Intersectionality and multiple identities - the need to move beyond a one-dimensional approach to diversity and inclusion

This article explores two topics that are very much in the vernacular right now: intersectionality and multiple identities.  While the concepts have important distinctions, as you will see below, both can be useful to creating a diversity and inclusion (D&I) programme that goes beyond the more traditional efforts to date which have often been focused largely on one dimension of employees’ lived experiences such as gender or sexual orientation. These concepts recognise that employees bring their whole selves to the workplace, and that their identities are not always easily categorised.

The jumping off point for this piece was a recent DIAN India Virtual Meeting on Intersectionality.   Three top-notch speakers joined facilitator Tracy Ann Curtis of TAC Global in the discussion:

  • Mary-Frances Winters, D&I thought leader, master strategist and President and Founder, The Winters Group, Inc
  • Mahumitha Venkatarman, Diversity and Inclusion Head, Hindustan Coca Cola Beverages
  • Ritesh Rajani, “diversity champion and geek” who serves as HR Diversity and Engagement Partner, Asia Pacific for IBM


Our social media feeds have been buzzing about intersectionality recently. But where does this term come from? And what does it mean? The original concept was first coined by legal scholar Kimberlé Crenshaw in the 1980s as a way to describe many social justice problems such as racism and sexism which often overlapped, creating multiple levels of social injustice. Her original focus was on employment discrimination against black women in the United States, and how legal structures which insisted on categorising a discrimination claim as either gender or racial discrimination could not adequately address their claims.

Intersectionality today

Intersectionality has developed rapidly outside its original context, as many have found that its core messages ring true—that people who belong to two or more disadvantaged groups:

  1. are often at a double disadvantage (or more), and
  2. their perspective has been left out of efforts to remedy discrimination, bias and prejudice

Intersectionality requires recognising that there are people with more—and less—privilege even within disadvantaged groups. Many traditional D&I efforts have focused on the most privileged members of a disadvantaged group, and the least privileged have not had their concerns adequately addressed even by the most well-meaning efforts.

Ritesh Rajani provided an excellent example, using his own life to explain how intersectionality can play out—and what D&I professionals should be aware of when creating policies:

It's not always that every aspect of a person’s identity is on the oppressed side – it is a mix of oppressions and privileges. I am privileged to have a high level of education, and to have grown up in a metro city, in an English-speaking family and school. As an LGBT+ person, there was a phase I was oppressed when it came to my sexual orientation - oppression in terms of not being able to talk about my sexuality for a long time and remaining silent. However, my privileges eventually made up for it, and I can express myself differently now.

For example, if someone were to harass me today, my reaction might be completely different from an LGBT+ person from a smaller town, from a different economic class, perhaps who in the closet. While drafting policies for an organisation on reporting same-sex harassment, I have to be cognisant of the fact that not everyone is in a position of privilege and influence and feels that they could report/speak out about same-sex harassment due to the intersections of their identities".

Still a relatively new concept, intersectionality was added to the dictionary as recently as April 2017:



The interconnected nature of social categorisations such as race class or gender as they apply to a given individual or group, regarded as creating overlapping and interdependent systems of discrimination or disadvantage.


Source: The Winters Group Inc


Multiple Identities

Creating a truly inclusive and diverse culture requires companies to acknowledge two things: that employees’ identities are made up of many different parts, and that they bring their whole selves to work every morning. Acknowledging these realities in a D&I programme can serve two valuable functions:

  1. broadening the concept of inclusion, and
  2. serving the needs of the next generation of leaders—millennials.

Broadening inclusion

The concept of multiple identities can bring people together based on factors other than gender, sexual orientation, religion, class or caste—while still recognising that these factors are an important part of who we are and how we experience and perceive the workplace and the world.

Mary-Frances Winters uses the I am approach to introductions as a useful exercise to begin to understand multiple identities. Guest speaker, Madhu Venkatarman’s use of it is instructive:  

"I’m a woman, a person with disability, a borderline-millennial, a Tamilian, a Brahmin, an ambi-vert (somewhere between an introvert and extrovert), I am single, and so much more . . . as I introduce myself this way I realise that I am covering some of my identities, but leaving out so many others . . ."

Much like in Ritesh’s intersectionality example, above, we can see that Madhu’s identities include statuses that give both privileges and disadvantages. But a multiple identities formulation also acknowledges that we do not only define ourselves by traditional D&I factors. Men may use the I am approach to describe themselves as a father—not a traditional way to organise D&I, but one that is becoming of increasing importance as men take on more hands-on child-rearing responsibilities. Indeed, the way we describe ourselves—those aspects of our identities that are so important that we choose to say them in the exercise—reveal what is important to us beyond what can be seen on the outside. In the DIAN India Virtual Meeting, people chose to describe themselves not only by their gender or religion, for example, but also included artist, athlete, pianist, surfer, son, ally, aunt and sister in their I am introductions.

The multiple identities approach also takes into account that employees’ identities change over time. A woman with young children may include “mother” in her I am introduction; decades later, she may include “daughter” as she is taking care of aging parents. Identities also become more pronounced or even entrenched by national debates and trends outside the workforce—for example, India’s debate on the use of Hindi may be amplifying state-based identity or creating a north-south divide among employees who had not previously identified strongly in these terms. A multiple identities approach allows D&I efforts to remain culturally competent and relevant throughout these changes.

By now, we have all heard the adage: millennials don’t like labels. While this truism is very much up for debate—with some pointing out that those who seek to discard labels often seem to be the most privileged members of society, or that we have not yet done the work that allows us to drop these labels—it also seems clear that the next generation of leaders is thinking more fluidly and defining themselves more broadly, and that D&I programmes must evolve to meet the needs of an organisation’s current talent and future leaders. Recognising that people’s perspectives, motivations and values come from a variety of sources is a step that can resonate with the millennial generation.

The concepts of intersectionality and multiple identities will continue to gain resonance as more people are marrying and having children outside their ethnicity, national origin, and religion, and for members of the LGBT+ community that identify as gender-fluid.  Companies should take care to ensure that inclusion efforts don’t require people to identify in rigid boxes.

A chart developed by Gardenswartz and Rowe helps us to think more broadly about identity, taking into account that primary factors like gender, ethnicity and sexual orientation remain vital to our identities, but that other secondary and cultural factors, ranging from education and appearance to how decisions are made and how power is displayed, are critical to employees’ perceptions of themselves, their place in the workforce and the wider world.



Beyond a One-Dimensional Approach – Disbanding of ERGs

When it comes to implementing a\D&I strategy in the workplace, the traditional approach has been to focus attention on specific strands of diversity – whether it be gender, culture, generations, LGBT+, etc.  However, with this greater understanding of multiple identities, intersectionality and a growing resistance to labels, a new question is being raised – is it time to throw out this siloed approach and are some of our efforts to drive inclusion for specific groups inadvertently creating greater exclusion of others?  This was a discussion that was brought to the forefront by Deloitte, with their announcement in May 2017 to phase out their targeted ERGs and instead create more generic inclusion councils. Deloitte’s announcement has been attributed in part to an effort to reach millennials who define themselves in multi-faceted ways. “I am one of the more unlikely deserters from a women’s initiative,” says Deloitte employee Megan Schumann, age 30, in a Bloomberg article “But why go talk to a circle of people about something that feels like it’s tied to only one facet of your identity?”

The announcement sparked discussion and controversy among the D&I community across the globe. Is the traditional, single-demographic ERG passé?  Is the inclusion council model announced by Deloitte a better way to achieve D&I goals? The panel of experts assembled for the DIAN India Virtual Meeting offered several insights—the first of which is that companies should engage in a careful analysis before disbanding ERGs. These groups have often functioned as important spaces where employees with common concerns and minority perspectives can come together, speak freely and hash out recommendations and ideas. They’ve given minority groups the ability to think through solutions for themselves, as they have the best knowledge of their own concerns coupled with the practical knowledge of the companies’ culture and business needs. Our experts note that few companies have reached the level of equality that is a necessary precursor to disbanding ERGs.

Speaker Mary-Frances Winters offered a second insight, succinctly put as “It’s not either/or, it’s both/and.” Companies continue to need targeted focus on specific strands of diversity as there are still many identity specific issues that need to be addressed.  But we do need to be mindful that this can sometimes be too narrow an approach.  We need to constantly challenge ourselves to think beyond and ensure that our approaches to D&I are not inadvertently alienating certain groups or ignoring the multiple dimensions of our identities. Speaker Ritesh Rajani also noted that intersectionality and multiple identities can be incorporated into current ERG models by having various ERGs meet together to find and discuss areas of concern and develop joint solutions. 

Takeaways and Practical Applications

  • D&I practices should be cognisant that employees who are part of more than one minority or disadvantaged classification often bear a double burden, and that current efforts to promote D&I may not be sufficient to address their needs.
  • Recognise that employees have multiple identities that shape their perspectives, and that some of these identities are privileges and others are disadvantages.
  • Companies should ensure that policies, practices and programmes are not only targeted to the most privileged group—in other words, ensure that you are not creating exclusions within your inclusions! For example, if the LGBT+ affinity group is participating in a Pride march, does this mean that disabled LGBT+ employees might be left out?
  • The I am exercise, used by the Winters Group, is a way to get started introducing these concepts, even without utilising new terms like intersectionality. It can be coupled with follow up questions such as (1) how easy or difficult was it this exercise for you? (2) what did you learn about yourself and your colleagues? (3) how does this self-understanding impact your capacity to be a more culturally competent, inclusive leader?
  • Make sure that D&I programmes are proactive in dealing with the most difficult issues. In India, for example, caste is a subject that some feel is swept under the rug. Some point to the fact that caste discrimination is outlawed, without recognising that bias is systemic, ingrained and often unconscious, and that often times, one can tell the caste of a co-worker by their surname.
  • Look at employee resource groups, task forces and the like with intersectionality and multiple identities in mind. Do affinity groups only serve the most privileged members of a group? Is there adequate representation and leadership in the ERGs from those who belong to two minority/disadvantaged groups? Are sub-groups appropriate, for example, adding a sub-group for parents with disabilities to the parenting ERG? Do various ERGs meet and collaborate? Do they work on joint projects with business applications?
  • If these concepts are new for your company, start with one intersectional or multi-dimensional conversation. Whether it’s a talk led by parents of children with disabilities or by LGBT+ women, choose one topic to integrate these concepts into your D&I approaches.
  • Manage debate without silencing it. Distinguish between different points of view, which are needed, and personal attacks, which are unacceptable.

About the Author: This article was written on behalf of Community Business by Talia Bilodeau and was based on a DIAN India Virtual Meeting on the topic of Intersectionality, held on 8 September 2017. Talia is a passionate advocate for equality, a true believer in the power of social justice activism and philanthropy, and a former Vice President at both the Fund for Global Human Rights and National Women’s Law Center in Washington D.C.