Intersectionality at the workplace and why rainbow flags aren’t enough

What do Pride month, #MeToo, #MenToo and Black Lives Matter have in common? All of these movements, although having very different backgrounds, deal in some way or another with discrimination and are challenging the societal norms in which we live in. The constant flare-up of these movements, as well as the emergence of counter movements leading to the “Don’t say gay bill” in Florida or the tightening of abortion laws in Poland, remind us that the fight against sexism, racism, ableism, trans- and homophobia is still far from over. 

For this blog, and in light of Pride month, we want to address a fundamental element of diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) that isn’t so common to everyone: intersectionality, and more precisely, why everyone needs an intersectional diversity and inclusion culture at the workplace.

What is intersectionality?

According to the European Institute for Gender Equality, intersectionality is the understanding that every individual has multiple, layered identities derived from social relations, history and the operation of structures of power. As a consequence, different people can experience very distinct multiple discriminations and disadvantages that occur through the combination of identities and the intersection of sex and gender with other grounds.

Intersectionality recognises the notion that there is a hierarchy of privileges, and your position on this axis is impacted by characteristics such as race, religion, gender, sexual orientation, disability, but also level of education, physical appearance, wealth, country of origin and even spoken language and age. As every person has a very individual set of characteristics, it’s not uncommon to simultaneously live through disadvantage and privilege: you can be empowered in one area and still be oppressed in another. 

If this sounds confusing, try to picture it like this: a wealthy, white man can also be a victim of discrimination based on his sexuality, and this discriminatory experience will still be very different from the one of a Person of Colour (POC). It’s not surprising that the origins of what’s known as intersectionality today can be found among the pioneers of Black Feminism, who first claimed that discrimination can have multiple levels.

Source: PwC Luxembourg
What does this mean for the workplace? 

Now, why should any organisation invest in fostering and promoting an intersectional culture? Bluntly speaking, it’s not a direct business need. But let’s face it: people are spending a significant amount of their time at the workplace, and most interactions with people outside of their personal “bubble” will happen at work.

Moreover, with the “Great Resignation” and employees being more proactive in demanding that their rights and values are met, organisations — if they want to remain relevant— can no longer turn a blind eye to these major shifts that are transforming the world. In addition, and even more so as a service company, following an intersectional diversity and inclusion strategy can also behold great benefits while dealing with clients. 

At PwC Luxembourg, around 2,900 people from 82 countries are working together, resulting in a working environment that is inevitably characterised by plurality. While some characteristics that can influence your level of power are visible (skin colour, gender, wealth and level of seniority, meaning. Intern vs. Partner), some remain widely invisible. The risk of discriminating against someone, even if only meant as a joke, is therefore incredibly high. 

It’s undeniable that the workplace is one of the places where an individual will feel the most exposed due to different power structures and hierarchy. It’s therefore the firm’s responsibility to create an environment that recognises intersectionality by laying down basic behaviours to make sure he, she or they feel like they can be their true selves at work. And that applies regardless of whether that’s a LGBTQ+ person, POC, old or young, man or woman, disabled, religious or not, and throughout all levels of the firm’s hierarchy. 

In an ideal world, the office would be a safe space, that is, a place that’s free of bias, conflict, criticism, or potentially threatening actions, ideas, or conversations. (In fact, in an ideal world, the world, not only the workplace, would be like that, but that’s another story). Employees cannot thrive and unleash their full potential if they have to leave a part of them at home when coming to the office. 

How NOT to build an intersectional diversity and inclusion culture 

We can’t stress this enough: superficial box-ticking and inauthenticity are the most toxic breeding grounds for fostering an intersectional diversity and inclusion culture. If an employee feels like their leaders’ words don’t match their everyday actions, the effect can be very harmful for the individual’s trust towards the organisation. 

And according to PwC’s 2021 Global Culture Survey, there’s indeed a mismatch between what leaders say about culture —especially when it comes to DEI issues— and what their people actually experience.

The diversity, equity and inclusion mismatch

Question: Please indicate the extent to which you agree with the following statements:

Source: PwC’s 2021 Global Culture Survey

Base: C-Suite/board: 382. Below management: 926 
Note: Percentages represent ‘agree’ and ‘strongly agree’ responses combined 
Source: PwC 2021 Global Culture Survey

This disconnection tells us that managers might pay lip service to topics related to diversity and inclusion, but employees aren’t feeling real effects from all the talk.

Furthermore, despite the growing awareness of intersectionality, companies have rarely applied the key learnings to their wider DEI work. Instead, leaders keep overlooking at all the multiple levels that discriminatory experiences can have and tend to only focus their DEI activities on one characteristic at the time. This one-dimensional approach, even if it’s done unintentionally, results in an “either/or” mentality, putting underrepresented groups against one another instead of empowering them.  

A few safe, inclusive practices

As intersectionality gains more and more attention, there are a variety of elements you can include to your organisation to actively promote an intersectionality inclusive working space.

Self-awareness: recognise that a fully diverse and inclusive intersectional workplace is in the rarest occasion a reality. Try to make out what the roots of inequity are, especially at your organisation, and evaluate if former DEI activities were harmful and one-dimensional. 

Do your stereotype check: stereotypes are shortcuts that our brain does when it sees a situation that it thinks it already knows. However, as we live in a fast-paced multipolar and globalised world, we need to regularly question these shortcuts. 

Let’s take racism as an example. Racism is a spectrum with varying degrees of unconscious and learned behaviours reinforced by society every day. Therefore, the question you should ask yourself isn’t, “Am I racist or not?”, but instead, “In what situation am I prejudiced, against whom, and why?” Integrating this kind of exercise to your private and work life can be very beneficial to detect prejudices and biases that you have, sometimes unconsciously, internalised. 

Keep track: to have a factual view on where you stand on your intersectional journey, you need to include DEI-related key performance indicators (KPIs) to your organisation. It’s only through this exercise that you will be able to avoid some employees to be “the only one in the room” within your organisation. It will enable you to create more diverse teams, notice that not enough minorities are part of the upper management level and give you the opportunity to become better. 

Education: as always, knowledge is the key to everything. And although it was non other than feminist icon Simone de Beauvoir who stated back 1951 in “The Second Sex” that “enough ink has been spilled in quarrelling over feminism, and perhaps we should say no more about it”, we know today that we still have a lot to learn. It is only by engaging with the history of anti-discrimnation movements and listening to what is demanded today that you will be able to create impactful intersectional policies.

Policies: one key solution is flexibility. When it comes to the own set of characteristics of 2,900 individuals, there shouldn’t be a “one solution fits all” approach. You want to empower the single mother or father? Install a flexible working hours and teleworking regime. You want to address people in an inclusive way? Use inclusive language and learn the preferred pronouns of your People, and use for example “spouse” or “partner” rather than the gendered “husband” or “wife” to refer to someone’s life partner. You want to be culturally sensitive? Let your People decide for themselves which holidays they would like to take, depending on their cultural background and preferences. 

Take action: through communication, employee awareness-raising events, sponsorship programmes, and employee resource groups, organisations are transforming the workplace culture and ensuring that employees are part of and driving this change. Samsung, for example, has hosted open forums for its employees to explore and learn from the different identities that make up the company, with the intersection of race and sexual orientation as banner topics. You as an organisation can play a major role in creating intentioned points of contact between different people. 

Make your organisation an ally: an ally is defined as a person or group that provides assistance and support in an ongoing effort, activity, or struggle. However, why don’t you make your whole organisation an ally? 

That translates into an organisation that…

  • has a deep understanding of issues minorities have to face, choosing to align themselves with marginalised individuals and represent their needs, especially for those who are unable to do so themselves;
  • works to be comfortable with their knowledge of gender identity and sexual orientation, and the vocabulary that comes with them;
  • works to understand how patterns of oppression operate, is willing to call-out challenge oppressive and demeaning behaviours and speeches;
  • promotes a sense of community with marginalised individuals, teaching others about the importance of these communities and encouraging others to also provide advocacy.
 
In conclusion

If your organisation’s diversity, equity and inclusion strategy isn’t intersectional and therefore doesn’t include the reality of all individuals at your company, then it only reproduces and displaces discriminating patterns that come at the expense of the marginalised. 

As a result, the time may have come for us to challenge our widely accepted understanding of power: something or someone has power over another when the oppressor’s privilege is based on the expense of the oppressed. We believe an organisation is truly powerful and impactful when everybody wins. And that’s what Pride is all about —it’s breaking the chains of bullying by treating each other with kindness, dignity and understanding. 

What we think
Marc Schernberg, Partner and SHINE Leader at PwC Luxembourg
Marc Schernberg, Partner and SHINE Leader at PwC Luxembourg

Everyday actions make a difference. Organisations have a significant role to play when it comes to ensuring that their People don’t lose energy by hiding who they are when they come to the office.

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