An easy mind trick for understanding intersectionality (and 5 employers who already get it right)

October 3, 2023

Imagine you are standing in the center of a bustling crossroads where multiple highways converge. One highway carries a set of vehicles, travelers, and stories that all relate to your gender. Another, a unique and different flow of traffic carries the stories and values related to your sexuality. A third carries the traffic relating to your race or ethnicity. You may even be imagining other highways for your age, your neurological makeup, your physical ability, or countless others.

Here, navigating the traffic moving through you at the crossroads becomes a metaphor for our journey of understanding intersectionality. See, for some, these highways might be humming along, flowing easily, while others might be congested, angry traffic jams that leave you feeling frustrated and going nowhere.

Intersectionality is the recognition that every individual can be advantaged in some aspects of their life and disadvantaged in others.

For a simple example, let’s put a Caucasian woman with ADHD in the centre of that crossroad. As a woman, the highway that signifies her gender has never been smooth. Add in the additional difficulty of the loud and busy traffic coming at her from her neurological make-up highway, and navigating life is getting pretty difficult.

However, on the third highway, the one carrying her race and ethnicity as Caucasian, well the traffic there has always been somewhat smooth. A lot smoother than if she had been a woman of color, anyway.

So, while it’s understandable that her experience is difficult, she is privileged to have this one highway give her a reprieve.

How can our employers better embrace intersectionality?

Recognizing the significance of intersectionality isn’t just an intellectual exercise—it’s essential for fostering inclusive workplaces where every individual’s unique journey is valued.

In this article, we invite you to embark on a journey with us, delving into the powerful narratives of five remarkable women. These women, representing diverse intersectional perspectives, will share their stories of moments when their employers truly supported and included them in the workplace – when they stood beside them and helped ease the burden of the traffic rushing through them. 

Moreover, each woman will offer invaluable advice for those seeking to create workplaces that embrace and empower every employee, regardless of their intersectional identities. 

Ericsson | Pacific National | Cummins | EY | Microsoft

Ericssonericsson logo

Telecommunications | 1,001-5,000 employees

Najwa Marsheh (she/her) is a Local Administrator at Ericsson

“I’m 40 years old, and from Syria. My husband and I came to Australia five years ago as refugees after suffering in the civil war for 11 years. We had to leave our families, careers, and memories behind.”

Tell us about a time when you felt truly supported and/or included in your current workplace.

“Working for Ericsson was a lifetime opportunity to learn from the best. I am a member of the Local Administrative Services and get to work with great colleagues. The team has always included me in meetings and activities and has made me feel like I’m valued and unique. The team kept in touch with me when I left Ericsson for a period of time and raised my name when the opportunity came up to join the team again. I feel like I have a new family in my new country.”

What advice could employers take to make you and others with varied intersectional perspectives feel included in the workplace?

“I would encourage employers to provide opportunities to more employees from diverse cultures. Difference is a good thing for organizations, as it promotes development and growth. Building a culture of understanding and trust makes people feel like we are included and part of a big family.”

Pacific NationalPacific National logo

Transport, shipping & logistics | 1,001-5,000 employees

Mamta Shetty (she/her) is an ESG Principal at Pacific National

“I’m originally from Mumbai, India, and raised in a Hindi-speaking family. I embarked on a new chapter by relocating to Australia with my family in June 2022 – a country I had never previously visited.”

“My decision to move to Australia was long and deliberate. My main motivation was to experience the world outside and a desire to explore life beyond familiar horizons. Leaving my home country and family behind was a very tough choice, but I decided to move as some of my childhood and school friends had already settled in Australia and they had many good things to say about work-life balance, the beautiful nature, diverse and inclusive society, safety and the overall quality of life so it inspired me to make the move.”

Tell us about a time when you felt truly supported and/or included in your current workplace.

“Having spent 17 years working in various sectors in India, I gained confidence and experience. However, transitioning to a new work culture and industry in Australia presented challenges and self-doubts. 

Adapting to a diverse working group was a learning curve. 

Fortunately, my manager and colleagues welcomed me warmly, fostering a positive and supportive environment. I received empowerment, trust, and recognition for handling challenging tasks. Attending the Pacific National Women Connect series furthered my personal growth and network. The opportunity to share my culture on the internal portal and represent the company at events like the ESG Summit and Women in Rail Networking Lunch boosted my confidence. I now feel empowered, supported, and prepared to excel with limitless opportunities ahead.”

What advice could employers take to make you and others with varied intersectional perspectives feel included in the workplace?

“Employers should invest in continuous diversity and inclusion programs that address intersectionality. Educating staff, increasing awareness about diverse employee backgrounds, and addressing unconscious bias in interactions with colleagues will help foster acceptance and inclusion. Policies which are inclusive such as diverse hiring, promotion programs, and fair compensation will help attract diverse talent.”

Cumminscummins logo

Manufacturing & operations | 1,001-5,000 employees

Joyce Chen (she/her) is the Asia Pacific Diversity & Inclusion Leader at Cummins

“I identify as she/her/hers, as a caregiver, working professional, middle-class, heterosexual, Asian woman, multi-lingual.”

Tell us about a time when you felt truly supported and/or included in your current workplace.

“The first situation is when I was a caregiver for a family member with terminal illness and I had to make abrupt changes to provide support whilst also balancing work. Cummins gave me the flexibility to do what I needed to and empowered me to manage and find a balance that worked for me. 

Beyond this tangible support, I also had a lot of emotional support from my peers and leaders across Cummins

My second situation was when I had my second boy. I was struggling to find the equilibrium between raising my child, working and everything else in between. Throughout these times, I had even considered stopping my career entirely. However, Cummins had noticed that I was struggling and had reached out to me. One of my peers reached out and provided an immense amount of support and comforted me. She empowered me by helping me understand that Cummins can support me, like they support a lot of my other peers, through flexible working arrangements. And because of that support, I was able to continue my career and able to be here, sharing my story.”

What advice could employers take to make you and others with varied intersectional perspectives feel included in the workplace?

“One of the most important pieces of advice I would say is to always seek to learn. Each of our experiences are unique, we should never assume that one story is the same as the other.

It is important to seek to understand people different from ourselves. The whole learning journey is about providing a safe space and allowing everyone to feel comfortable to open up and share. This helps us understand different perspectives, what others are going through and helps others share their story.

Through this journey, we may stumble, we may feel uncomfortable, worried. But we learn, and through this learning, we enrich our bond with each other, which helps strengthen our organization.

Another important piece of advice is to understand the power of psychological safety. This should not be underestimated, and employers need to normalize striving towards this within the organization.”

EYEY logo

Consulting & professional services | 5,001-10,000 employees

Kasmira Geering is the Oceania Diversity, Equity & Inclusiveness Talent Attraction and Acquisition Coordinator at Ernst & Young AU.

“I am an asexual, autistic woman. I was diagnosed late in life as autistic due to the prevailing gender bias in clinical and social understandings of autism.”

“Like many other late-diagnosed women, I was diagnosed with mental health disorders that regardless of treatment, never got better. Fortunately, the last couple of decades have seen clinicians and researchers beginning to expand upon their understanding and starting to look at how autism can manifest in women.”

Tell us about a time when you felt truly supported and/or included in your current workplace.

“My journey at EY Australia began through their SwitchedOn Program in 2021, followed by transitioning into a role within the DE&I team. Throughout my time at EY Australia, I have been surrounded by people who have shown support and understanding of how autism affects me and the specific adjustments I need to thrive.

The introduction of a ND [neurodiverse] Community has also given me the chance to connect with other neurodivergent individuals. It has been a tremendous opportunity to uplift neurodiversity capability through my role, contributing to a more inclusive and supportive working environment for all autistic individuals.

I am grateful for the chance to make a positive impact and foster greater acceptance and appreciation of neurodiversity within the organization.

Being autistic within the LGBTQ+ community can present its own set of challenges, as not everyone may fully understand or be sensitive to the specific difficulties faced by autistic individuals. This lack of awareness can lead to feelings of isolation and the need to navigate multiple layers of identity at the same time.

Despite these challenges, I have found a sense of belonging within EY Australia’s LGBTQ+ community, Unity, where a welcoming and inclusive environment exists for individuals of all sexual orientations and gender identities.”

What advice could employers take to make you and others with varied intersectional perspectives feel included in the workplace?

I would advise other employers to:

  • Actively promote diversity, equity and inclusion
  • Raise awareness of intersectional and diverse identities
  • Educate themselves and employees
  • Provide workplace adjustment and flexibility
  • Listen and respond to under-represented voices
  • Have employee resource groups
  • Increase representation and visibility
  • Offer mentorship and support
  • Review policies and benefits
  • Create inclusive initiatives
  • Have a zero tolerance for discrimination

Microsoft AustraliaMicrosoft logo

IT, digital & online media services | 10,001+ employees

Cecilia Fang (she/her) is a Modern Work Specialist at Microsoft Australia

After being diagnosed with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), this Microsoft ANZ employee was determined to keep bringing her whole self to work.

Tell us about a time when you felt truly supported and/or included in your current workplace.

Cecilia made some major adjustments to her life post-diagnosis which weren’t easy. She had to find the right medication, re-evaluate her own expectations of her life and career, and find a way to tell family and friends.

She made the decision to inform her manager at Microsoft and was overwhelmed by the support she received.

“I had to tell many people in my life, but my manager’s response was the best. He simply said, ‘Thank you for telling me, Cecilia, I don’t know anything about this disorder, but I’d love to learn,’” she says.

Cecilia is a Modern Work and Security Specialist and sits within the small-to-medium corporate team, looking after half of the market in Aotearoa.

Her role involves empowering clients to achieve the most productive hybrid work environment possible. This can mean explaining new products, integrating them and offering further support, recommendations and guidance.

Cecilia loves her role and feels there couldn’t be a better fit for her.

“If I had to diagnose the tech industry with anything, it would be with a pretty severe case of ADHD. And I mean that in all the best ways. It’s always changing, it’s so high energy, it doesn’t stop giving you new information and it’s dynamic.

“It completely energizes me. I’m lucky to be at the forefront of tech innovation. I get to be curious, and I love my job,” she says.

What advice could employers take to make you and others with varied intersectional perspectives feel included in the workplace?

Experiencing all that she has, Cecilia believes that more workplace conversations around neurodiversity need to happen.

Her diagnosis has made her interested in learning about other conditions such as Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD) and autism, and how these impact people’s professional lives.

“One of the only good things about lockdown is that people reached out to one another. It opened up a well of empathy and we need that to continue. We are all different and instead of comparing ourselves to others, we should celebrate our differences and our individual wins.”

The views expressed in this article are the views of the author, not Ernst & Young. This article provides general information, does not constitute advice, and should not be relied on as such. Professional advice should be sought prior to any action being taken in reliance on any of the information. Liability limited by a scheme approved under Professional Standards Legislation.

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About the Author

Jacynta Clayton’s career started in recruitment advertising and employer branding, working with global clients to create and deploy strategic and creative content. Now she combines her industry experience with the knowledge from her psychology and professional writing degrees to write unique and resounding stories. As a WORK180 storyteller she relishes the opportunity to elevate the voices and experiences of so many amazing people, while also empowering and educating audiences on how to choose a workplace where they can thrive.

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