helping the white women first.” And that’s what non-intersectional D&I work can often lead to. You can look no further than our own women’s rights movement in the U.S. to see examples of non-intersectional feminism.

Twitter thread. I’ve also heard from many women of color who don’t feel like they’re being served by ERGs/women’s groups at their companies.

The “women first” trap is understandable, to an extent, and I want to make it clear — there’s no point in excessively calling out, or shaming individuals. The truth is, “helping women” seems like the low-hanging fruit to many of us. It’s the more palatable, comfortable route. We live in a world where too many of us are still incredibly intimidated by talking about race, much less take action to solve it, especially when it involves dismantling institutions and norms that have been in place for decades.

While many great D&I initiatives do start with small steps, asking people with multiple identities of marginalization to “wait their turn,” contributes to further inequity. So, all of our efforts must be intersectional, and deliberately focus on those on the fringes. Because unfortunately, a “focus on women” often becomes just white women. The key to remember, if we can remove the obstacles for those who are most unfairly held back by our society, then those in the middle automatically benefit, too.

By approaching our D&I work through a lens of intersectionality, we become more effective and fighting injustice. Once we understand that, we can then recognize problematic statements and attitudes such as: “I’m a woman so I show up to all the women’s events, but it’s not my place to be an ally to people of color.” or, “As a member of a racial minority group, I’m extremely aware of the systemic oppression against my people in this country, but LGBTQ+ don’t deserve the same rights as I do because of [some faulty logic].”

Sign at the 2018 Women’s March. Intersectionality fail 😱 Don’t be this person.

In conclusion

At the end of the day, being an advocate for workplace equity requires compassion, curiosity, and continual introspection. D&I is also an invitation to hear and learn more about others’ experiences and systematically examine the workings of our society, even if it feels pretty uncomfortable sometimes. Furthermore, it’s an ongoing conversation with yourself in understanding how your own multiple identities fit into the broader work towards progress.

So continue to advocate for women’s causes, LGBTQ+ issues, racial equity, disability rights, immigration, and more — but do it with the lens of intersectionality. Because systems of oppression all overlap and their effects are compounded. With a focus on intersectionality, we can actually solve the systemic problems, not replace one with another, or just work on issues closest to our own hearts.

Seeing ourselves as allies of intersectional issues can lead to self-empowerment that allows us to enact change, and uplift even more people. And now you have a better understanding of intersectionality! :)

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About the author: Jennifer Kim is a startup advisor, working with mission-driven founders and companies on all things People-related. She is the former Head of People at Lever, one of the most D&I-forward tech companies. There, she was the first female employee and led D&I efforts that resulted in an inclusive culture that attracted significant representation of people from marginalized groups. Learn more:

For more tips and stories, Jen writes a weekly advice column for startups that care about D&I. Check it out and subscribe!

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