Building Inclusive Spaces? You'll Need Intersectionality and Empathy for That

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Working in the diversity and inclusion space, I hear the word “intersectionality” used frequently. I often hear it used to help us understand the complexity of our workforce or as a way to recognize and understand the different experiences of inequality. However, applying intersectionality is not only a way to analyze your workforce, it’s also a powerful tool for building inclusive spaces if carefully paired with empathy.

Kimberlé Crenshaw created the term “intersectionality” in 1989 to describe how race, class, gender, and other individual characteristics intersect with other and overlap. The term “intersectionality” explains why people experience inequality in society differently from others with whom they might share some identity categories. According to Crenshaw, the individual characteristics of someone’s identity cannot be separated and compartmentalized. Nor can they be ranked in terms of importance (e.g. my identity as a woman does not supersede what my race is). Instead, the characteristics of my identity mutually coexist and intermingle. Because of that, they create a complex experience of different privileges and inequalities in my everyday life.

While it may feel as if intersectionality introduces many complications in how we understand and resolve challenges in diversity and inclusion (D&I), it actually helps us better analyze the way we understand and develop D&I solutions. That is, we cannot easily paint this “one size fits all” by compartmentalizing the different marginalized groups and understanding the issues as “single issues” (e.g. my experiences are a result of my identity as a Filipino-Canadian woman, and though we’re both women, my experiences won’t be the same as women in other racialized groups such as Black or Indigenous women). By over-engineering the inclusive process, we might miss the experiences of one group. For example, comparing the experiences of women and men in one racialized group are not necessarily the same. This is not to say that one group automatically supersedes the other as the most oppressed. Instead, intersectionality says that in creating solutions for developing inclusive spaces, one group’s solution isn’t necessarily the solution for a group that has similar characteristics. This means that we need to be open to seeing and understanding different people’s experiences as a whole instead of fragments.

This is where empathy can come in, but it must be used carefully.

In her paper “On Intersectionality, Empathy and Feminist Solidarity: A Reply to Naomi Zack,” Alison Bailey refers to Anne Coplan’s definition of empathy as “the imagined position of the self in the circumstances of another” (Bailey, 2009). As she explores the understanding of empathy, she uncovers a very important risk: using empathy by focusing only on commonalities requires me to center myself in the experience of someone else to better understand their experience. The risk here could result in me equating my experience to someone else’s, when really, our experiences aren’t necessarily the same. They might be similar, but not the same.

Therefore, to effectively use empathy as a tool that complements intersectionality, we need to be careful of putting ourselves in the center of someone else’s experience and focus on listening before applying solutions that paint all experiences as the same. Leverage active listening to be empathetic to other’s experiences.

In 2017, the Center for Women’s Leadership at the Clayman Institute for Gender Research at Stanford University led corporate participants through an exercise that required them to recall a specific moment when they experienced privilege and discrimination (Abad). As they shared their experiences, they realized that their experiences of discrimination were both unique and similar. In addition, the attendees highlighted the importance of employees sharing personal stories that can be used as tools to build relationships across differences. As relationship building helps foster empathy, focusing on listening to others’ experiences can help to overcome this innate tendency to center ourselves in others’ experiences.

In addition to sharing stories, Janice Gassam offered additional techniques in her Forbes article for building empathy, including listening and being curious (2018). Research shows that listening to others from diverse backgrounds can impact empathy level. Build your knowledge by combining skills like listening or curiosity with identifying and understanding the different people who make up your workforce by comparing your identities, experiences, and worries, which is La’Wana Harris’ suggestion for using intersectionality. Use that knowledge to identify actions that will address challenges within diversity and inclusion (Harris, 2018).

For those who are responsible for designing the employee experience, leveraging empathy building techniques are essential for building inclusive workplaces.

At McLean & Company, we focus on empathy by using listening techniques when designing the employee experience. Using techniques such as McLean and Company’s Empathy Map Template helps capture those employee experiences and center them in how we design the workspace. This approach can be applied by those building inclusive workspaces. When you want to ensure employees feel included in your organization, use intersectionality and empathy to make sure you listen to and capture the unique experiences of your employees as you focus on D&I.

There has been criticism that intersectionality further divides people and creates a hierarchy of oppression or victim-hood. However, according to Kimberlé Crenshaw, the point of intersectionality is actually to do the opposite. The purpose is to analyze the structures we have in our society, identify the different structures, and make room for more advocacy.

Through an application of intersectional frameworks and empathy, we can improve our understanding of our complex differences and experiences. While knowing what inequality and discrimination feels like is important and helpful for connecting with someone, the power of empathy under intersectionality is the ability to listen, be curious, and build relationships with others over what might otherwise divide people. Instead of forcing one’s self to use intersectionality to identify a component of your identity that will be common with someone else’s, use intersectionality to celebrate differences and leverage empathy to understand those different experiences and design inclusive workspaces and experiences for employees.

To learn more about how McLean & Company can partner with you on your DEI journey, please visit our DEI Resource Center or contact Jon Campbell at

By Camille Galindez

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