For workplace counsellors, it’s important to consider how intersectionality helps to identify the most appropriate approach to supporting an individual
The term ‘intersectionality’ has recently become a hot topic n the world of workplace diversity and inclusion, but it's not a new concept.The term was first coined back in 1989 by the American civil rights advocate, Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw and it has an become increasingly relevant to the experiences of many disabled people in the workplace.
The Oxford Dictionary defines intersectionality as the‘interconnected nature of social categorisation […] as they apply to a given individual or group, regarded as creating overlapping and interdependent systems of discrimination or disadvantage.’ When Crenshaw defined it, she was specifically talking about the intersectionality between gender and race but the broad term is a useful concept to use when thinking about the best way to support diverse workforces.
Intersectionality recognises that all female employees for example have multiple dimensions to their identities. So, the experience of senior white woman will be different from that of a senior black woman. And the experience of a senior black woman who uses a wheelchair, will be different to the experience of a senior black woman who stammers. If we think about an individual who has a number of intersections, we can start to think about how these might impact on the way he/she is supported in the workplace. Let’s say the individual is a senior disabled gay man, who requires some support in managing his increasing workload. Which of these ‘social categories’ should we focus on to look at how best to support him?
Now, you might say that none of these things matter and that we should deal with this person as they present. And, of course, you’d be right.However, the conscious and unconscious bias that we have as humans, means this isn’t necessarily going to lead to the right outcomes for the individual concerned.
It’s all too easy to use the same tried and tested approaches to supporting individuals that present with the same issues – in this case overwork. But the ‘social categories’ that individuals have and the biases that these can bring with them, means this may not always be the right approach.
Let’s explore another example. Does an off-site personal development course aimed at female employees take into account the access needs of disabled women? If we take this example a stage further, although the location might be accessible for women who are wheelchair users, is the environment suitable for women who have a non-visible or neuro-diverse condition like autism?
The task is to consider how we incorporate intersectionality into our workplace policies and practices. When reviewing policies or support,it can help to think about drawing up intersectional personas outside the ones you are most familiar with. If your organisation has employee networks across different diversity strands, bring representatives from each together, to help with this exercise.
Encourage leaders within an organisation to share their own experiences of intersectionality. For example, two white middle aged, senior leaders may appear to have the same workplace experience,but one may be managing an ongoing condition like diabetes, or be in recovery from cancer.
We know it’s all too easy to look at a group of people who‘look the same’ and use this as a way of measuring or defining diversity. A few years ago, I (Davd) gave a talk about the ‘iceberg of diversity’ and it resonated with everyone because the model shows that diversity is more than skin deep and these ‘hidden’ characteristics are as diverse as gender, or skin colour.
Even within organisations that take a proactive approach to recognising and accommodating difference, it’s useful to remember that even those who appear to have shared characteristics or experiences, will bring a unique set of identities to the workplace and in order for them to be their best selves,each aspect of that identity should be considered.
For workplace counsellors, it’s important to consider how intersectionality helps to identify the most appropriate approach to supporting an individual. Taking the opportunity to understand the fullness of an individual’s experience of life and the situation they are in might lead us to finding different options to support them.
Here are our top three tips for what helps:
- Learn more about intersectionality – it’s a complex and nuanced element of diversity and it is not without its critics. I recommend listening to Yasmin Sheikh’s podcast with the Law Society in which she talks eloquently about disability and intersectionality.
- Dig deeper – spend some time getting below the skin of the person sitting in front of you. Getting to know them better will help you go beyond the standard recommendations.
- Share and learn – intersectionality isn’t just about gender or disability – it’s about every element that makes up a person. Sharing and learning about how different elements of diversity impact on people will help to build knowledge in the profession and create better impacts for everyone.
David Caldwell is a Digital Accessibility Manager at Barclays and a Founding Ambassador of PurpleSpace.
Vanessa Hardy is an Inclusion Consultant and Communications and Marketing Manager at PurpleSpace
This article first appeared in the July 2019 issue of BACP Workplace, published by the British Association for Counselling & Psychotherapy. 2019©
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