Incorporating Intersectionality into the DEI Space

| By Sarah Jester

DEI - or the standard of diversity, equity, and inclusion - is recognized as a best practice in the business world. In recent years, as awareness of DEI practices has spread, corporations have developed supplier diversity departments and internal employee resource groups (ERGs) in order to ensure that they uphold DEI standards. But what does it mean to truly ensure a diverse, equitable, and inclusive environment for both employees and suppliers to feel a sense of true belonging? And how can the concept of intersectionality be better incorporated into DEI standards?

To fully dive into those questions, it is important to understand what exactly the terms diversity, equity, and inclusion each mean in a business setting. Diversity refers to the level of differences in identity in a given place - including race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, gender identity, age, class, and more. On the other hand, practicing equity ensures fair treatment of all individuals, as well as equal outcomes and opportunities for everyone regardless of their identity to overcome historic biases and barriers. Lastly, inclusion can be defined as promoting a welcoming environment where everyone can be comfortable and expressive, as well as actively working to remove any barriers to feeling welcomed in an environment.

When diversity, equity, and inclusion are successfully combined and practiced in a business setting, companies will find that their employees are happier, contribute their best work, and are comfortable addressing issues they may encounter in their environment. Companies that truly practice DEI, however, must do so both internally and externally. Through the practice of supplier diversity, which is a hallmark of the DEI standard, companies that source directly from diverse-owned suppliers are able to interact with and uplift new and innovative perspectives, as well as removing barriers to contracting that diverse suppliers have historically encountered. Engaging with diverse perspectives both inside and outside of the company, ensuring that all employees and suppliers are treated fairly, and removing barriers to inclusivity and contracting are essential to the DEI standard.

Yes, the DEI space has evolved over the years - and is now upheld as a best practice by the federal government and corporations across the nation. Companies have developed DEI standards, passed them on to the human resources department, and established internal diversity review initiatives. The problem is that the work often stops there. To truly be successful, DEI initiatives and practices must grow and evolve in order to reflect the needs and circumstances of employees and suppliers.

DEI has not evolved enough to meet the world where it is. To date, DEI standards often fail to consider intersectionality in practice. Coined by Kimberlé Crenshaw, intersectionality is the interconnected way in which identities of disadvantaged groups (gender, sexuality, race, socioeconomic class, etc.) overlap to create unique instances and experiences of oppression. Many DEI standards do not recognize the difference between diversity and intersectionality, disregarding the latter.

Merely having a multitude of diverse identities in one place is not beneficial unless a deep understanding of those identities and their intersections is cultivated. We do not exist in a vacuum - centuries and centuries of war, oppression, discrimination, racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, and more have occurred to present certain groups of people with opportunities and tear them away from others. Although diversity in the context of DEI ensures that people of marginalized identities are granted a seat at the table, it does not guarantee any understanding of their individualized experiences. A historically white, privileged institution is indeed taking a step forward and uplifting diversity by hiring a Black woman and a differently abled Black trans woman to work at their company. But without understanding their new employees’ respective experiences and how they are different through the lens of intersectionality, the company fails to move forward.

What’s more is that simply hosting diverse identities in one setting, treating them all equally, and welcoming them into the environment does not necessarily ensure that employees with diverse, intersectional identities feel that they belong. Instilling a sense of belonging into a workplace is much easier said than done - particularly when most companies consider their DEI work completed after simply hiring marginalized individuals.

So how can companies best incorporate intersectionality and a sense of belonging into their DEI standards and foster a sense of belonging moving forward? The process begins, unsurprisingly, with education. Company leaders must strive to educate their employees on the meaning and importance of intersectionality inside and outside of the workplace. The multiplicity of struggles and discrimination that people with multiple marginalized identities experience must be emphasized. Systemic discrimination is experienced at increased levels the more marginalized identities one has, presenting unique challenges for different people.

The world changes every day. So why should DEI programs only take place once or twice a year? Reducing entire identities and lived experiences to one day or week a year is one of the largest problems with existing DEI practices. In order to best observe and incorporate intersectionality under DEI standards, companies must provide employees and external stakeholders with consistent and relevant education and awareness initiatives, as opposed to ticking off a box once a year.

Company leaders must also center the voices of marginalized individuals inside and outside of their organizations, taking extra care not to speak over them. Allowing people to discuss their own unique experiences and share their perspectives provides the organization as a whole with a more multifaceted understanding of intersectionality. Centering these voices also allows the company to more consciously collaborate with and provide resources, financial or otherwise, to different marginalized communities.

In order to center a sense of belonging, leaders should never force individuals to speak on behalf of an entire community when they are not interested in doing so. Instead, individuals should be allowed to control and facilitate the times that they wish to speak on intersectional issues, rather than feeling obligated to do so by the company. When employees voluntarily have a greater role in facilitating important conversations, they form strong connections with their colleagues and experience a greater sense of belonging amongst their peers. Attending relevant events, group bonding activities, and hosting conversations inside and outside of the workplace together can significantly bolster this sense of belonging.

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Learn more about the National LGBT Chamber of Commerce (NGLCC) and its intersectionality initiatives at nglcc.org.