What if the road to inclusion were really an intersection?

While traditional diversity and inclusion frameworks have helped bring more diverse talent into organizations, what got organizations here will not get them where they want to be. An intersectional approach that reaches all facets of corporate life is often more fruitful.


Shifting the conversation

How much longer will corporations have the same conversation on diversity and inclusion (D&I)?1 Organizations have been spinning their wheels for the last three decades talking about the “business case” for D&I and implementing programs and initiatives, but they have made little progress. While the world is more diverse than ever, the number of minorities and women moving up the corporate ladder remains dismal in corporate America.

The data tell the story:

  • In 2014, Fortune 500 CEOs were 95 percent white, 4.8 percent female, 2 percent Hispanic, 1.2 percent black, and 1.8 percent Asian.2
  • In 2013, fewer than 15 percent of the Fortune 500 executive officer positions were held by women.3
  • Women hold fewer than 17 percent, and Hispanics only 3 percent, of the board seats among Fortune 500 companies.4
  • Approximately 3 percent of senior executive positions are held by blacks at the nation’s largest companies.5
  • There is just one openly gay CEO among the Fortune 1000 companies.6

Despite our best intentions, why are corporations stalling in their efforts to create more inclusive organizations? Many leaders would posit that this is a “pipeline” issue in that fewer qualified women and minorities are available in the workforce. However, the numbers just don’t support this hypothesis because the number of women and minorities in the workforce has been rising steadily since 1980; indeed, both groups have been in the workforce long enough to have been groomed for ascension to higher ranks.7,8 Perhaps, instead, it is a failure on the part of leaders to think critically about the underlying causes for diverse employees’ discomfort in the workplace, such as the demand to “cover” certain aspects of their identities, which was analyzed by Kenji Yoshino and Christie Smith in Uncovering Talent: A New Model of Inclusion.9,10 Yoshino and Smith demonstrated that professional opportunity and advancement are directly related to the implicit demand to cover at work. In other words, if individuals cannot be their authentic selves in their organizations, they will not be as engaged, will not thrive, and may in fact leave.

By examining the root cause of D&I programs’ inability to move the needle, Yoshino and Smith have inspired a very different conversation about D&I—one that critically examines the environment created by leaders in which the perceived demand of hyper-conformity is inconsistent with stated corporate values of equality. In this article, we pivot from looking at the singular dimension in which women and minorities often cover, to looking at the multiple identities of individuals in the workplace. In doing so, we will attempt to answer these questions:

  • Are corporations failing to create more diverse and inclusive work environments because our D&I efforts are inherently one-dimensional?
  • How can leaders engage employees across difference and in the multiple ways they define themselves in a manner that promotes common ground?

To answer these questions, it is necessary to go back about 50 years to the seeds of what were to become corporate D&I initiatives. While the terms “diversity” and “inclusion” did not enter the corporate lexicon until the latter part of the 20th century, there have been many inflection points along the way that inform where corporations are today.

In the 1960s, with the advent of affirmative action and equal employment opportunity laws for women and racial/ethnic minorities, diversity became a nationally recognized and legislated concept. The 1970s saw more women leaving the home and entering the workforce, forcing companies to take a hard look at barriers to success based on gender. Additionally, the government enacted expanded protections for veterans in the 1970s. By the 1980s, corporations were routinely implementing formal diversity initiatives for the purpose of increasing the numbers of both women and racial/ethnic minorities in the workplace. The Americans with Disabilities Act was enacted in 1990, compelling companies to change their policies and practices to accommodate this large and underrepresented population. In the 2000s, the lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) community was increasingly added to the conversation on corporate diversity. It was also around this time that the discussion of inclusion began to take shape—the notion that bringing diverse talent on board is not the same as ensuring that those individuals feel included.

These few highlights bring us to where organizations are today. Corporations have clearly defined particular groups for purposes of running diversity initiatives: racial/ethnic minorities, women, individuals with disabilities, veterans, LGBT individuals, and so on. Yet, paradoxically, it is because of this categorization—so necessary to achieve legal and societal gains—that corporations are now left with programs and initiatives that have segmented the identities of employees in the workplace. This compartmentalization of identity unintentionally forces diverse individuals to stagnate because it does not allow for the expression of other, equally important, aspects of one’s identity.

The way organizations have traditionally grouped women and minorities is not consistent with the true nature of diversity. While corporations have historically addressed diversity by putting a zoom lens on single-axis attributes of minorities, it is now time to widen the aperture to include a broader view of the richness of human experience.

This particular conversation is coming to the fore, in part, because of the increasing number of Millennials in the workforce, who are generally more focused on being valued for the multiplicity of their identities—their whole self—as opposed to just those conventional delineations to which they belong.11 This worldview is exemplified in a recent interview with Raven-Symoné in which the young actress said that she does not identify explicitly or solely as an African American or as gay (she is both black and dating a woman), stating that she is “tired of being labeled.” The interview expands the definition of individual diversity: The young actress does not deny her gayness or her blackness (she talks openly about both), but she refuses to make just those threads the crux of her identity.12 While Raven-Symoné alone does not represent an entire generation, we are hearing the same theme every day in conversations with our expanded networks.13 The boxing of individuals into traditional diversity categories is being rejected.

iStock_000023675965MediumThe realities facing employers today is that Millennials will comprise more than 50 percent of the workforce over the next four years—and, as a generation, they are rejecting the notion of being identified by any one dimension, especially race, gender, and sexual orientation.14 Furthermore, according to the Pew Research Center, Millennials are more diverse than previous generations, with nearly 40 percent of Millennials belonging to a non-white race or ethnicity. Given these demographic trends, diversity among Millennials and their children will only increase over time.15 Yet, while Millennials are more diverse, they are less willing to use traditional categories of “diversity” to label themselves.16

To respond to these changing expectations, organizations must fundamentally change and, potentially, reject old models of diversity, and focus instead on the multiplicity of employee experience and identity. This requires a drastic shift in the expectations and competencies of leaders and the cultures they create. It requires leaders to recognize their own biases and learn how to engage the multidimensional employee by understanding the intersections of employees’ lives and experiences.

Intersectionality: An expanded view of inclusion

The term intersectionality defines the notion that social identities, such as race, gender, sexuality, class, marital status, and age, overlap and intersect in dynamic ways that shape each individual. In other words, all of us possess more than one social identity (that is, an unmarried Asian female over 40 is at once unmarried, and Asian, and female, and over 40). This concept—in contrast to the one-dimensionality of most D&I efforts—more accurately captures the complexity of the human experience. It also addresses the way in which Millennials are eschewing labels in favor of a broader notion of self and authenticity.

Legal scholar Kimberlé Crenshaw’s seminal writings on intersectionality can serve as a guide for corporations looking to take inclusion to the next level.17,18 Crenshaw analyzed the ways in which black women have been forced to rely on either race or gender when making legal claims despite the fact that those two identities are bound together tightly within the individual.19 To stress this point, Crenshaw provided the compelling image of an intersection filled with traffic:

Discrimination, like traffic through an intersection, may flow in one direction, and it may flow in another. If an accident happens in an intersection, it can be caused by cars travelling from any number of directions and, sometimes, from all of them.20

Thus, like a literal intersection, identities within an individual come, go, or converge, depending on time or place (for example, a Muslim woman may engage her religious identity in one context, such as the home, and not in another, such as the workplace).

As Crenshaw has acknowledged, intersectionality “might be more broadly useful as a way of mediating the tension between assertions of multiple identity and the ongoing necessity of group politics.”21,22 To be sure, almost everyone has compound identities, and each identity occupies both a personal and a societal space that ultimately define one’s leadership style at work. For example, one cannot be gay or disabled or a veteran without also possessing a gender and a race. These components of identity are interrelated, and their workings contribute to how each identity is experienced within the individual and in the broader community. Individuals who share one identity may have vastly different interests because of their other, divergent identities. By way of illustration, a gay veteran who belongs to a gay veteran group may have very different objectives than a straight veteran who is part of a non-gay veteran group, even though both share the underlying veteran identity. Further, intersectionality is not just applicable to minorities. The proverbial straight white male also has intersecting identities—for instance, being a single father, coming from a low or high socioeconomic class, practicing a religion, and/or having a non-traditional education. In other words, we all inhabit multiple worlds, and everyone is diverse.

Any attempt to bucket groups for D&I initiatives is incomplete as a diversity framework, because any such effort forces the choosing between identities and the privileging of one identity over others. Put another way, the very act of naming or categorizing group identities has the paradoxical effect of excluding or downplaying other intersecting identities of the individual members of that group. So how can corporations successfully address this Catch-22? To keep diversity and inclusion frameworks relevant in spite of their limitations, it is necessary for leaders, in the words of Crenshaw, to “recenter [the] discourse at the intersection” by adopting a significantly more nuanced and emotionally mature approach to their leadership style.23 Such a leadership shift will allow for diversity to be treated more in line with the realities of life’s complexities, rather than according to narrow and ill-fitting binaries.

How can leaders engage in building inclusive cultures that leverage employee potential at work?

The role of leadership

To move the dial with respect to traditional D&I and create a more inclusive corporate culture, it is important to train our leaders to recognize intersectionality by becoming more emotionally mature. Emotional maturity (EM) is derived from emotional intelligence (EQ), which, according to Daniel Goleman, includes “self-awareness, self-regulation, motivation, empathy, and social skill.”24 EQ has been widely accepted as being strongly linked to professional success. However, EQ alone is not enough to allow true success in handling the complexities of diversity and inclusion. It is necessary to go one step further, and ask our leaders to become more emotionally mature by employing certain components of EQ. Emotionally mature leaders possess qualitative skills that help foster a nuanced and inclusive environment, including the competency to talk across difference and to build emotionally intelligent components into the cultural dynamics of their teams, business units, and organizations. Indeed, emotionally mature leaders do not just know themselves (EQ), but have the capacity to engage others in dialogue and create cultures and teams based on varied experiences and identities (EM).

In this context, EM means building on three specific components of EQ: self-awareness, empathy, and self-regulation. Goleman defines self-awareness as “the ability to recognize and understand your moods, emotions, and drives, as well as their effect on others.”25 Indeed, to understand intersectionality, and therefore “get” inclusion, one needs to be self-aware—to understand how assumptions and unconscious biases within are projected outward to the detriment of authentic personal exchanges—because one’s own unquestioned assumptions about others will very likely color one’s interactions and may even instigate covering. An emotionally mature leader knows him- or herself and will be able to realize when he or she is veering into stereotypes or preconceived and/or unconscious notions. Such a leader will check himself or herself, and remain proactively aware of the fact that he or she will not know much about an individual at first glance (for example, he or she will not assume that an applicant for an executive assistant position cannot perform the job because the applicant does not have full use of both arms).

The second of the three components to emotionally mature leadership is empathy, which Goleman defines as “the ability to understand the emotional makeup of other people and [the] skill in treating people according to their emotional reactions.”26 In fact, Goleman sees empathy as the “antidote” to issues that arise in cross-cultural dialogue, because those with empathy are effectively able to read a situation in a manner that takes into account cultural differences and potential misunderstandings based on those differences.27 While willingness to listen objectively to others is a good first step toward appreciating different viewpoints and cultures, to be an emotionally mature leader, it is necessary to go further and engage empathy actively by asking what legal theorist M. J. Matsuda refers to as “the other questions.”28,29 In other words, when talking to individuals about diversity, leaders should ask questions that go beyond the traditional demarcations of difference (for example, by asking a black female veteran in the women’s employee resource group whether issues of race and veteran status are adequately represented in that group). The point isn’t to ignore categories of difference altogether, and instead to ensure that individuals are not falsely categorized as just one point of diversity when, in fact, they may have many such points. It is for this reason that asking the “other question” is a crucial disruptor of potential unconscious categorization. And most of all, leaders should consistently ask themselves such questions to ensure that they are not unconsciously erasing core and interrelated parts of someone’s identity. Doing this will enable them to appreciate empathetically the nuances within each individual that make up his or her authentic self. It will also allow leaders to avoid the trap of accepting difference at what looks like face value.

The last of the three components of an emotionally mature leader, self-regulation, is key to bringing self-awareness and empathy together in an externally facing manner that proactively seeks to eliminate unconscious bias. For Goleman, self-regulation is “the ability to control or redirect disruptive impulses and moods [and having] the propensity to suspend judgment—to think before acting.”30 In this manner, self-regulation is the companion to self-awareness: Once one is aware of unconscious bias or an effect on others (self-awareness), one must consciously regulate behavior and effect positive change (self-regulation). Small gestures (for example, staring unthinkingly at a disabled woman’s prosthetic arm as she is speaking to you) can be experienced by the recipient as micro-inequities and can lead to feelings of exclusion, even if the intent was innocuous (intent and impact are oftentimes misaligned).

Emotionally mature leaders will always use their social “radar” when dealing with others to attempt authentic interactions with as few unintended micro-inequities as possible.31 Additionally, leaders who strive to disrupt their own unconscious impulses can become more attuned to when others are covering aspects of themselves. Covering is a defense against implicit demands for conformity, which are frequently transmitted unconsciously by leaders who lack awareness about how their actions are received. Emotionally mature leaders sense when others are covering for them and proactively address it with authentic exchanges tailored to the circumstances.

Being an emotionally mature leader with respect to diversity and inclusion also means considering both visible and non-visible identities. It means thinking about and relating to people as more than the “primary” (or “anchor”) identity that is most noticeable to others.32 In order to move to a truly inclusive culture that does not force individuals into choosing a primary identity at the expense of other identities, leadership must not, in the words of Jan Pakulski and Malcolm Waters, force a “fraught reality into an inherited and stultifying conceptual straightjacket.”33 Indeed, leaders must refuse to think in terms of single-axis binaries and instead work from the presumption that there is always more than just one identity in an individual. As put by playwright Robert O’Hara:

Should I walk in the room and leave the gay out of the room, or leave the black out of the room? For most of my career I’ve had some variation of this question. I think the way to talk about being black and gay is to talk about being whole, being a whole being.34

iStock_000027605290LargeThe metaphor of dissection (or vivisection) is particularly resonant because individuals with compound identities may often feel forced to compartmentalize or cut off pieces of their identities.

Some might argue that practicalities require that organizations prescribe which identities to privilege. While it is true that one cannot take a dance class and attend a work conference simultaneously, identities are generally inhabited all at once within the individual (for example, one cannot be only either a veteran or a woman if one is in fact a woman veteran). Any corporate framework that creates groupings will always run the risk of losing, literally or metaphorically, those who cross borders and are outside of the prescribed lines.35 Instead of thinking of inclusion frameworks as a series of non-intersecting boxes, corporations might instead consider a Venn diagram that, while not capturing all variants of identity, would at least validate those individuals who traverse two or more formal categories of diversity. Such a framework will promote common ground among different groups by proactively allowing for more crossover among a multitude of identities.

From categories to completeness: Revealing the whole self through personal narratives and authenticity

Emotionally mature leaders are comfortable with proactively talking across difference and initiating conversations around intersectionality with their staffs and teams. In fact, such leaders actively make space for such dialogues and invite them consistently into team cultural dynamics. Doing this requires purposeful behavioral changes relating to self-awareness, empathy, and self-regulation.

First, a leader must move from internal self-awareness to an active demonstration of that awareness by sharing his or her own story and talking about not just what he or she is, but who he or she is and how that informs his or her leadership. Second, the leader must actively engage empathy to communicate with others about their own experiences. Corporations are encumbered around difference because of our fears of running afoul of Equal Employment Opportunity (EEO) laws, and empathy in how we inquire about difference goes a long way in bridging this divide. And third, after sharing his or her story and encouraging others to share theirs, a leader can employ self-regulation by building teams consciously and in a diverse way. By making these critical behavior changes, a leader can naturally disrupt any unconscious bias or unintended consequences by moving from an inward-facing mentality to an externally facing one. This newfound awareness can then be applied to future actions and dialogues around difference.

Despite being highly evolved as a species, as humans we have difficulty holding too much information in our minds when thinking through most issues (for example, a pro/con list is rarely framed as a pro/con/gray area trichotomy). And in many respects, binaries are a useful and implicit function of human nature that help us make sense of the world and our surroundings. Before modern society, when lifespans were short and death was a daily possibility, humans considered every action in terms of the safety/danger binary.36 Our brains are still wired in this manner, such that we constantly make quick and primal assessments of our surroundings. Will that dog bite me or lick me? Is my new colleague an ally or a competitor? These immediate snap impressions are examples of how humans create and sustain binaries (sometimes rooted in unconscious bias) in our everyday lives.

For these reasons, among others, binaries (starting with the most overarching—majority/minority) are likely here to stay.37Humans “suss out” a situation—and may insist on sticking with initial judgments even when presented with evidence to the contrary. The same is true when we try to understand and appreciate the nuances of intersecting identities. As humans, we see someone, unconsciously group what we see, and thus box that person into an identity—one with which he or she may not agree. But because intersecting or contradicting ideas can rarely be fully grasped at first blush, sometimes the only means for assessing a situation in a more nuanced manner and appreciating its complexities is to enter into a personal dialogue with others.

Our first impressions are sometimes correct; sometimes we truly get the other person. But there will be just as many instances when our first impression is predicated more on who we are and how we see others than who the other person actually is (as can happen, for instance, due to our own unconscious biases and/or the unconscious demands on the other to cover). The ability to overcome this tendency requires both emotional maturity and an understanding of the importance of personal or uncovered narrative.38As an example of a way in which leaders can use narrative to foster understanding across differences, an organization might undertake a campaign in which senior leaders share personal information about their lives in widely accessible communications on topics like growing up poor and parenting children with disabilities.

In this new leadership paradigm, leaders who share their uncovered narratives help foster a culture where others also feel safe being authentic. This is not to say that being uncovered means oversharing or being inappropriate. Instead, it means being at ease with sharing those parts of oneself that, if hidden, do not allow people to perform at their best, thereby negatively impacting both them and the organization where they work.

The intersection of analytics and culture

While storytelling implies face-to-face encounters and sharing, intersectional analytics can be used to help facilitate meaningful insights and hold leaders accountable for inclusive behavior that values compound identities. One advanced technological solution could be an inclusion index, a personalized digital dashboard that graphically represents inclusion analytics and seeks to illuminate the potentially unconscious effect the individual is having on others by offering empirical evidence of how we interact with the workplace—for instance, with whom we choose to work, whom we hire, whom we promote, whom we terminate, and so on. In many instances when gaps are identified, it may be the result of circumstances having little, if anything, to do with unconscious bias and its effect (that is, the pool of individuals available to be staffed on a given team happens to all look alike). Thus, these metrics are meant to give the data points for each leader and his or her organization to critically examine whether there are potential issues. If an organization does not have such a tool or the means to acquire one in the near term, it is possible to track the same intersectional analytics through other means, such as periodic employee surveys that tie results to teams and leaders. Whichever method is employed, it should capture metrics relevant to the organization and its departments and/or teams. For example, a company might capture data on team composition (for instance, to analyze aggregated information that is legally permissible to share on attributes such as race and gender); how much time off employees take; personality profiles like Myers-Briggs, the Uncovering Talent analytic instrument,39 and Business Chemistry;40 interests and skill sets; flexible work requests; stretch assignment wishes; goals; community engagement; and counselors or mentors. In an effective survey effort, because employees are given the option and highly encouraged to self-identify those parts of themselves that are uniquely important to them, the analytics captured are relevant to the whole person as opposed to just one marker of visible identity such as race.

The multidimensional survey data can then be tied to teams and leaders in a manner that allows for a holistic measure of inclusion grounded in intersectionality. For example, a particular team leader’s results might show the following: Everyone on her team has the same Myers-Briggs profile; individuals on her teams forfeited most of their vacation time last year; no requested flexible work arrangements or stretch assignments were granted; and everyone she is mentoring is a straight white female who went to an Ivy League school—just like her. Because potential unconscious bias and its impact are unknown to the individual possessing it, the use of analytics is needed to consolidate and graphically demonstrate potential blind spots. Inclusion analytics enables a new sort of critical self-analysis, which we believe will help herald in a culture in which individuals proactively act in more inclusive ways and diversify their networks in a well-rounded manner that goes beyond single-axis binaries. Any gaps identified may have a myriad of underlying reasons beyond the reach of the individual being measured (that is, a male- dominated department in a historically male field). This tool provides the data and it is each leader’s responsibility to review it critically for a deeper understanding of whether any gaps are correlated to his or her own behavior and what steps might be taken to address them. Moreover, even if gaps are not the result of an individual leader’s actions, he or she may still be able to effect change by looking more broadly at organizational and societal structures and thinking creatively about potential remedies to the problem.

In the first year in which analytics are reported, leaders will be able to see the makeup of their teams in a multi-dimensional manner. Year two can provide a point of comparison (for instance, leaders may recognize that “Compared to last year, I am now mentoring individuals from different educational backgrounds” or that “My team forfeited even more vacation time”). By its third year, a sustained analytics program action may provide actionable information to executive leadership or the legal group on whether they need to address remaining or worsening issues—and how. For example, to address the lack of work-life balance appearing in a team leader’s metrics, executive leadership may mandate that his or her team members take 20 percent more of their vacation time next year. Or, if metrics continue to show that a particular department head is staffing only white individuals on his or her teams when 50 percent of the office is composed of racial minorities, his or her compensation and performance review could be negatively impacted and the legal group may be brought in to examine whether underlying issues of discrimination exist.

Beyond a one-dimensional understanding of difference

Corporations have stalled in creating more diverse and inclusive work environments because of their inherently one-dimensional D&I efforts. While traditional D&I frameworks have helped bring more diverse talent into organizations, what got organizations here will not get them where they want to be, as evidenced by the persistent dearth of diversity at the highest corporate levels. The next D&I breakthroughs will organically occur and shatter lingering barriers to fully inclusive organizations only when corporations revise D&I frameworks to engage employees across difference and in the multiple ways they define themselves in a manner that promotes common ground. To do this, it is time to refresh corporate efforts by taking an intersectional approach that will seamlessly reach all facets of corporate life. It will mean critically revisiting topics such as whether the existence
of employee resource groups and targeted diversity programs are, paradoxically, non-inclusive. By following an intersectional and emotionally mature approach to inclusion, an organizational culture that supports human flourishing and authenticity can naturally and
sustainably grow.

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