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Intersectionality Explained:

What diversity actually means & why understanding people's actual experience is the key to better work/life/society

Diversity is big business

In the world of business diversity is a HUGE agenda item. Companies are bending over backwards trying to build more gender and culturally diverse teams. It makes sense:

Economically speaking, data indicates that diverse teams are more productive and effective, while companies that have higher numbers of women in leadership are more profitable. From a social standpoint, women now form a much larger segment of the workforce and are more educated than men in the US and the EU (53% of the workforce and 60% of all undergraduate and Master’s degrees for women in the US). In addition, countries all around the world are comprised of more heterogeneous, culturally and ethnically diverse citizens. Realistically, these changes have to be reflected in the make-up of companies if they don’t want to be scrambling for talent and workforce.  I’d also like to think, a bit idealistically, that many if not most companies are trying to right a bias that has long disenfranchised anybody but males, and in Euro-centric nations, white males.

Outside of big business, we are also seeing the same push for a more culturally-accurate and -representative world. From Instagram successes such as Rachel Cargle, who bumped her followers from 10,000 to 115,00 in six months and raised $100k for mental health care for women of color in 14 days, to Netflix’s remake of Archie Comics’s half-mortal teen witch Sabrina, that features a female student-run organization called W.I.C.C.A (Women’s Intersectional Cultural and Creative Association), there is a push to address and discuss diversity and inclusion from a broader and more relevant perspective.

It’s call intersectionality, and it comes down to considering issues using a broader set of perspectives – an intersection of factors – that contribute to someone’s experience in the world.


The term intersectionality was coined in 1989 by Professor Kimberlé Crenshaw (UCLA and Columbia Schools of Law). It’s important to understand for anyone (or any group) who is focused on building diversity because it allows us to consider the multiplicity of issues any one individual must contend with to access equal and fair rights.

Plain speak, please

In plain speak, intersectionality allows us to look at a situation and take into account all factors (not simply the dominant ones) that need to be addressed if we care to create fair policies, systems, and dynamics and if we’re actually serious about being unbiased and open-minded. 

For example: Currently, a company that focuses on building opportunities for women in leadership might simply consider the issues they need to address as binary. What do women need to access leadership that is different from men? 

A company that uses an intersectional lens is not only going to consider gender but also race, sexual orientation, one’s culture of origin (what might a non-native born woman need), socio-economic background, etc. Addressing this intersection of factors, allows this company to champion women in the workforce and support the diverse needs of more women. In so doing, it gives them the opportunity to attract and retain not just some candidates, but ones for whom the company’s culture is the best fit.

It might seem complicated now because we’re not used to looking at issues from this broad of a lens, but to progress and achieve our personal and corporate diversity goals it’s not only helpful it’s necessary. With time and practice, I believe it will become second nature, as it should have been from the start.

How suffragettes let women down and what that means for you and me

When intersectionality was first addressed it was brought up primarily as a feminist issue. From an educated, white female’s perspective, the feminist movement is all positive; suffragettes and the second wave feminists of the ’70s pushed for women’s rights to vote, to be hired, to access education. From the perspective of women of color, transgender women, or poor women, first and second-wave feminists have been lacking, and at times have supported the discrimination and oppression of women in the margins. This is not to say that early feminists were all bad, but they viewed and addressed problems from a very narrow lens, one that actually excluded a huge proportion of those whom they purported to represent.

As a white, educated, upper-middle-class woman understanding intersectionality came as a bit of a shock and a much-needed education. I was raised in four different countries (Iran, Kuwait, Saudi-Arabia, France). Since moving to the US in 1995 I have lived in four different states (North Carolina, Texas, Massachusetts, California) that span much of the cultural extremes here in the United States. I thought myself fairly open-minded, culturally aware, and sensitive to the diverse experiences of those who did not share my race, views, or lifestyle. I was wrong or, at least, I was partially wrong. Although I intellectually understood the concept of intersectionality, I didn’t have the perspective of those whose experience was unlike mine, and therefore I could not fully appreciate their challenges or their needs.

I believe it is fair to assume that what was true for me, is true for most people in a majority or dominant culture, which is why I wrote this article in the first place.

Does the company you work for have diversity and inclusion as a priority? Do think of yourself as someone who cares about equal rights, human decency or diversity? Do you live in a community where everybody does not look or live like you and do you want that community to thrive? Then you need to understand intersectionality. To help, I’ve compiled a short, educational and hopefully entertaining list of videos and links that address intersectionality and diversity from a number of perspectives.

Here’s your next step, enjoy!

I focus on helping women speak up so they can find their voices and build success in life and in the companies they work for. Because of this, I shared content that is rooted in the female point of view but remember, intersectionality includes understanding all of these issues from a male perspective too. Also, bridging the gaps that divide us won’t happen if we can’t openly communicate with one another. I help women speak up so they can engage in meaningful conversations with each other and with the men on their teams and lives. Please keep that in mind as you watch and read through these links. Consider what kind of civil conversation you want to have with the women and men on your teams, in your communities, and at your dinner table.

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