Paving the Way for Workplace Equity: The Roots of DEI Concepts in Black Leaders’ Work

Author(s): Camille Galindez, Elysca Fernandes, Ilham Ahmed

By Camille Galindez, Elysca Fernandes, and Ilham Ahmed

A lot of the work we do in HR and diversity, equity & inclusion (DEI) to shift organizations forward has roots in social justice movements and the work of Black leaders. Moving from Black History Month into Women’s History Month, we wanted to highlight some very critical practices and concepts in our workplaces today that are owed to the work of Black leaders in the space. With 2021’s International Women’s Day theme being #ChooseToChallenge, we hope an understanding of equity-related concepts highlights opportunities to challenge our own biases and the inequities we notice in workplaces.


Let’s start with intersectionality, a term we are hearing a lot more today.

The term intersectionality was created in the 1980s by Kimberlé Crenshaw, an American lawyer and leading scholar in critical race theory. This concept was introduced in Crenshaw's paper titled "Demarginalizing the Intersection of Race and Sex," to show that thinking about discrimination based on a single identity characteristic such as race or gender fails to account for how people actually experience it. Crenshaw demonstrated how the experiences of Black women were erased in three employment discrimination cases when courts failed to recognize the combined effect of race and sex discrimination on Black women's experiences at work.

Intersectionality is the theory that different aspects of our identity intersect with each other to create various life experiences and impact inequality in particular. This means that aspects of your personal identity, such as your gender, race, or class, create different experiences of privilege and oppression. Intersectionality recognizes that despite you and your friends being of the same gender, your socio-economic background or race will mean that your experiences will not always be the same as your friend’s.

It has changed how we view the symptoms of inequality in our organizations and broader community. Many of us are familiar with the pay gap, but research has highlighted differences in outcomes such as day-to-day experiences of emotional tax. Emotional tax is a state of being on guard against discrimination because of gender, race, or other identity characteristics, and according to a Catalyst research report, 58% of Asian, Black, Latinx, and multiracial men and women reported being highly on guard. While men and women of color reported being on guard against racial bias, women of color were significantly more likely to be on guard due to gender bias and combined gender and racial bias. Lean In research that looked at experiences of microaggressions – often subtle experiences of sexism or racism that signal disrespect, found that all women reported more instances than men, but women of different races or sexual orientations experienced them differently. For example, Black women reported more instances of needing to provide more evidence of their competence than other women, and lesbian women reported hearing demeaning remarks about themselves or people like them more than other women. In these cases, being Black or lesbian intersected with the experience of being a woman to create a combined more negative impact.

By understanding intersectionality, we now are better equipped to understand the complexity of the equity-related workplace changes and why people who may share similar characteristics, such as the same gender, have different experiences from us.

Employee Resource Groups (ERGs)

To create a safe space and community to share resources, similar experiences, and address discrimination at work, employee resource groups (ERG) have become increasingly prevalent across organizations. ERGs are voluntary, employee-led groups that work together to raise issues faced by a specific demographic. Some of the most common ERGs are for Black professionals, BIPOC, LGBTQ, Hispanics, women, single parents, and employees with disabilities.

With the resurgence of discussions about ERGs in the workplace, it may surprise you to know that ERGs have been around for decades, dating back to the 1960s with roots in the civil rights movement. In the early 1960s, Rochester, New York, saw an increase in the African American population who had migrated from the South hoping for a better life. Instead, they were faced with the challenges of discrimination, segregation, and high unemployment rates. The heightened tension and violence ultimately lead to several race riots. At this time, the Xerox Corporation recognized the injustice and took proactive measures to create a more diverse workforce. The Black community activists and employees worked with the CEO to increase the hiring of African Americans and to create the first ERG, a Black caucus group. This group banded together to support other Black Xerox employees across different cities, address discrimination, push for policy changes within the company, and help create a fair corporate environment. This group paved the way for the creation of groups focused on gender equity, including the Women’s Alliance, Black Women’s Leadership Caucus, and Galaxe Pride at Work at Xerox, and advanced their DEI outcomes (Xerox).

The benefits of implementing ERGs in an organization are undeniable to this day. Some of the key reasons to consider creating an ERG is because they give employees the opportunity to discuss their experiences, express ideas, and create a sense of belonging. Another reason is that ERGs can impact employee development and retention. ERGs can be used as a formal or informal way to network and provide mentorship. Employees can learn about different roles and see what their future in the organization may hold. Finally, an ERG is a means to gather a collective voice to communicate with leadership and HR. Members of an ERG are a great resource from which HR and leadership can learn about the state of diversity in the organization, the issues and challenges minority groups face, and specific policies and procedures that may need to be evaluated to truly create an inclusive space. Here at McLean & Company, we have launched multiple ERGs including a women’s ERG that works collaboratively with our leadership team to support women within our organization.

It’s critical for us to reflect on the origins of the language in DEI we use every day. This involves recognizing the work and efforts of Black leaders and activists who paved the way to make our gender and other organizational equity work possible. Additionally, an understanding of the roots and history of DEI practices and frameworks is required to ensure we are able to apply them appropriately today. We encourage you to look up the sources below to learn more and #ChooseToChallenge inequities wherever you find them.

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


Crenshaw, Kimberlé. “Demarginalizing the Intersection of Race and Sex: A Black Feminist Critique of Antidiscrimination Doctrine, Feminist Theory and Antiracist Politics.” University of Chicago Legal Forum: Vol. 1989: Iss. 1, Article 8, 1989. Accessed January 2021.

News from Xerox. “Diversity at Xerox.” Xerox Corporation, 2008. Accessed January 2021.

Thomas, Rachel et al. “Women in the Workplace 2020 Report.” LeanIn.Org and McKinsey & Company, 2020. Accessed January 2021.

Travis, Dinka J., and Jennifer Thorpe-Moscon. “Day-to-Day Experiences of Emotional Tax Among Women and Men of Color in the Workplace.” Catalyst, 2018. Accessed January 2021.

Related Content