Let’s ask ourselves: what is the image that comes to our mind when we think of a woman? Often, we think of words like caregiver, nurturer and multitasker. Life stages associated with women typically refer to marriage and motherhood. But isn’t that identity limiting? What about women with disability, transgender women, single women, women from marginalized religions, regions or caste, divorcees, widows, parent of a children with disability, or a woman who is a caregiver? This list is endless because there are as many identities, as there are many different types of women.
To build inclusive ecosystems, it is important to recognize that there is no one woman really – and for inclusion initiatives to be effective, we must consider the interplay of gender with sexuality, ability, socio economic status, religion, caste, parenting status, marital status, age… and a host of different identities a woman has.
The concept of “intersectionality” surfaced almost 30 years ago, when Kimberlé Crenshaw, a professor of law at Columbia University and UCLA had coined it, in the context of social justice.
Intersectionality in the workplace context, is quite simply, the fact that a person has more than one identity. Intersectionality is a reminder to us that identity is not a unidimensional concept. This approach helps create more nuanced equity and inclusion initiatives, since it broadens the lens from which a certain group / community is looked at.
Let’s look at a few points that throw light on the realities of women from an intersectional lens:
- Disability: The challenges that a woman with disability faces differs vastly from the ones that an able-bodied woman would face, or a man with disability would face. A UN Women report indicates that women with disabilities and are twice as likely to be survivors of domestic violence and other forms of gender-based violence (over a longer period and with more severe injuries) than women without disabilities. Also, accessibility can be challenging for a woman with disability. Ask yourself – are the sessions you are doing on women’s day also going to cater to women who identify themselves as deaf? If yes, you are considering an intersection already!
- Sexual Orientation: Research by Womankind indicates that 44% of lesbian women experience intimate partner violence, compared to 35% heterosexual women. Also, given a patriarchal society, it is much harder for a women to be out as lesbian at the workplace as compared to a gay man – often limiting the narrative of lgbtiq+ inclusion to gay men as a consequence. Talking about gender pay gap, a 2010 study from Industrial Relations found gay women earned on average 6% more than straight women. However, they still earn far less than gay men, who in turn earn less than straight men. This is an example of how intersectionality of gender and sexual orientation play out.
- Gender identity and expression: There are people in the workplace who are assigned female at birth, but may identify themselves as men. They may be referred to as transgender men / as transmasculine or may consider themselves as non-binary. Often, when we consider maternity benefits, this intersection may not be included, while most certainly they can go through biological pregnancy.
- Age: In recent times, policies like the “period leave” have come into practice. However, are we giving equal space for conversations and interventions around menopause, thereby considering age as an important element while looking at interventions for women? Also, as a woman ages, the expectation is she is more mature, nurturing and a “mother” – often making the assertiveness seem like aggression and regarded as even more inappropriate.
- Location: The life of a woman based in a metropolitan city is different from one based in SEC B/C town – the permissions to work, the level of independence and freedom, the environment, the safety factors may be different. This is an important consideration, as we look to increase women representation at the workplace. How different are strategies to hire a woman from SEC B; as compared to one from SEC A?
These are just some elements of intersectionality. Some others such as – region, religion, mental health, caste, relationship status can also be looked at.
Organizations encourage employees to “bring their whole selves to work”. How is this possible if all aspects of one’s identity aren’t acknowledged, and its interplay not understood? For example, a queer woman with a disability may undergo several forms of discrimination – on being queer, on being a person with disability and on being a woman. It is important for organizations to understand this to be able to fully engage with her as a talent.
The key question to ask is, what are some of the steps an organization can take to be conscious that their inclusion initiatives are indeed holistic? Here are a few which we believe can make a difference:
Data and analytics is important –
One of the key things that will support an organization on its quest to address exclusion through intersectionality is data. Being able to systematically have granular data, covering as many exhaustive fields as possible helps greatly in being able to determine where an intersectional lens can be applied. This feeds in as important input to budgeting efforts.
- Having provision for reasonable accommodation: Reasonable accommodation, though used largely in the context of disability, can be extended to other areas as well. Having a broad reasonable accommodation policy, with the ownership on the individual to decide what kind of support is needed, allows each woman to specifically define the nature of support/ benefit they would need at different life stages.
- Policies / Programs / Infrastructure: Looking at these elements holistically, and questioning - which populations does it miss? For example, does the maternity policy cover single fathers as well, who would essentially play the role of the primary caregiver? Also, a gender neutral washroom may be beneficial for a transgender person, but also for a father who is bringing his daughter to work!
- D&I council: Is the council largely representative of identities that are represented in the larger ecosystem of the society? This would ensure more holistic interventions.
- Re-examine Employee Resource Groups (ERGs): Are ERGs largely unidimensional? Is the women’s network made up of those from a similar background, reporting similar problems? Do such networks represent intersectionality within the group? How are voices of diverse women, with different backgrounds being represented and heard?
- Do multiple ERGs interact with each other?: ERGs working in silos are excluding by themselves! For example, do the Women’s network and the group to support persons with disabilities collaborate / come together in a common forum? How are women with disabilities represented in both the groups – how are there needs addressed?
- Representation in leadership programs, pay/progression parity: To ensure that within a single cohort, for e.g. women, the progression or pay parity is further sliced and diced using other identities. For e.g. to assess pay parity between women with disability and able bodied women;
- Manager/Leadership awareness: What is the awareness and sensitivity displayed by managers/leaders? When one thinks of a particular community, is that view singular? Are leaders informed/acknowledge understanding of intersections in their team, how they need to be led, understanding of their own privileges.
Inclusion begins with I, has “us” in it! as individuals, we could be more inclusive keeping intersectionality in mind – listening with empathy and curiosity to different aspects and identities which define us and people around us. Also, being more accepting and acknowledging of these differences, with recognition that while there are differences, there could be similarities as well!