Great leaders learn to see the whole picture, even the invisible

Diversifying a team goes beyond the traditional meaning of diversity

4 min read

February 2020

Person with paint brush brushing dirt away from a fossil

What would you say if I asked you to describe yourself? You might start listing things like your personality traits (positive, hard-working, etc.) and other aspects of yourself that define you (African American, mother, gay, etc.). These are the parts of you—of your experiences—that shape who you are. These are the things that influence your interactions with others as well as the choices you make.

From smaller choices like where you go to dinner to larger ones like where you apply for a job or who you hire for a job, your demographics and cumulative experiences may play a role. These compiling aspects of you are the foundation of something called intersectionality.

Now what would you say if I told you that you could be hurting your morale and bottom line by not addressing intersectionality in your workplace? If one of your first responses is, “What might intersectionality have to do with my bottom line,” then I’m really glad you’re here.

It’s about accumulation

The term intersectionality was first coined by Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw in 1989. It refers to all the things people carry with them based on experiences and obstacles they’ve faced in the past. The things that may not be visible or completely understood.

Diversity of experiences and perspectives (provided you have an inclusive environment) is what might give a company a competitive advantage and ensure they’re looking at things from all different viewpoints. And effectively diversifying a team goes beyond what you see and think of traditionally as “diversity” (i.e., race, gender, ethnicity), though these are all important. To make continued progress in business, a company might consider taking intersectionality into consideration—from hiring through retiring.

Five places to start

It’s often helpful for companies to understand what intersectionality means and how it can affect their diversity and inclusion efforts. But it can be especially important for those in leadership to get it, as they are often able to impact an employee’s experience at work.

There’s a well-known saying that people don’t quit companies, they quit managers. So having leaders understand intersectionality may ultimately influence whether someone feels valued or not… and stays or leaves.

As a leader (whether by title, role, or otherwise), how might you heighten your awareness of intersectionality and create a supportive work environment? Here are five places to start.

  • Acknowledge that you have a limited view: Recognize that you’re coming to the table with your own experiences that shape your perspective and actions. Challenge yourself to try to understand a group or person that is different from yourself. Consider joining an Employee Resource Group at your company or a community organization to gain a better understanding of a group that’s different from you. And it’s best not to enter into those interactions assuming you already know everything.
  • Avoid making assumptions: Avoiding assumptions is about understanding and appreciating that everyone comes from different backgrounds and experiences. Most people fit into multiple demographics; you have no way of knowing what all of those are and how they’ve shaped the person you’re interacting with without having open dialogue and making an effort to get to know them.
  • Be willing to be vulnerable: Admit that you don’t know and understand everything. When you make a mistake, listen and learn rather than be quick to defend your words or actions. When people ask about your organization, speak about your culture and work environment. If you tout a diverse and inclusive culture, talk about it.
  • Know that small actions send a big message: As a leader, you may have the power to amplify a small action to make a larger impact. Hanging up something that visibly shows your support of an underrepresented group—like an ally button, for example—essentially says, “I’m a safe place for you.” It might seem small, but the difference it makes for the identifying person in your work area is huge.
  • Mentor or sponsor someone from an underrepresented group: It’s great to act as a mentor, helping someone develop their skills and continue down their chosen career path. It’s an even greater act to sponsor someone; help them grow, walk beside them on their journey, and advocate for them when opportunities arise.

Seeking to better understand someone’s unique experiences and the complexity of the issues they may be confronted with goes a long way towards building an inclusive culture. Being a leader is a privilege and a responsibility. And when you’re equipped with knowledge, especially as it pertains to diversity, inclusion, and intersectionality, you’re positioned to make a lasting positive impact for your team and your company.

Tracey Schuck is Claims Process Director for Progressive and the companies’ LGBT+ ERG (employee resource group) Chair. As a leadership, she's passionate about creating an environment where people know they can bring their whole selves to work.

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