It's no secret that women and men of color are underrepresented at all levels of the technology industry, and especially at the board and executive level. But these numbers highlight another reality when you dig into the complexity of intersectionality data. For those who identify with more than one underrepresented group, such as women who are also Latina, African American, Asian or LGBTQ, the numbers show the real and different challenges they face. For example, while 26% of people employed in professional computing occupations are women, only 9% are Asian, black or Hispanic women, according to the National Center for Women & Information Technology.
As an executive sponsor for diversity and inclusion in technology within my company, I've spearheaded multiple initiatives to hire and retain more women, and I've partnered with amazing organizations that do the same. However, my full appreciation for the unique challenges faced by those with intersectional identities in the workplace did not come until later in my journey. I was certainly aware that Hispanic women face different challenges than white women, or that being an over-50 lesbian black woman in tech is a sort of marginalization "quadruple bind." But it wasn't until I did deep research into intersectionality — reading seminal works by UCLA and Columbia law professor Kimberlé Crenshaw, who developed the theory in the 1980s — that our team began to explore the experiences of our associates on multiple dimensions.
Focusing on intersectionality in your organization can be a catalyst for building a more diverse, skilled technology workforce. When we focus on a single facet of underrepresentation, we can overlook the multidimensional obstacles associates may face at work that make them feel they don’t belong or aren’t valued. Launching internal groups where technologists can support and celebrate their intersectional identities as a part of their chosen fields of interest will help increase a cultural spirit of belonging and inclusion across your organization.
Hiring an intersectional workforce is not just a cultural imperative. It also makes good business sense. As technology leaders, we are faced with an increasing challenge to find the talent needed to meet the growing technology needs of our businesses. With the limited participation of women, and especially women of color, we are not benefiting from the best talent pool. That prevents us from realizing our full potential. Studies have shown that cross-cultural teams are more creative and innovative, better at problem-solving, and they also make fewer mistakes. So what can you do as a business leader to actively boost intersectionality on your teams? Here are three steps to get started.
Increase Focus On Hiring An Intersectional Workforce
There’s a lot of focus on hiring more women in the tech sector, with myriad organizations and corporate programs aimed at increasing female participation in the industry. These are great initiatives doing meaningful work. But there’s more to do. Most companies have few African American, Latinx, LGBTQ and older technologists. Even in more highly represented groups, the intersection with generation can reveal very different experiences. Look at the specific programs you could put in place to ensure intersectional employees are being hired, and then support them in ways that address their unique challenges and contributions.
View Intersectionality From All Angles
It’s important to take an anecdotal read of your workforce, in partnership with a data analyst, to help quantify and qualify the level of intersectionality on your team. For example, you could host focus groups with individuals and run cross-sectional analytics to see not just how many women are on staff, but how many African American, Latina and Asian women work for you, and in which roles. When you look at high-level data, it may mask underlying challenges. For example, you may see market representation within your Asian population, but perhaps Asian women are not well represented, especially at more senior levels. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) data from five top tech companies showed only 3.1% of executives were Asian women. This sample size illustrates why it’s important to analyze all aspects of intersectionality to get a clear picture of your company’s gaps, learn what you are doing well and identify your opportunities.
Embrace The Cultural Identities Of Intersectional Technologists
Beyond initiatives to increase the pipeline and retention of underrepresented groups in your company — and these can be internally driven or in partnership with third-party organizations — you must ensure that all programs that support engagement, inclusion and psychological safety on teams are thoughtful in meeting the needs of all associates as opposed to normalizing to the majority. One of the biggest challenges for women of color is cultural. Even in our efforts to improve the culture of the technology field for women, for example, we may overlook the complexities faced by women with other historically marginalized identities. We need to appreciate the multifaceted aspects of people with intersectional identities. A black woman may identify as black first, and then as a woman; an Asian woman may have grown up in an environment that makes it more difficult to elevate her voice in the room. When we express our desire to improve the workplace culture for our associates, we cannot ignore the complexity of human identity.
Increased Representation Is A Long Game
As a woman in technology, I have overcome challenges associated with my gender, but I certainly appreciate that my challenges were not as great as those with added marginalized identities. That's why I am dedicated to raising awareness to the diversity opportunities in tech, especially the critical need to improve the representation and experience for those with intersectional identities. I am hopeful, especially because of partnerships with organizations like Year Up, Code 2040 and Black Girls Code, but we have so much more to do. Hopefully, many more companies will begin to investigate the challenges people from intersectional groups face in the workplace, as well as value their unique perspectives. The tech industry won’t achieve true balance — and reach its fullest potential — until we see equal representation from every group.
This article originally ran on Forbes.