Understanding Intersectionality: Black Women For Example

For all the challenges we face in the pandemic, the most damaging of all is the impact on our feelings of unity. Driven by the Black Injustices taking place in the United States, companies are heavily investing in programs and strategies to drive diversity, inclusion, equity, and belonging.

While there are many amazing things going on in this area (we are in the middle of a big research project so more to come soon), a really important problem is that of Intersectionality.

What does this strange word mean?  It was originally coined by KimberlĂ© Williams Crenshaw, a lawyer and educator who studies and litigated important cases about the discrimination of Black Women. The term essentially means that the “intersection” between various demographic and other differences between people.

For example, if you have a focus on “Women in Leadership” in your company, it turns out that in many cases Black Women feel excluded, and as a unique group are discriminated against in special ways. (The same may be true for Asian Women, Jewish Women, etc.). So Intersectionality, while often referring to Black Women, can be used to identify many types of “groups” in a company. And being a Black Woman is not just “being a woman and being black” – it is a special experience that only this group faces in life. That’s the focus of Intersectionality – understanding the impact of these intersections. 

This week Workday is introducing a whole measurement framework and analytics system (The VIBE Index) designed to help you understand intersectionality, which I will describe below. But first let me point out the issue by discussing Black Women.

The Issue of Black Women in Business 

If you look at the history of Black Women at work, the stories are pretty upsetting. If you read Leanin.org’s study of Black Women in business, the results are totally staggering. 

For example, look at Black Women in leadership. The data is shocking.

But when it comes to Belonging or sponsorship, the problem is even deeper. Black women are regularly left behind.

But by far the most damaging Intersectionality issue for Black Women is the state of Microagressions or everyday discrimination.

Can you imagine being “Mistaken for someone at a lower level?” or “Needing to provide evidence of your competence?” It’s a disgrace.

Today there’s a New York Times piece describing how many political leaders are even insulting Kamala Harris by specifically stating how “articulate” she is. I won’t try to interpret the comment but this is Microagression directed toward the potential future Vice-President (or president) of the United States. (And the Feds want to do away with sensitivity training? No wonder 2/3 of Americans no longer trust the Federal Government.)

Intersectionality and Workday

Given the huge upswell of interest in equity, inclusion, and belonging, the discussion of Intersectionality is growing. Not only do we have new “differences” to think about (gender fluidity, many age cohorts, dimensions of culture differences), we now have a common language about the topic. And Workday, a company that prides itself on inclusion and belonging, is now making a big move in this area.

This week Workday is formally introducing the VIBE Framework (Value Inclusion, Belonging, and Equity), a set of benchmarks for inclusion, and a toolset to measure intersectionality in your company. Let me briefly explain how it works. (Press release here.)

First, Workday itself now manages a wide variety of employee diversity data, as shown below.

This means your Workday system can create many intersections to understand where the Intersectionality problems may be.

Second, Workday is now offering a dashboard called VIBE Central, that helps you analyze all sorts of intersections. This customizable dashboard shows you lots of diversity metrics, but also can be used to measure inclusion (through weekly or period surveys).

The most interesting part of this is not the reporting, however, it’s the ability to create Intersectionality views, and then compute what Workday calls the VIBE Score. Consider the following example.

This picture shows six talent dimensions (representation, hiring, promotion, leadership, belonging, and attrition), and computes the values of these dimensions by “intersection.” As you can see from the chart, in this case it breaks down Female Asians, Female Under-Represented, Female White, Male Asians, Male Under-Represented, and Male White.

You can look at the metrics vertically (by Intersection group) or horizontally (across the entire company). And what you can see is that some of the boxes are red, some orange, and some green. After looking at this for a few minutes you realize what you’re seeing is that Female Asians and Female Minorities are far under-represented in leadership. Yet they are well represented in promotion. So there is a “glass ceiling” in this company that is preventing them from growing well.

In Workday’s model these metrics are aggregated into a Score, which represents both the Intersectionality numbers (the bottom row) and the outcomes (right side column) and aggregates to 2.28. So what Workday is planning on doing is helping companies compute this, and then using it as a benchmarking tool so you can see your “total inclusion” measure against your peers.

It’s a fascinating and badly needed solution.

Intersectionality Is A Broad and Growing Topic

Not only is this going to give companies a lot of new information to consider, but this toolset could also go much further. Consider a large company with hundreds of different “intersection” groups. For example, there are young mothers from different cultural backgrounds. Older workers with different dimensions. How do we know which of these hundreds of Intersections may be disaffected?

Well, you could define the Intersections you care about most, like Black Women. Or you could actually use a statistics engine to figure out which groups are most impacted. I recently talked with a European financial services firm that did this – and they found out that younger mothers were among the most disrupted, impacted groups in the company. It’s funny that in Silicon Valley people who are “not mothers” now feel angry that people without children did NOT get some form of family leave. (I remember this entitlement culture at Sybase years ago.)

Remember also that disaffected groups are not only impacted by lack of opportunity or discrimination – it undermines their (and everyone’s) trust. And at its core, Trust is one of the most important assets you have in business. The 2020 Edelman Trust Barometer Special Report_shows that only 36% of Americans now believe the government will do the right thing to address racial justice, and 58% of Americans (77% of Black Americans) observe racist behavior in their own companies.

We all need to be even more sensitive to the needs of every individual at work – whether they are part of a clearly defined disaffected group or not. The domain of Intersectionality will help you think about this in a new way, and I think it is one more step toward trying to make the world (and our organizations) more fair, equitable, and inclusive.