Lately, intersectionality has been generating quite the buzz in HR. Increasingly, employers are enhancing their workforce diversity and inclusion initiatives by focusing on the intersectional perspectives and experiences of their employees. So, what exactly is intersectionality? And what role might it play in organizations’ recruitment and hiring efforts today?
What is Intersectionality?
“Intersectionality” refers to how multiple characteristics such as race, sex, age, disability status, or sexual orientation may combine to create a unique experience of systematic discrimination and disadvantage for certain individuals or groups. For example, being a woman and being black do not exist exclusively or separately from each other; but, in fact, these characteristics together create a unique experience for the individuals within this demographic. On a day-to-day basis, black women may face stereotypes, biases, and discrimination that are specific to women, that are specific to being black, and that are uniquely specific to being black women (that is, stereotypes, biases, and discrimination that neither white women nor black men would necessarily experience). So, the combination of being black and being a woman can create a distinct and multi-faceted layering of disadvantage for individuals within this demographic.
Legal scholar and black feminist Kimberlé Crenshaw first introduced the term intersectionality in an article more than 30 years ago (see Crenshaw, 1989). In it, she highlighted how the then-recent civil rights and feminist movements failed to address discrimination of black women. She illustrated how Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which prohibits employment discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex and national origin, did not specifically address the intersection of these protected classes: race and sex. Title VII appeared to afford black women no protections unless employers could be shown to have discriminated on the basis of race alone or sex alone.
Since then, the regulatory landscape of intersectionality and discrimination has slowly evolved. Meanwhile, the concept of intersectionality has broadened to encompass characteristics beyond race and sex, to include religion, age, class, weight, disability status, and sexual orientation, among others. And the application of the concept within organizations has broadened, as well: Many employers have prioritized building a diverse and inclusive organizational culture by considering various “intersectional” perspectives. To this end, intersectionality can play an important role in employers’ recruitment and hiring efforts—topics which, surprisingly, have received limited coverage of late. Below we discuss intersectionality as it relates to recruitment and hiring, including some things HR practitioners should know about regulatory agencies and requirements.
Intersectionality and Recruitment
Not surprisingly, if an employer is looking to build a diverse and talented workforce, then effective recruitment is going to be one of the top priorities for accomplishing that goal. This is one area where reviewing progress, strategy, and efforts with an intersectional lens could help organizations reach that goal.
Organizations might choose to begin addressing intersectionality in their recruitment efforts by simply examining their own employment data differently to evaluate their baselines. This might involve breaking out employment data, often organized by gender or by race, into separate “intersectional” subgroups (e.g., breaking out females into white females, Hispanic females, black females, and so on) and examining those categories separately. Affirmative Action Plan placement goals required by the Office of Federal Contract Compliance Programs (OFCCP), for instance, generally involve analyzing utilization and availability by race and by gender, but not the intersection of the two. Where sufficient data are available, employers can consider examining intersectional breakouts to uncover recruitment gaps and opportunities that otherwise may go unnoticed. Organizations that gather qualitative feedback or other data on their recruitment efforts can likewise examine that information to better understand how intersectional subgroups perceive those efforts.
Including intersectionality…may lead employers to seek out new communities…build partnerships with new groups…and create tailored messages to attract even more diverse applicant pools.
With information about recruitment gaps and opportunities in mind, employers can potentially tailor their recruitment channels, efforts, and outreach to meet goals that help them achieve better intersectional diversity. Many recruitment strategies, of course, seek to attract diverse pools of candidates. Just the act of identifying specific intersectional subgroups and attempting to better understand them, however, may prompt employers to think differently about the messages they communicate and the approaches they consider to recruit applicants. Incorporating intersectionality into a recruitment strategy may lead employers to seek out new communities or events, build partnerships with new groups and organizations, and create tailored messages to attract even more diverse applicant pools. Some employers already provide training to recruiters to reduce (unconscious) gender or racial bias in their processes; there may be an opportunity for this training to include or call out intersectional biases as well.
To measure success in closing gaps in recruitment, organizations may consider creating and sharing data-driven diversity reports that highlight targeted recruitment efforts and their commitment to fostering and maintaining inclusion in recruitment practices. Improving the representation of intersectional subgroups in an applicant pool while also improving the experiences of all applicants during the recruitment process can be an important step in helping organizations build a diverse and inclusive workforce. It’s important to note that efforts to improving recruitment for intersectional subgroups should not interfere with or come at the expense of achieving more general diversity goals for race or gender.
Intersectionality and Hiring
When making hiring decisions, employers often strive to ensure their selection tools and processes are fair for applicants—that is, that they don’t discriminate on the basis of race, sex, disability status, or other protected traits.
Compliance with Equal Employment Opportunity laws and regulations that seek to eliminate workplace discrimination is, of course, one driver of this behavior. But many employers also see the use of fair selection processes as means to building a diverse workforce and fostering a culture of inclusivity.
What’s arguably less common (and perhaps more challenging), however, is for employers to consider their hiring processes with respect to intersectionality. This involves taking a more nuanced approach to understanding how members of various intersectional subgroups are treated during the hiring process and how their outcomes (e.g., on interviews, tests, overall selection processes) might compare to those of other groups. It’s possible to apply an intersectional lens when evaluating nearly every aspect of a hiring process in an effort to ensure fairness and improve the diversity of hires without sacrificing quality.
Hiring process administration and implementation can also be reviewed to ensure fairness in the treatment of those in intersectional subgroups.For example, experts in selection-system design can review application forms, interview questions, and test content to ensure they are free from cultural bias that may unfairly disadvantage certain intersectional subgroups. Interviewer training can be enhanced by including content on intersectional discrimination, stereotypes, and biases. The passing rates of separate stages of a selection process can be calculated for various intersectional subgroups (e.g., Hispanic females); this can potentially uncover disparities that might otherwise be obscured if pass rates were only examined by race and sex separately. Hiring process administration and implementation can also be reviewed to ensure fairness in the treatment of those in intersectional subgroups.
Unfortunately, in many cases, the possibilities for improving hiring processes in light of intersectionality are outpacing current industry expertise and capability, and even logistics. One challenge that practitioners can face is the sheer number of intersectional subgroups that may need to be considered. At the same time, the number of individuals within those subgroups can be rather small, making it difficult to generate meaningful analytics.
From a regulatory perspective, there are probably more questions than answers about the need for employers to consider intersectionality in their hiring processes. The OFCCP has not, to our knowledge, formally communicated that intersectionality is part of its purview for hiring or selection.
The EEOC has, however, since at least 2006 communicated its position that Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibits discrimination “because of the intersection of two or more protected bases (e.g., race and sex)” and “because of the intersection of their race and a trait covered by another EEO statute—e.g., race and disability or race and age” (see the 2006 EEOC Compliance Manual). Unfortunately, the legal history and case law surrounding intersectionality and hiring is rather complex. The question of whether (or which) intersectional hiring discrimination claims will stand up to legal scrutiny is still largely unsettled. Future state or federal laws may pave the way, however, for new enforcement priorities related to intersectionality and hiring. For now, ignoring intersectionality in the hiring process may pose risks for organizations.
Although the term intersectionality has grown increasingly mainstream, its application to recruitment and hiring is still fairly nascent. Many organizations are just beginning to consider ways in which considering intersectionality can enhance their HR processes. Understanding intersectionality and how it interfaces with recruitment and hiring can help organizations develop diverse workforces and establish inclusive cultures. Moreover, organizations, employers, and HR professionals who are committed to better understanding intersectionality may be better able to recognize and address unique forms of discrimination that some individuals may experience in the recruitment and selection processes.