Understanding the Role of Intersectionality in the Workplace

August 21, 2023

Scholars have used the intersectionality framework for decades to explain how interlocking systems of oppression (e.g., racism, sexism, heteronormativity) can produce compounded negative effects for people with multiple disadvantaged identities. In a recent study, Sherry Thatcher (Regal Entertainment Distinguished Professor), Christina Hymer (assistant professor) and Rebecca Arwine (doctoral student), all members of the Department of Management and Entrepreneurship at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville’s Haslam College of Business, set out to gain a comprehensive understanding of intersectional experiences and their implications for the workplace.

Context Is Everything

Thatcher, Hymer and Arwine analyzed 153 intersectionality studies published in 21 leading management journals between 1989 and 2021. They found a diverse but consistent set of intersectionality experiences, notably a pattern of negative outcomes for employees with multiple disadvantaged identities. For example, while Black men experience reduced career mobility options relative to white men, their male identity puts them at an advantage compared to Black women.

Despite broad patterns in the research, intersectionality’s effects appear to depend largely on identity combination and environment. For example, Hispanic immigrant women experience compounded negative effects (e.g., harsh working conditions, limited career opportunities), while white immigrant women enjoy racial privileges that offset the disadvantages of their gender and immigrant status. Many studies of gay men’s experiences in the workplace highlight negative outcomes such as discrimination and harassment, with the notable exception of the fashion industry, which often confers high status to an identity combination (gay, male) that may be oppressed elsewhere.

Challenging Existing Power Structures and Empowering Workers

Societal power structures shape workplace culture, human resources (HR) practices and organizational roles, all of which affect workers’ intersectional experiences and put some at a disadvantage. Based on stereotypes about intersecting identities, some team members may expect specific workers to take on certain responsibilities (e.g., note-taker, event planner, technology expert) beyond those workers’ official duties. The Haslam researchers say organizations need to curb such assumptions to avoid negative impact on intersectional workers and their teams.

“Managers can take steps to proactively intervene when they notice instances of discrimination, stereotyping or incivility that put intersectional workers in a position of disadvantage relative to others,” they say.

The researchers also say managers are uniquely positioned to create better work environments for workers with intersecting identities. In their leadership roles, managers can set expectations for a positive team culture that challenges the power structures that often create, sustain and reinforce biases.

“Team cultures that celebrate differences, encourage workers to openly raise challenges and allow for open conversations around workplace incivility can encourage a better environment for intersectional workers,” the team says. “These steps can also help workers better recognize and harness the value associated with their intersectionality, such as through building stronger relationships with clients and peers in the organization.”

Harnessing that value is important. Studies show that when workers feel empowered to oppose inequalities, they can reduce the disadvantages associated with their intersectionality. In contrast, when workers feel powerless, they often passively endure those inequalities and have a negative outlook toward work and life. However, the Haslam scholars emphasize that disadvantaged individuals should not have to shoulder the burden of improving their positions alone.

“Managers can empower workers to identify strategies for drawing on their intersectionality, such as sponsoring employees’ participation in leadership development programs or executive coaching,” they suggest. “Further, managers can help initiate mentoring relationships among intersectional workers, which can provide guidance for navigating the organization and power structures within it.”

Expanding the Scope and Role of DEI Initiatives

Organizational diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) programs should widen their scope, the researchers say, to create inclusive environments for employees with multiple intersecting identities. Typically, DEI programs tend to focus their initiatives on single diverse identities (e.g., increasing female representation). Accounting for the experiences of employees with multiple intersecting identities helps to make workplaces more inclusive and representative of all workers.

“It is crucial that intersectional workers have a voice in the development and design of DEI programs to ensure that their lived experiences are fully represented,” the team says. “This can reap further benefits for other organizational initiatives, such as recruitment, as now workers traditionally at the fringes of HR initiatives are fully represented and heard by the organization.”

“Pushing Back Against Power: Using a Multilevel Power Lens to Understand Intersectionality in the Workplace” was published online by the Academy of Management Annals in July 2023.


Stacy Estep, writer/publicist, sestep3@utk.edu