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What is intersectionality and why it matters in your EDI strategy — with Sanisha Wynter

Intersectionality was first coined in the late 1980s by a U.S. academic, Kimberly Crenshaw. She coined the term while doing civil rights research when she found that women of colour were not having their racial identity and gender rights identity referenced when it came to their experiences of discrimination within the workplace. She defines intersectionality as when our multiple identities collide with power.

To help us dig deeper into intersectionality and how it impacts EDI strategy, we recently spoke with Sanisha Wynter, a consultant and speaker focused on inclusion in the workplace. Sanisha is currently the head of EDI at Impact Culture. She's developed empowerment programs and guidance on race, LGBT, inclusion and disability, and accessibility.

She identifies as a Black, bi-cisgender woman who lives and thrives with borderline personality disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder, and mixed anxiety and depressive disorder. She's a mental health advocate and aims to support others by sharing her experience and journey to recovery. She's committed to raising awareness of barriers to mental health access and support for diverse communities. She contributes to research and is a member of the Black Women's Mental Health Board. In 2019, Sanisha was listed as Bi Icon by the UK LGBT Charity Stonewall. She recently became a TEDx speaker, and she shared her message that vulnerability is a superpower.

Keep reading for some key insights on EDI from Sanisha.

Tell us a bit about yourself

From a young age, I felt like I didn't belong. My mum had me earlier than she planned to and her family didn’t handle it well, which affected me. Then due to issues at home, I had to move outside of the city borough where I'd grown up. Suddenly, I was the only black girl in my class, and I became acutely aware of what racism looks like as a seven-year-old. That impacted how I saw myself and my sense of belonging.

I felt a lot of pressure to succeed, so I kept my head down as much as possible. I never felt comfortable enough to embrace my blackness, my roots, or my sexuality.

It was not a safe environment for me to be myself, so I hid or covered my identity.

It wasn’t until I attended the University of Portsmouth that I was able to start exploring who I was, although I still faced racism and biphobia.

I'd always dreamed to be working with young people and was passionate about becoming a teacher when I finished university. However, I was afraid because I knew I would face discrimination because of my background and identity. I wanted to work with communities, meet with people, and talk to them about belonging. While I am still passionate about teaching, my work in belonging felt more like my calling, so, I left university to focus on understanding this issue and helping reshape people’s life experiences.

How do we find a sense of belonging in the workplace?

A sense of belonging is something humans generally strive for. We want to find a place where our true selves are welcomed, included, and heard by like-minded people. We want to be allowed to be ourselves, instead of being told to fit into a box.

It is common among employers to look for candidates who “are a good fit for us.” However, for employers, it shouldn’t be about asking people to fit into a box. That is asking someone to put on an act for an interview or a job.

Instead, employers should get to know people’s true identities and embrace the idea of their individuality. Organisations should be curious about the journey an individual has gone through instead of just what their CV says, because the journey can speak more about a person’s abilities and level of resilience.

When we talk about DEI and belonging, we need to focus more on the individual people and less on the organisation.

What does intersectionality mean to you?

Many times, when I hear people describe intersectionality, they talk about intersectionality as an identity itself. But to me, it's not about listing the fact that I'm a Black, bi, cis woman. Those are my identities, but intersectionality is about my lived experiences. Intersectionality is about drilling down and looking at the complexity of identities.

I have certain experiences because I am Black. I have certain experiences because I am a woman. I have certain experiences because I am a Black woman. A white woman will experience white privilege, but they may also experience sexism, so there is a level of privilege and a level of oppression. By not talking about the other identities, and or by not being willing to be granular in our language and data, you erase people’s experiences.

Intersectionality acknowledges that oppression can exist separately, but it can also exist in combination of identities. It's about being very specific about who we are talking about, understanding an individual’s experiences, and understanding the way our society works through their experiences.

What is identity covering and how does it impact the workplace?

I learned to navigate covering very early in my career because of what I'd experienced when I was younger, and it was negatively impacting my mental health.

For me, covering is about avoiding being seen as a troublemaker or as intimidating because I express myself directly and passionately as a Black woman. As a result, I’ve left multiple organisations because I felt like my voice didn’t matter, I couldn’t contribute as a team player, or I couldn’t progress in my career.

I think Black women and Black people, in general, have to constantly worry about their identities being a barrier to their progression. Whether it is changing the way you speak, changing your hair, changing the way you dress, or even changing your name, there are many microaggressions in the workplace that can lead to covering and negatively impact mental health. There's no way someone can grow in an organisation or contribute meaningfully if they’re so worried they’ll slip up.

So, I decided not to cover or hide my identity to make other people comfortable at my expense. It’s exhausting, painful, and not productive. I think covering is a huge part of why Black women continue to be underrepresented at the C-level. Additionally, it has a huge negative impact on self-identity and mental health.

What health inequities have you observed or experienced?

Health inequity is a critical part of the conversation surrounding intersectionality and Black women in the workplace.

Many Black people distrust healthcare in general, because we know that the textbooks and studies don’t include our skin colour and most doctors don’t understand our experiences. Many Black people suffer because we sit on a problem that we're unable to describe because we haven't been given the language or the permission to explore our feelings in a way that's healthy.

When my mental health was in crisis, I went to therapists and doctors, but they told me that they didn’t understand my experiences because they weren’t Black. Instead of having medical advice for me, they asked me to explain my experience and educate them. I was constantly being asked to describe an experience as a black woman when I was in crisis and just wanted to be heard. So, I stopped engaging with health services because I wasn’t being understood.

Furthermore, there is stigma around mental health within the Black community. I had to fight the narrative in my head that I needed to be a Strong Black Woman for my family. When I did see a Black doctor, they told me to be strong and not show the others that I was “weak.” It was quite the motivational speech, but the wrong speech for somebody in the place I was in.

So, Black women are not allowed to embrace pain in the workplace. It causes us to have negative performance outcomes, because we are struggling with so much.

Since we are affected by the gender pay gap and ethnicity pay gap, we don’t have access to private health care and the health issues we are dealing with exacerbate. We have to navigate long NHS wait times and the issues get worse so we may have to leave the workplace for a long time.

Additionally, there are issues in maternity and maternity leave. A lot of career opportunities can vanish when we pursue motherhood.

There is not enough conversation about these issues and barriers to health care in workplaces. Employers have to be willing to go beyond basic maternity leave and work to understand the history, the statistics, and the different experiences Black women face.

What can organisations do better to highlight and embrace equity, particularly for Black women in the workplace?

Organisations need to do better about owning up to their mistakes. I’ve worked with great organisations that have the resources to really make big changes, but they are unwilling to acknowledge their shortfalls.

All organisation leaders need to be willing to acknowledge that the conversation is not about them individually, but it's about what systemic racism or sexism does to an individual trying to progress.

Leaders need to figure out how to transfer the benefits of their privilege to those who lack it, how to level the playing field within their own organisation, and how they can take on these struggles as their own.

It is not enough to say you are an ally. Instead, demonstrate your allyship through consistent actions. Show me practical examples of how you've increased promotions for Black women specifically, how you have ensured that Black women can access training, how you have provided health insurance for Black women within your organisation.

You have to be willing to make yourself be uncomfortable and take on that struggle, because that's the only way we're going to lead to change. We can't do it on our own — not because we aren’t capable but because the systems of racism and sexism are so oppressive. There is no way any of us will survive long enough to be able to do it without burning ourselves out. Be a true ally by taking on this fight with us.

Practical tips to support intersectionality in the workplace

Here are some practical steps for any professionals who understand the importance of supporting DEI in the workplace but aren’t sure where to go next.

First, become familiar with the demographics of your organization. For example, how many Black women are in entry-level roles, or executive roles? Become aware of the make-up of your organization and put pressure on your HR teams to be transparent about the data. This will help you understand if there are issues within your organization.

Next, be sure that you are proactively asking about employees’ experiences in a way that is compassionate and makes them feel safe. If a high proportion of Black women are leaving the workplace because of microaggressions and other issues, you need to be aware of that.

One thing I recommend is to conduct regular “stay interviews” instead of just exit interviews. That way, you become aware of more issues and take action to fix them before they escalate into someone leaving the organisation.

Lastly, set clear targets around removing bias from your organisation and giving fair promotions. Ensure that whoever's responsible for promotions is really clear on these targets you're trying to achieve around intersectionality and gender.

Learn more about intersectionality in the workplace

If you’d like to hear more from Sanisha Wynter, you can listen to her impactful TEDx Talk titled Vulnerability is Your Superpower. You can also learn more on her website and follow her on LinkedIn, Instagram, and Twitter.

You can also read more about intersectionality in the workplace in the recent report titled Broken Ladders: The myth of meritocracy for women of colour in the workplace, which presents an eye-opening look at the barriers and racism that women of colour experience in the workplace across the UK.

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