Employees are a company’s greatest asset. Leaders must take an inclusive, intersectional approach to enable them to give their best, argues Apiramy Jeyarajah.

Harry Gordon Selfridge was not afraid of being different. When he opened his London department store, Selfridges, in 1909, he challenged traditional ideas about retail, putting an ice rink on the roof and lavish floral displays in the windows. Selfridge also resisted the conservative social views of his time. He was a keen supporter of progressive causes, including women’s rights. Those window displays weren’t just decorative – they celebrated the Suffragettes.

Selfridges has built a diverse and inclusive culture

Selfridge summed up his guiding idea in a single phrase: “Everyone is welcome.” This mantra applied to customers, who were treated with courtesy and respect as they browsed the store, but also to the company’s staff. Over the decades, Selfridges has continued to build a diverse and inclusive culture in which people are encouraged to “bring their whole selves to work”.1 You need only walk through the doors of Selfridges to see that its staff are authentic individuals, rather than anonymous drones. They provide a better experience for customers as a result.

Selfridges’ long-running project to foster a sense of belonging among its employees is all too rare. Despite the lip-service paid to diversity initiatives, many people are still forced to hide their true identities in order to fit into hostile working environments. To do better, companies need to think more deeply about diversity and how they can empower their staff to overcome the challenges they face, at work and in wider society. This requires an intersectional approach.

What is intersectionality?

Intersectionality is the idea that aspects of a person’s background and identity can combine to leave them ever more marginalised. The term was coined in 1989 by legal scholar Kimberlé Crenshaw to describe the case of Emma DeGraffenreid, an African American woman who sued the auto giant General Motors after being turned down for a job.

Intersectionality is the idea that aspects of a person’s background and identity can combine to leave them ever more marginalised

DeGraffenreid had noticed the company segregated its staff, hiring black men to work on the factory floor and white women to work as secretaries, while black women did not seem to be considered at all. The court threw out her discrimination claim because she could not prove she was treated differently on the basis of her race (the company employed black men), or her gender (the company employed white women). In other words, the specific form of discrimination she experienced as a black woman, at the “intersection” of two marginalised identities, was invisible from a legal point of view.2

Intersectionality became influential in academic circles before entering the popular lexicon over the last decade. Nowadays, the concept is a bugbear among culture-war conservatives, but its original meaning is simple and intuitive. It is really about fairness: a person who is both black and female, or trans and working class, will run up against more hurdles than members of more privileged groups – they are more likely to be overlooked in corporate hiring and promotion cycles, for example. Crenshaw asks us to picture these individuals at the intersection of a motorway, facing onrushing threats from different directions.

Leaders who cannot recognise intersecting forms of marginalisation will fail to get the best out of their employees

Companies that ignore these issues will face their own hazards. Leaders who cannot recognise the intersecting forms of marginalisation suffered by their employees will fail to get the best out of them. As Selfridges and other successful businesses have recognised, happy workers are more innovative and productive than unhappy ones, and far more likely to stick around.3

Double jeopardy

We need only look to the impact of the coronavirus pandemic to see how different forms of discrimination can add up to damaging effect. Research suggests black people were more than four times as likely to die from COVID-19 in the UK than the white population in the early stages of the pandemic, with men and women of Bangladeshi or Pakistani origin also at higher risk, largely due to socioeconomic factors.4 Women of colour have been disproportionately affected in the jobs market, being more likely to be furloughed or laid off than men.5

The crisis only worsened existing disadvantages that tend to persist and accumulate throughout people’s lives and careers. In their recent book The Class Ceiling, the sociologists Sam Friedman and Daniel Laurison report shocking findings on the double or even triple layers of discrimination faced by people seeking to progress in “elite” occupations in the UK, including finance, the media, medicine and law. They found the average annual earnings of black British working-class women in senior roles are £20,000 less than white men from wealthy backgrounds.6

The point here is not to pit different identities off against each other or start a new social hierarchy in which rich white men are relegated to the bottom. Intersectionality is about giving us a better, more rounded sense of the challenges experienced by everyone, so that we can ensure they are given equal opportunities to succeed. To do this, we need to consider all aspects of a person’s identity.

Figure 1 shows a range of human characteristics, from sexuality and neurodiversity to gender identity and socio-economic background. The characteristics towards the centre of the circle tend to be associated with power; those at the periphery are often marginalised in mainstream society. It is a useful illustration of how we are all the sum of our parts.

For too long, companies have sought to hire people with the characteristics in the middle or forced others to fit into a culture that reflects and serves those people. Instead, leaders should be looking to add the perspectives they are missing, to improve representation and diversity of thought.

Bringing different skills and perspectives together is a way to foster creative thinking and productive discussion within teams, enabling a more efficient and agile response to problems (see No more command and control: To deliver for clients, asset managers need to be agile). By more effectively spotting and supporting intersectional talent, businesses can also maximise their return on human capital, ensuring individuals whose characteristics range across the circle are empowered to fulfil their potential.

Figure 1: To maximise their return on people, companies should empower employees across all the intersections, rather than focus only on the inner segments
A diversity wheel
Source: ‘Intersectionality: What is it and why it matters’, The University of British Columbia, March 8, 2021

An equal emphasis on diversity and inclusion

An intersectional approach that takes these various identities into account is valuable for two key reasons. First, it makes efforts to improve diversity more concrete and granular. For instance, a company that has made steps towards gender parity among its executives should be applauded – but if all those female hires are privately educated white women, it will still have a significant diversity deficit.

Boosting diversity is not simply a moral imperative; it is a commercial one

Boosting diversity in a full and holistic manner is not simply a moral imperative; it is a commercial one. Institutional investors and consultants are looking for asset managers who consistently provide alpha generation and manage risk – with diversity of thought and idea generation among the criteria they consider. As economist Andy Haldane pointed out, it is a bleak irony that finance places such a high importance on the risk-mitigating benefits of diversified investment portfolios and then assembles teams of like-minded men to run them.7 Investment organisations should follow their own principles and build diversity into their organisations, as well as their portfolios.

The second key advantage of an intersectional approach is that it opens the way toward a more inclusive culture. None of us has just one characteristic. In an unwelcoming work environment, though, people might feel they can only show a particular, “approved” aspect of themselves.

The experience of exclusion, that need to “fit in”, will be recognised by people in a range of different professions, even if they do not always face overt hostility or discrimination. As Karen Brown, a diversity and inclusion consultant, vividly puts it: “Picture a Muslim who prays in his car because he doesn’t want to advertise his religion, a mother who doesn’t put up pictures of her children so that co-workers won’t question her commitment to the job, or a gay executive who is unsure whether he can bring his partner to company functions.”8

An intersectional approach opens the way toward a more inclusive culture

Trying to fit into a narrow definition of acceptable workplace identity can take its toll on people’s mental health. It is also damaging from a business point of view: it prevents companies from attracting or retaining talent. A competitive compensation package will mean little if the workplace culture makes people feel fundamentally left out.

A sense of belonging

So how can companies do better?

First, we need data. Collecting information on employees’ gender alone will not allow us to measure the broader set of characteristics captured by intersectionality. On race, we need to go beyond broad categories such as Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic (BAME) or “South Asian”. We also need information on socioeconomic background, sexual identity, abilities and disabilities.

This data can inform fairer and more inclusive approaches to recruitment (see To improve diversity, asset managers should rip up the rulebook on recruitment). By ending the practice of “like-for-like” hires, we can search out specific groups of people who can add valuable perspectives to our teams. People at the intersections can help us challenge groupthink and help provide a better service to clients (see The new rules of client engagement).

Once they have joined the business, we need to make sure we retain their talent through nurturing, empathetic leadership, and a welcoming organisational culture. A good way to foster this sort of environment is to encourage people to share their stories, helping others to understand the challenges they have faced, along with their ambitions, fears and motivations.

Many organisations have found storytelling initiatives can promote understanding and challenge stereotypes. Tate Britain, for instance, has rolled out a series of projects designed to promote LGBT+ inclusion, based on curated tours of the gallery to highlight the stories and histories of the community. The Tate also publishes the stories of its LGBTQ+ staff on its intranet, giving them a platform to talk about their lives and their work.9

Similarly, The Diversity Project, an investment industry initiative, has recently launched the #FishOutofWater campaign, in which financial professionals open up about their feelings of exclusion, to educate and raise awareness.10 This is a positive step; an organisational culture in which people feel comfortable sharing their experiences is more likely to be one in which people with intersectional characteristics find support and respect.

Part two of this series will explore in more detail what finance can do to promote intersectional perspectives. But for now, suffice it to say that we must be bold in challenging outdated ideas. To future-proof our businesses, we need to make them more tolerant, more welcoming to specific identities and more open to alternative points of view.

By creating a culture of belonging, we can ensure people feel safe enough to be different

Inclusion and productivity go hand-in-hand: by creating a culture of belonging, we can ensure people feel safe enough to be different, express themselves creatively, and therefore contribute more fully to the work of their teams. In this sense, a successful business is like one of Selfridges’ famous window displays, where flowers of all kinds are allowed to bloom.

Apiramy Jeyarajah is co-lead of the Intersectionality Workstream at The Diversity Project.

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