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Beyond affinity groups: intersectionality in diversity and inclusion strategies

What are the “best of the best” doing?

It is a blessing to work with and support a broad range of organizations concerning their diversity and inclusion journeys. Some of these organizations are moving “full steam ahead” on their quest to take off their organizational blinders on hiring, promotion, partnerships and staff retention. A select few use cutting-edge strategies to enhance workplace diversity.

When it comes to business decisions, the most sophisticated companies are often invested in tools to “de-bias” decisions and ensure that more of those decisions are made by diverse teams. There is a good reason for this. These companies understand that when engaged properly, inclusive teams make better business decisions 87 per cent of the time. This is significant given that decision-making success is “95-per-cent correlated with financial performance.” When there are more improvements made to decision-making through diversity and inclusion, companies will do better financially.

By working with early adopters and those at the vanguard of diversity and inclusion through my consultancy CultureWorks, we know where the future of D&I is headed. This is not based solely on the existing work of trailblazers but also on what needs to occur for the journey toward inclusion to be meaningful. As a lawyer and a D&I professional, it has always been crucial to have an excellent understanding of what lay in front of us so that we can get ahead of it. This is particularly important in a change management initiative such as increasing D&I, since it centres on our most valued resource — our people.

Beyond affinity groups

Organizations across the globe are making progress in ensuring that their staff and leadership have the ability to connect with others from the same historically marginalized groups. These affinity groups have served an important role in advising corporate human resources and the C-suite on how they might make their particular company or firm more inviting to potential staff and inclusive to retain their existing staff.

While affinity groups have been essential to ensuring more voices are heard within a company and have been supportive of singularly identifiable groups, the future of diversity and inclusion is evolving toward a better understanding of intersectionality. This is because one social marginalization does not define us, and we all have multiple positive aspects that should come through at work. 

Employees should be able to bring their “whole self” to work. That “whole self” needs to be genuinely seen, heard and respected. Affinity groups, as they sometimes exist, tend to silo individuals into one equity-seeking group, such that an employee seeking equity from multiple perspectives may have to decide where they belong.

From my experience, I suggest that there is a better way forward. I call it multi-faceted groups. These are simply affinity groups with people from a variety of equity-seeking groups. It would still promote each equity-seeking group to clearly be heard by the company with its unique voice, plan for future growth and participate and be part of decision-making structures. Multi-faceted groups also have two additional benefits. First, since all voices are at the table, an individual seeking equity from various perspectives can provide their analysis as a “whole person” and not as a “pigeon-holed” person who is from a particular equity-seeking group. Second, it would promote inter-group sharing, learning and empathy. 

One of the great joys in my professional life as a D&I trainer and coach is seeing someone from one equity-seeking group speaking passionately about the actions that must be taken or reasons for their company to do more on D&I concerning an equity-seeking group with which they don’t identify. This is an example of the beginning of an intersectional analyis. Through these kinds of groups, those who do not have a proverbial “horse in the race” are able to better understand the struggles of others and connect these to the organization's growth. Genuine alliances and multiple levels of internal advocacy and support begin to emerge. 

When employees have the opportunity to hear from each other, we may see, for example, a white, straight woman advocating for a more inclusive workspace for transgendered employees or a racialized male employee sponsoring an indigenous staff member for promotion. When people are working together as genuine allies and not only raising concerns on their specific marginalization, individuals at these companies and workplaces mesh with each other much better and the companies grow both qualitatively and quantitatively.

The future of D&I culture change will no doubt provide more sophisticated and tangible tools that are action-oriented to build inclusive workplace cultures and mitigate our individual and organizational biases. An intrinsic understanding of companies that are at the vanguard of D&I is that they understand education as a strategic and ongoing requirement that is part of a long-term formula for qualitative and quantitative growth. They understand D&I as a change and a learning initiative that requires continuing supports for those who have questions outside of workshops, such as a resource person, and provide tools to be utilized daily to, for instance, mitigate bias.