Understanding each protected characteristic in equality law is important in preventing discrimination at work. However, the situation gets a little more complicated when someone identifies with or is a part of multiple of these protected characteristics. This is known as intersectionality.

The reality for a lot of employees will be that they are not just having to cope with exclusion or discrimination related to one protected characteristic, but multiple. Intersectional people can deal with complex discrimination and exclusion, and this can be very hard to deal with. 

We have created this guide to help help you as an employer to better understand what these employees are facing and how best you can support them at work.

What Intersectionality Means (and Why it’s Important)

Intersectionality is a term used in a variety of contexts to describe a situation where different systems or categorisations overlap. In this context, intersectionality refers to when multiple social categorisations, such as race, gender and class, are applied to a single individual or group at once. 

For example, a black woman can face intersectional discrimination as she falls into two protected characteristics, gender and race. A black transgender woman falls into three categories, gender, gender reassignment, and race. People in these situations can face very unique and complicated issues in the workplace. 

Understanding this complex situation is important for employers as we need to be aware of how we can help, support, and facilitate people in this situation. It shouldn’t be their responsibility to educate us on their life, it should be our job to seek out information and awareness so we can do the best we can. 

What This Means For Your Workplace

If you have an employee who fits into multiple of the protected characteristics, it means that they are vulnerable to multiple different forms of discrimination.  

Research suggests that those who have multiple different protected characteristics are far more likely to be ‘highly on guard’ at work to make sure they are not perceived as fulfilling stereotypes. As such, these employees are far more likely to feel excluded from the company culture and unable to bring their authentic selves to work. 

When you have staff who feel unable to express themselves, you are subduing creativity and the ability of your staff to work at full capacity. There is a distinct positive correlation between self-confidence and productivity. If your company culture is persistently undermining your employee’s identity, they are not going to be able to contribute at their full capacity.  

Not understanding intersectionality and not doing enough to tackle issues of discrimination and exclusion is harmful to your employees and to your business. It is important to face the issues head-on.

Eliminating the Problem at the Source

Often advice surrounding intersectionality in the workplace has only one message: give extra support to that individual or group. Although that isn’t bad advice, approaching the issue as if the problem is related to their identity or social group further excludes them from the norm. 

In reality, the problem is not related to the employees’ multiple protected characteristics, but the discrimination attributed to them. The best way to support these employees is to eliminate the problem at the source of discrimination. Discrimination doesn’t start with the employee facing the bias, it starts with the person or system discriminating against them. That is where we need to tackle the problem first. 

Sometimes intersectional employees feel exceptionally on-edge and unsafe in the workplace if they do not feel like the company culture is inclusive. If you have a generally accepting company that takes discrimination seriously, there is a greater threat that the employees with multiple protected characteristics will feel they need to be constantly vigilant of upholding stereotypes rather than experiencing open discrimination.  

As such, the most significant way to help these employees is not to single them out but to make their identity or social group feel included in the company culture, so they can come to work as their authentic selves without fear of discrimination.   

We have lots of information on creating an inclusive work environment on our site, so check this guide out first for more information on this. Creating a solid ground of inclusivity is the best thing you can do in a workplace.  

Individual Support

As well as making changes to your work environment, you should also offer individual support to intersectional members of staff. As we said, they can have a tough time in the workplace and we want to change that pattern for them. 

Some ways you can offer individual support include:

  • Having an open door policy for communication and disclosures
  • Offering empathy and active listening
  • Appointing members of staff and teams to work on and maintain inclusivity
  • Run training and information events on discrimination and bias
  • Allow all voices to be heard via focus groups and anonymous drop box options 
  • Offer appropriate signposting to external support, including mental health support
  • Encourage diversity and cultural appreciation 
  • Make your support visible through flags, posters, pronoun badges, and so on

The more we can support our staff, the happier and healthier they will be at work. This should be our priority. There is so much that we can do to make the lives of intersectional people better at work, so we should do it. 

For more support on building a supportive and inclusive place to work, check out the rest of our information and guidance on Aspiring to Include. 

We offer services for employers looking to increase EDI in their companies. We also help connect those employers with diverse candidates via our inclusive job board.

Take a peek at what we have to offer and if you have any questions, don’t hesitate to get in touch.