Intersectional Bias: Inclusion and Belonging Matter to Everyone
I’ve had a number of topics bounce around my head over the last year but couldn’t settle on one idea long enough to write something. And then I read an article on intersectional biases which has stuck with me and I find to be a fascinating concept. These are biases that don’t fit in traditional categories or stereotypes we all think of when we hear the term bias. Or stated differently, intersectional is when multiple bias are present. As stated by Brandon Miller, intersectionality by definition, is the complex, cumulative manner in which the effects of different forms of discrimination combine, overlap, or intersect(1).
Just image how you feel toward a person who is Latin, older, male versus white, older female. Who would you be more biased toward? Why? While each image falls into three different categories of traditional bias (race, age, gender), how you feel and react will be distinctly different depending on which bias holds more sway.
To complicate it further, our society has put such a stigma on having any biases, that we have stopped having the discussion about how and why biases exist and being honest with each other about our reaction or response to different biases. Worse, when biases are discussed, it’s usually through the lens of our media. The challenge with this is, we embody how we feel and carry these attitudes with us and it infiltrates into our daily work through our decision-making, relationship building, and discussions.
Biases tend to be a result of our economic/social upbringing. As children we absorb the attitudes and beliefs of those we are around and institutionalize those beliefs into our own identity. Our behavior is the action of our beliefs. Traditionally known as stereotypes, we use these biases to make sense of the world around us. Apparently, our ability to categorize, label and evaluate this information is important to our survival historically. Further, we are also wired in such a way that we feel good when we belong to a particular group of individuals who are like minded(2).
Given this, we can see how manifestation of bias in the workplace comes through in our decision-making, our relationships and discussions with those around us. Everyday, Managers and Leaders are faced with making decisions which, let’s face it, can be unintentionally biased. We can’t help ourselves and because we don’t take the time to reflect and ask ourselves if we are being biased in our decisions or have any thoughtful discussions on if bias has infiltrated our decisions, we aren’t being honest with ourselves about how these biases affect our perceptions and ultimately decisions. For example, do we give women who have straight hair more credibility and listen more intently in a meeting than a woman with curly hair?
Thinking about the scenario above, how do you think each person would respond to perceived bias by others? How do you think they would respond to the possibility of being discriminated against? It’s been shown that stigmatized individuals have more intense emotional responses which are shaped by the “possibility” of discrimination. And it’s one thing to be discriminated against based on one stereotype/bias, but to be discriminated against for several biases only increases the intensity of the emotional response.
To broaden this intersectional concept further, would you be more biased against a black older man or a black young man? What about a black older transexual man? Or a black/Hispanic bi-racial gay woman? What if they were Persian or Muslim? How does your bias change? Have you noticed your biases changing? Our biases tend to prioritize themselves as we try to rationalize, categorize and label what we see and how we feel. For example, if you see a young gay Hispanic female couple, are you going to discriminate against them based on being sexual orientation? Or gender? Or race? Which one has a higher bias priority? How are they prioritizing their emotional responses to the possibility of being discriminated against? Are they going to assume you are more biased against them based on gender, race, or sexual orientation(3)?
Getting Ahead of Bias
So how do you move forward? First, understand that the future is intersectional. It’s not just about traditional stereotypes anymore, but multiple stereotypes. We need to consider other non-traditional biases such as someone who is multi-racial, transgender (or transitioning), attended a non-traditional school or from a non-traditional family. Our future needs to place a high value proposition on inclusion in a multi-factorial arena and understand that uniqueness is important. It’s important to our creativity, teams, and organizations. It is estimated that companies that have a diverse environment are at least 35% more productive which means it’s important for our organizations to be receptive to an inclusive environment.
So where to start(4)
- Check yourself - Be honest and transparent about your biases (shocking I know). I’ve discovered that as I’ve become more honest with myself about my biases, I then can challenge myself when I see them materialize. For example, I saw a young man who “looked like the uni-bomber” but for all I know, he could’ve been a software engineer making $300,000 a year slumming it on a day off. Moreover, while it’s easier to group our biases into simplistic traditional stereotypes, it’s also ineffective in addition to putting the person perceiving the bias in a higher emotional state as they grapple with the bias being perceived.
- Turn off your autopilot - Know your environment and be aware of your triggers. It would be wise to conduct a culture audit (either yourself or organizationally) to increase self awareness (e.g., what makes you uncomfortable). Find out where the gaps are and educate yourself (and direct reports) on the importance of understanding what intersectional bias is and how to acknowledge biases when they occur.
- Be the hero - If we don’t understand biases associated with intersectionality, then we can’t create an inclusionary environment. Additionally, we need to be inclusive in a different way as we move forward. As leaders it’s up to us to create an environment of inclusion which includes individuals with multiple intersections. This type of diversity has the ability to enrich our lives, both professionally and personally by exposing us to what others experience and how they experience it.
As leaders we must look at the many situations we experience with a new lens. To do this, think about the term, confirmation bias. This is the type of bias that occurs when we look at situations and selectively choose information to make determinations that feed our previous assumptions. It’s also how we simplify problems to achieve singular conclusions even though there is no one solution. Additionally, this type of bias comes through in all kinds of situations. Confirmation bias and cognitive assumptions are how we fill in the gaps of what we don’t understand or can’t make sense of when we are exposed to something new or different. It’s quick, easy and doesn’t require any thought in our fast-paced lives. What is unfortunate is that these biases and cognitive assumptions can either feed this cycle of exclusion or we can take the time and rethink what we see and what we assume to enrich our teams and organizations. Just remember, inclusion and belonging matters to everyone.
©  Darrielle Ehrheart | May 19, 2019
(1)Miller, B. (April 15, 2019) Not All Your ___ Employees Have The Same Experience (https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/all-your-employees-have-same-experience-brandon-miller)
(2)Paul, A. M. (May 1, 1998) Where Bias Begins: The Truth About Stereotypes. Psychology Today (https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/articles/199805/where-bias-begins-the-truth-about-stereotypes)
(3)Perez, E (April 5, 2019) Building Intersectionality into your Hiring Strategy (http://ow.ly/mIZE30oqMVa)
(4)Wilson, P (June 12, 2017) Here is How Leaders Can Overcome Bias: 3 Proven Tactics From Research. (https://approachableleadership.com/leaders-overcome-bias-proven-tactics/)