The word “intersectionality” has transformed from a legal framework to a controversial buzzword in the 30 years since Columbia professor and lawyer Dr. Kimberlé Crenshaw first coined the term. Initially, it was an acknowledgment that compounded marginalized identities can cause bias within the courts, like how Black people might face additional levels of discrimination if they were also women. After being printed in the Oxford English Dictionary in 2015, the word went viral — and like many viral frameworks, the meaning of “intersectionality” has flexed to fit the times. Chances are, you’ve at least heard people in your office throw this word around in meetings. If you don’t know what it means, that’s okay! But I’ll let you in on a little secret about intersectionality: it probably already describes you.
Intersectionality as it exists within the world of Diversity, Equity, Inclusion, and Justice describes how our compounding identities affect how we see the world. If a singular identity changes that worldview, imagine intersectionality as a multiplier of that perspective. For example, someone living at the intersection of being Black and being disabled would have a unique perspective on both of these identities. As Dr. Tiffany Jana writes in Subtle Acts of Exclusion, “When you walk through life at the intersections, the halfway points between two truths or two polarities, it affects you.”
Understanding intersectionality as a leader can be vital to the success of an organization. According to this article from Chapman University, intersectional leadership is both anti-racist and anti-sexist, while also acknowledging the "multiple influences of marginalization centering race and gender, and across planes of identity." Intersectional leaders can leverage their authority to bring out the best in their colleagues. Here are five ways to incorporate intersectionality in your organization — beyond just using it as a buzzword.
Step One: Decolonize Your Brain
This wouldn’t be a Berrett-Koehler idea if we didn’t move from Self to Systems, right? All significant change starts with challenging implicit biases in your thoughts and actions. Identify your prejudices and challenge them in your brain before they become your actions. Leaders that don’t focus on becoming anti-racist and anti-sexist can’t take that next step towards harnessing the power of intersectionality. As Andrés Tapia and Alina Polonski write in The 5 Disciplines of Inclusive Leaders, “Much of the promise of diversity as a catalyst for organizational value stalls at the stage of unrealized potential. Most leaders and managers find themselves trapped by their own unresolved biases and lack of inclusive skills.” Dig deep, identify those biases, and pull them out by the roots. It will be uncomfortable, but it’s the only way to move forward.
Step Two: Lead with Empathy
The road to intersectionality isn’t a straight and easy shot. It’s a curving, bustling street filled with lots of other drivers, and you have to be ready to share the road. If you’re going to be an intersectional leader in your organization, you have to learn how to put empathy at the forefront of all your leadership practices. Lead with the heart first. The most effective way to create relationships filled with compassion across your organization is to support positive connectivity and interaction. This connection can be as simple as bonding over a shared favorite sports team or just making an effort to remember details about your colleagues. What might seem small to you could mean the world to your peers. Research cited in Timothy R. Clark's The 4 Stages of Psychological Safety supports the notion that bonding is a critical facet to create an ideal professional environment. "As sociometric research from the MIT Human Dynamics Lab attests, the faster and deeper you get to know each other, the more effectively you can work together. More contact and context tend to create more empathy."
But remember, empathizing with people cannot be done by talking "at" them. It's mostly listening. According to Beverly Kaye, author of the recently released 6th edition of Love ‘Em or Lose ‘Em, “When you do that, you identify with the feelings, thoughts, or attitudes of your employees. That takes you beyond listening and into understanding. And did you know that listening with empathy is the one thing robots can’t yet do?”
Step Three: Know When to Speak Up — and When to Listen
Yes, listening is the key to moving your intersectional mindset outward. But eventually, you’re also going to have to speak. So many people are afraid of talking, worried that they might say the wrong thing and be canceled into oblivion. Sometimes the best response is to say nothing, but sometimes speaking up is necessary. How does the newly intersectional leader discern what to do and when?
Like author Denise Collazo shows in Thriving in the Fight, many people living at the intersection of marginalized identities, such as Latinas, have been taught to work behind the scenes expecting no recognition and ruffling no feathers. The intersectional leader knows how valuable that perspective is and amplifies that voice. “Companies and institutions need to be willing to be transformed into something new by leaders of color. Often, this means that the white folk in charge need to step down, give up some of their privilege, and make room for fresh perspectives.”
Step Four: Incorporate Diverse Perspectives
Speaking of "fresh perspectives," it's time for you to take what you've learned from the voices in your organization and apply them to the systems that affect your community as a whole. Incorporating diverse perspectives is such a vital key to intersectionality that there's a whole chapter devoted to it in The 5 Principles of Inclusive Leaders. "Integrating diverse perspectives equips leaders to better manage their diverse teams as well as the various other diverse parts of the organization they interact with." The challenge is finding ways for this myriad of perspectives to exist harmoniously — in our imperfect world, dissenting viewpoints can breed conflict, and unchecked conflict can lead to catastrophic consequences such as a toxic or hateful work environment.
Luckily, the intersectional leader is prepared for conflict and is ready to keep the team focused on their shared mission or purpose. Like Andres Tapia writes in The 5 Disciplines of Inclusive Leaders, there can be friction along racial, cultural, or even generational lines. But the intersectional leader knows to dig to the root of the problem and address it before it gets out of control. "Inclusive leaders not only manage conflict but also take into account the inherent diversity of what is fueling the conflict. They go further by seeing it as a catalyst for even better solutions."
Conflict and discomfort aren’t always bad things. Healthy, measured, and constructive discourse can open up roads for growth.
Step Five: Stay Uncomfortable
Intersectionality relies on personal reflection to blossom. Personal reflection requires growth, which will undoubtedly cause some growing pains. That's okay. Nobody becomes a perfect leader overnight. The trick is to be sure that you're prioritizing truth instead of politeness, as Eliza VanCort writes in her upcoming book, A Woman’s Guide to Claiming Space.
“No matter how gently delivered, any talk of race can feel like a big impolitic truth bomb to White folks. For this reason, it’s important not to value politeness or protecting people’s feelings over the truth. Let’s put a premium on straightforward, constructive feedback, even if that feedback makes White people uncomfortable.”
Discomfort is not inherently a bad thing — it's an internal alarm that sounds in your brain, telling you to pay closer attention to something. Feeling uncomfortable can be a symptom of growth, but it can also instigate change, according to Marcia Reynolds' Coach The Person, Not the Problem. "...the discomfort that accompanies doubt [is] inherent in the process of learning. A surprising fact, disruptive reflection, or incisive question is needed to break down what we think we know. Then, we are open to learning. The breakdown doesn't always feel good. Yet over time, we usually are grateful for the insights we gain." Essentially, if you're feeling a little uncomfortable while you're moving through these steps to intersectional leadership, you're probably heading in the right direction.
We covered a lot just now, and I'm sure it seems pretty overwhelming. We're here to help, though, as you can find all of the books I referenced in our Must-Reads for Intersectional Leaders collection. But I’m going to let you in on the biggest secret to being an intersectional leader: chances are, you already are one. We all exist at different intersections of several identities, even if some of those identities are more marginalized than others. You have the power to be the leader your organization needs. Now take a deep breath — you’ve got work to do.