Most organizations have Diversity and Inclusion strategies. As these approaches have developed and been embraced, many companies have started to reap the benefits in terms of innovation and business success.

But while there is nothing wrong with the concepts, many D&I initiatives have become –  or are at risk of becoming – sidetracked or stagnant.  As complex organizations, many companies do what individuals do in life as well.  They tend to gravitate toward the easier, least common denominator of a new path and systemize the processes into daily life, yet lag on the more difficult aspects that are not as easily quantified, are perceived as more difficult, or perhaps not fully perceived at all.

We haven’t prioritized inclusion

As D&I initiatives have flourished, the diversity half of the equation has lent itself to being easier for some companies to implement.  Quantifying corporate performance is familiar territory for any company, so diversity was a ready fit into an already numbers-driven infrastructure.  As a result, companies found that they could undertake diversity initiatives quickly and achieve measurable results that made them feel as though they were moving ahead.

But where companies have lagged has been in the inclusion side of the equation.  In fact, many companies never move past the diversity side, assuming that the numbers achieved are the larger part of the battle.  This has left a lot of D&I initiatives too narrow in focus and self-limiting in their potential.  Having found a familiar path in the quantifiability of diversity, a number of companies have trouble defining inclusion at all, and when they do, they don’t always understand how to engage with employees to achieve it.

The limitations of inclusion

As a company moves along the path to diversity, they may not realize that they are simply saying the second word rather than achieving it or even “moving the needle”.  In an attempt to track individuals into a diversity category, they don’t take into account that people may belong to more than one group.   As a result, employees begin to feel compartmentalized, as though the act of being placed in one diversity group means choosing to leave behind parts of themselves in the workplace that are just as much a part of a second group and its cultural imperatives as the group they are tracked in.

This reflects a larger trend seen in millennials who are more likely to view themselves broadly and identify with multiple groups and cultures and to move away from labels in general.  But it means that companies are even more challenged to find a better working and actionable definition of inclusion.

Another limitation with a traditional inclusion strategy is that many leaders tasked at the corporate level with defining it and turning it into action are themselves affected by their own culture or multiple cultures.  This sheds some light on why so many programs fall short and how they risk creating the very kind of isolation they are supposed to fix.

Seen through that lens, traditional inclusion’s lack of coherent definition may result in an attempt to wedge it into the same measurable metrics as diversity, or one with too narrow a focus.  One such “default” measurement is to focus solely on one large group for inclusion, such as women.  And though well-intentioned, continues to exclude many of the overlapping cultures and groups that make inclusion so hard to act upon.

And maybe that is the issue with a fully-formed, mature definition of inclusion.  In many ways, people attempt to define inclusion as they do diversity – a linear construct with a starting and ending point.  But what if the key to a truly inclusive workplace was actually the elimination of that linear focus?  Instead of each diversity group as an individual thread alongside other threads of different makeup and color, what if instead, inclusion consisted of those threads being woven together in a tapestry with each one intersecting with other threads to form a whole cloth, stronger and with a distinct pattern all its own?


Coined in 1989 by legal scholar Kimberle’ Crenshaw, the term intersectionality defines the interconnected and overlapping discrimination that comes from multiple groupings, cultural associations and backgrounds that converge to define an experience of exclusion unique to the person living it.  The term has emerged in the last few years as a way to define one of the key problems in inclusion.  Another key dynamic is that people “move through the world differently” and navigate things based on these experiences.  As a result, labels are confining and can work against truly understanding what an employee needs.

Intersectionality is important because in using it to understand what others experience, it opens leaders and others to continually learning opportunities for growth.  Because it’s not label-centric, it keeps the conversation going and allows for continual introspection.  In this way, leaders tasked with developing inclusion within their workplace do so from an informed and introspective place where they understand the person first and not the label.

Complex, real people subscribe to all of their cultures.  However, most company D&I programs only provide one track in the name of diversity, assuring that those whose experiences span across many cultures and labels live the same exclusion that the program is intended to eliminate.  For example, in a traditional D&I program, people may identify as gay, African-American, or female.  But what if someone is all of the above?  By forcing the linear tracking of someone into a specific group, the company misses not only the full understanding of the individual, but also the contributions they could make to an organization from their experience within their other groups as well.

Finding Common Ground

While certainly not the only problem with inclusion, intersectionality is a key aspect of it and perhaps a way to frame D&I programs going forward.  Already there is a perceived shift in organizations away from thinking of diversity as an end in itself and toward looking at how we have things in common across our labels and cultures rather than how we are different.

To do so, leaders and managers should look to hold employee events that move away from specific labels and towards those that being in as many different groups and backgrounds as possible to be both diverse and inclusive.  As employees begin to interact in an environment where labels have been put aside and all feel welcome and included, life stories reveal themselves and that story helps further the understanding and learning required for introspection.  In this way, the system becomes both truly inclusive and self-sustaining.

Addressing Intersectionality

To include intersectionality as an integral part of inclusion, there are steps organizations can take, including:  

  • Buy-in – Buy-in from the top is critical for any initiative to succeed.  Leadership must be trained to recognize areas where intersectionality is an issue and to act upon them.  This requires training to help leaders develop Emotional Maturity (EM).  Those displaying emotional maturity are self-aware in proactively discussing differences and intersectionality with their staff.  They are comfortable sharing their own story and learn to self-regulate to build their teams in an inclusive way.  This also requires a high degree of empathy to approach and understand the differences in the first place.
  • Support all voices – Everyone wants to be heard.  But not just heard vocally, but heard from an experiential standpoint, where the overlapping groups and cultures of a person’s story can provide insight into how they feel within the organization, so they can open up and show what they have to offer.
  • Impact – Another way for corporations to use intersectionality as a tool for inclusion is to start where they have the greatest impact.  One example would be for HR to reduce the use of labels.  And despite the fear that traditional companies have of concepts with no “metrics” “KPIs” to reassure them, there are analytical and data-solid ways of controlling for inherent bias.  Intersectional analytics can be used to hold leaders accountable and to identify gaps and identify where whether there are issues to be addressed.
  • Leaders as allies – Similar to buy-in, leaders can act as allies for those who may not otherwise have a voice within an organization.  Stating it outright to staff carries force of authority.  And groups who would otherwise feel excluded can find a voice through an ally in a leadership position.
  • Empowerment – In many ways, inclusion is synonymous with “empowerment”.  By grasping and acting upon intersectionality, leaders can empower everyone within an organization to the benefit of the employee as well as the company. 

Moving Forward

To break the stagnation of D&I and really move the needle on inclusion, companies need get ready to address intersectionality. By breaking down labels in general, they can find common interest and allow for greater contributions from an inclusive employee base.  As this happens, change can occur organically as leaders become more aware.  And by training now to look for intersectionality first, it will enable an environment to generate inclusion on par or in excess of the standard diversity.  To do that, leaders must work from the goal end of the spectrum and pull the organization forward rather than starting from the stagnated D&I program.  By doing so, they leave metrics behind and put inclusion at the forefront.

Five to Nine offers a comprehensive platform to manage and measure inclusion initiatives. Request a demo today.