An intersectionality lens helps you become a changemaker

The world will always need advocates. People who are driven to progress social justice and social change. People like Charles Sturt University’s Associate Professor Cate Thomas who is a dynamic leader, strategic thinker and ground-breaking researcher. We spoke with Cate and asked her to explain the emerging idea of the intersectionality lens and how it can help people become the new changemakers in their organisations and communities.

What is intersectionality?

The term intersectionality is actually more than three decades old. A US lawyer at the time, Kimberlé Crenshaw first used it to explain how race, class, gender, and other individual characteristics intersected with one another and overlapped.

But it has progressed, Cate explains, and now intersectionality is used as a tool for social change and looking at social justice.

“The intersectionality lens is what we look through to ensure we can see the whole and unique human – plus the cumulative disadvantage each person may experience given their unique intersecting identities – to progress social change and social justice.

“In a nutshell, the intersectionality lens looks at all the various different components that make up a unique human. Acknowledging that each individual has many components to their self (and should be supported to be who they are, their whole self).

“It’s the tool that helps us to shift from defining people based upon their many silos of difference – race, gender, age, disability, sexual orientation – and begin to view them as a whole person, complete with many intersections, all inextricably connected.

And we need to see the whole person as they are, with their multiple talents and dimensions of diversity. See the person as a person, not as a label. It’s important to remember that everyone has something to contribute to their family, workplace and community.”

Cate Thomas

It’s important to give context…

Once we begin to look at the whole person in context, Cate explains, we can better address diversity otherness.

“For example a white male in a science field may have different work outcomes than a gay, black woman in the same field – simply because of their identity. But that same woman, in a different context, may be at an advantage compared to others. A gay person living in rural Australia could be at greater disadvantage then city counterparts because acceptance may be lower and conservatism higher.

“So your intersectionality – and the cumulative disadvantage or advantage that comes with it – is also different depending on the context you’re in. And that includes time, location and geography.” 

How embracing difference benefits us all

Diversity shouldn’t be something we fear, it should be something we embrace. There are many opportunities that result from embracing and embedding diversity and intersectionality in our daily lives and interactions.

Intersectionality is trying to open up the discussion and say that otherness and diversity are, in themselves, very diverse. So an individual is not just queer, or female, or disabled etc. People shouldn’t have to choose which label they’ll use to get the support they require or to make progress. They should just be seen as an individual with many varying elements.

“If we change some of our systemic practices, policies and structural issues within organisations and societies, everyone will benefit. We need to continue to break down the myth that if you do support some individuals because of their diversity, that means exclusion for others, or encroaching on the rights of others. When in fact, it’s the complete opposite. For example, giving First Nations people opportunity to progress or some other advantages, is advantageous for us all. 

“Work must continue to address the structural systems and processes that unintentionally exclude others. Small changes can make such a massive difference, not just for the equity groups, but for everyone.”

We asked Cate to give us examples of some small changes that could make a big difference.

A scenario to consider

You’ve got some new starters in your work team. So you organise a get-together at the local pub to welcome them onboard.

But do you know whether you have someone in your team that is Muslim and doesn’t drink? Or a woman who is yet to disclose that she’s pregnant? Or someone who doesn’t drink for medical reasons? There might be someone who has family responsibilities and can’t make an after-hours function, or someone with a disability who can’t easily access the pub. A member of your team might have dietary requirements.

Considering intersectionality means rethinking. Could you have your get-together on common ground, which is safe for everyone, regardless of their intersection? Like a lunchtime function that’s accessible for everyone and where everyone brings a plate.

Thinking different to the norm, Cate explains, even with these small steps, can lead to greater inclusion.

The list of examples is endless. Let’s explore two every-day work examples. Some organisations advocate holding important and regular staff meetings between 10am and 3pm, so carers and working parents can attend. Regular meetings can be held on different days and at different times. Then those team members who work part-time can at least attend some meetings. And the combination of in-office and online meetings again means more people can attend and feel included.

The fear of identifying as different – and how an intersectionality lens can help

But what about the bigger picture? Changes to the very fabric of our societies and organisations. How do we kickstart that process?

One of the reasons that organisations’ data capture around employee difference is so poor centres around people’s fear of identifying as different and the social or work ramifications. Cue organisational culture and feeling safe and supported.

“Intersectionality doesn’t necessarily need to have everyone identify every difference. The real purpose of intersectionality is to start the conversation and involve more people. And that means leaders in organisations – no matter what organisation or field – asking for people to co-design inclusion strategy as a natural of policy and planning.

“We know that it may not always be possible to bring everyone to the table. But making a collective, concerted, transparent, honest and inclusive approach is needed.

“It’s not about one strategy for people with disability and one for people from non-English speaking backgrounds and one for people who are queer etc. It’s what organisation should just do for people to help ensure they’ll feel included. And as a result organisations can better harness people’s true talent and capabilities.” 

Walking the Intersectionality Walk and delivering change

Cate is the Charles Sturt lead in a team that has built an educational model called the Intersectionality Walk. The collaboration includes teams from Australian National University, University of Canberra, Science in Australia Gender Equity (SAGE) and the CSIRO.

“We built this walk because we were concerned people weren’t getting the concept of intersectionality. This tool helps educate them. It gets them to walk in the shoes of others, and take on personas with cumulative disadvantage different to their own.

Because what we know is that unless you can empathise with people and their different identity, you may not know what their intersectionality means for them. The Intersectionality Walk is based upon empathy. And empathy delivers change.”

An immersive activity, the tool explores how workplace experiences can differ because of the intersections of diverse individual identities. Those participating experience firsthand, by walking with different personas, how applying an intersectional lens will help create inclusive workplaces. Taking the Intersectionality Walk lets you view the world from another perspective and consider how you can enable people to contribute their core qualities and talents.

As researchers, Cate and her team continue to evaluate the impact the walk has on different participants, how it changed individuals and their view of the world, and what changes individuals felt they could take into their organisations. 

A new qualification to learn the intersectionality lens

Cate continues to forge ahead in the field of intersectionality, with the Intersectionality Walk being the catalyst for many streams of research and the creation of Charles Sturt’s new Graduate Certificate in Intersectionality, Diversity and Inclusion. An Australian first and sector-leading qualification, it will enable you to develop life-long professional skills that will broaden the way you think, act and work. You’ll build the knowledge, skills and practices to influence and implement inclusive practices within organisations and for social change.

In as little as 12 months, you’ll study a mixture of full-length and micro-subjects, including identity, inclusion, theory, research design, adaptive leadership and communication. Plus you dive into a capstone work-integrated project and complete the Intersectionality Walk.

Get qualified and have an impact through the intersectionality lens

Do you want to drive social change and build more inclusive and just organisations, communities and societies? Apply now to study the Graduate Certificate in Intersectionality, Diversity and Inclusion.