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You Belong Here: Using Intersectionality to Welcome All Talent in Public Service

The public sector tends to tackle diversity, equity, inclusion and accessibility one issue at a time. Perhaps a flurry of gender discrimination lawsuits has leadership scrambling to update trainings and policies about gender bias. Maybe data has shown that the agency is failing to retain employees with disabilities, so a committee is convened to figure out what new accessibility accommodations are needed. Or having few people of color apply for open positions has led to hiring managers reserving tables at more job fairs at Historically Black Colleges and Universities.

But what if these kinds of problems are connected? What if, instead of tackling diversity, equity, inclusion and accessibility one issue at a time, government agencies took an intersectional approach?

Intersectionality is a term created by scholar Kimberlé Crenshaw in 1989 to describe the overlapping oppressions experienced by Black women. The meaning of intersectionality has broadened since then. Today, it means how people can be affected by interconnected challenges, disadvantages and discriminations because of their multiple identities and experiences — such as race, gender, disability, socioeconomic status, sexual orientation, and age. The challenges people face are cumulative, compounding and complex because of their overlapping identities and experiences.

The concepts of intersectionality and identity can take some getting used to. Let’s look at some examples of how this can play out in the workplace.

For instance, think about how a parent living in a rural area may prefer a different type of job flexibility than a parent living in a city. The rural parent might need to leave work early for the long drive to pick up the kids at school, while the city parent might need a four-day workweek to shave a day off of expensive childcare. A rigid job schedule messes with both their lives, but giving all employees just one type of job flexibility would only solve the problem for some parents.

Or, consider how two autistic new hires — one in their 60s, the other in their 20s — might approach the onboarding process in different ways. The older person might come prepared with a list of accommodations because they’ve learned through trial and error at other jobs what helps them the most. The younger person might keep quiet about their autism because it’s their first job, and they don’t know they have a right to request accommodations. By not proactively offering accommodations to all employees, one person is set up for success, the other for underperformance, one for retention, the other for attrition.

There are intersectionality practices that can help federal, state and local agencies welcome everyone into public service:

  1. Promote awareness of intersectionality: A simple lack of familiarity can slow change, and so can contrarians who’d rather things stay the same. Educate employees about how intersecting identities affect the challenges and opportunities people face in the workplace. Provide venues for dialogue between employees who have different identities and experiences. Try a variety of formats, including informal networking events, structured team-building activities, and regular trainings.
  2. Disaggregate your data: Collect and analyze employee data that is disaggregated by identity factors. This disaggregation allows agencies to better understand how different intersecting identities may be experiencing reduced access to opportunity or discrimination. Disaggregated data can inform ways to address these disparities and help monitor the agency’s progress toward a more inclusive workplace.
  3. Create conditions for a welcoming workplace: Coming up with truly equitable and inclusive policies means examining them through an intersectional perspective. Evaluate existing policies to ensure they address the needs of people with multiple, intersecting identities. Whenever possible, add choice and flexibility when updating or creating employee policies to meet varying needs.
  4. Prioritize intersectionality in decision-making: When making decisions, leadership should consider the experiences and needs of employees who have intersecting identities and experiences. A great place to start is by increasing transparency about decision-making and inviting people with intersecting identities to give feedback on the process.
  5. Address bias and discrimination: Develop ways to deal with disadvantages and discrimination. Establish a system for reporting and addressing complaints so employees who do not feel safe and respected in the workplace have recourse. Collect feedback from employees at all levels, and revise employee recruitment, management approaches, and retention strategies to create a more welcoming experience.

There are many more ways your agency can use intersectionality practices to build a truly welcoming workplace. Learn more at GovLoop’s NextGen Virtual Summit in May, during the “Inclusive Government: Putting DEIA into Action” session. By recognizing that people have multiple, overlapping identities, government employers can create a more equitable and inclusive workplace for all.

Lauren Girardin is a marketing and communications consultant, storyteller, and freelance writer based in San Francisco. She helps organizations engage their communities and tell their stories. Her website is laurengirardin.com and you can connect with her on Twitter at @girardinl.

Image by Tim Mossholder on Unsplash

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