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A Brief Understanding of Intersectionality

Updated: Sep 29, 2023

What is intersectionality?

If this is your first time interacting with the term intersectionality, dont be alarmed. Intersectionality theory is a fairly new concept, dating back to just over 40 years ago; the term was originally coined by Kimberlé Crenshaw in 1989 in a paper as a way to explain the experiences of discrimination that Black women in America faced. Since then, the concept of intersectionality has developed in to what we know it as today, 'the interconnected nature of social categorizations such as race, class, and gender as they apply to a given individual or group, regarded as creating overlapping and interdependent systems of discrimination or disadvantage'.

Those words may not make complete sense to you just by reading them, but the graphic below does a great job of breaking it down visually. This graphic displays what is commonly known as the axes of oppression, which lists the main axes on which people can either be privileged (have societal power) or marginalized (oppressed). The axes, listed on the outermost (black) ring, include race, religion, sexual orientation, age, culture, disability status, education level, etc. Moving one ring inward, it shows the marginalized identities for these core axes; while moving two rings inward shows the privileged identities for these core axes. For example, for the axis of religion, you are privileged if you are a Christian, but are marginalized if you are non-Christian. It is important to note that these axes are based on the current systems in place within the United States and will vary globally.

Why is understanding intersectionality important?

Now that you understand the core definitions of intersectionality it is important to understand how it effects you and your life. As I previously mentioned, this concept was created as a way to explain the life experiences of Black women and how they differ from even the life experiences of Black men. This is because Black women are marginalized on two identities already without knowing anything else about them, because they are non-white and female -- this does not include any other axes they may hold privilege or marginalization on. In your experience, you likely have many identities that intersect and hold both systemic privilege and marginalization making your position within the axes of oppression unique to your life and will likely shape your life experiences - that is intersectionality.

It is pivotal to remember that some marginalized axes include more negative systemic consequences than others. For example, being non-white in America can impact life experience much more deeply than perhaps living in a rural area would, even though both are marginalized identities. This is important when thinking about the different ways that we may want to improve our current system and understanding the impact that holding certain marginalized identities has versus others.

How can we use this understanding to further our diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) efforts within organizations?

Understanding and thinking about intersectionality and its impact on employees' total life, not just the time they spend at work, is critical when thinking through our organizational policies, practices, and culture. We can use this knowledge to further our DEI efforts within our organizations by recognizing that,

1. All identities are not visible.

2. Everyone has a unique life experience based on their position on the axes on oppression.

3. It is important to accommodate those whose marginalized identities impact their ability to do work and/or experience at work.

There are many ways that we can change our organizations' culture to be more inclusive based on each axis; here are a few examples,

  1. Religion: Be sure that all of your office or holiday parties are inclusive of all religions and not based solely on Christians holidays or symbols. If you need some help getting started, we actually already wrote a blog on this.

  2. Sexual Orientation: Show support to employees who are members of the LGBTQIA+ community by donating funds to organizations supporting these communities, being vocal in your support for this community, or sponsoring your local PRIDE event.

  3. Disability Status: Provide accommodations for employees who are not able-bodied, this can include many different types of disabilities that are not always visible - like employees who may be neurodivergent.

There are many ways that intersectionality impact our life experiences, so understanding this concept is critical when thinking about how we can be better allies, build better organizations, and improve our societal systems.


Sarah Jackson, M.S. is an IO & DEI consulting assistant at Mattingly Solutions and also a PhD candidate at Florida International University. Learn more about and connect with her here.


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