The intersectional trap

Or: how to avoid 20th century intolerances being replaced by 21st century ones.

In this article I want to explore the complex, but compelling challenge of making diversity work. How you, as a business leader, can empower and harness a growing number of voices and perspectives, all with something distinctive to add to expanding opportunities, whilst all working toward a common goal. 

At B+A our diversity is one of our genuine unique selling points. As we help our clients understand the world, make sense of it and plan accordingly, we are always on the lookout for people who bring a perspective that none of our team currently do. We believe that if we look for people who can quickly show up with credibility and legitimacy in an ever-broadening set of contexts, we will be able to serve our clients better. 

But that’s not without challenge, and that challenge is not new.

In my 50s now, I’ve seen a couple of generations of identity evolve. From my time in the Labour Party of the 1980s, when there were safe-space sections for groups hitherto voiceless or marginalised by (most often) male, white, straight mainstreams, I clearly see the need for any under-represented community to hone their arguments, approaches and unique perspectives towards a common cause, free from the overbearing voice of conformity that can mute the gift of diversity. And this is particularly the case when one identity is overlaid with another (as, for instance, intersectional feminists have taught us). So, whilst, almost two decades into the 21st century, there’s still a need for places of safety, most often, these now exist online. And that’s partly the problem. 

Online (as ever) makes it harder

The nature of online communities can make the habit of surrounding oneself exclusively with voices you agree with and recognise, easier and more widespread. This creates the “echo chambers” that have been well documented. Of course, this is bad news for increasing tolerance and understanding, but more than that, there’s a deadening lack of curiosity for what lies beyond the familiar (and what value might exist there). This inhibits learning and growth. And don’t take my word for it, Neil Degrasse Tyson has famously warned of this limitation in terms of ambition and Barack Obama more recently went further. Obama warned that a failure to reach out beyond your group, to seek to understand and connect with others beyond your own, no matter how “diverse” or how “woke” you look from the vantage point of the mainstream, risks replacing one intolerant monoculture with another. 

I call this the intersectional trap. 

It is a challenge that we have grappled with at B+A as we seek to continue to put diversity at the heart of our business offer. The remainder of this post breaks down how we are trying to get around this trap.

Circles of identity

Imagine a group, for instance a business, where a circle represents a defining identity of any one person (of course, this model is fractal – each person has a number of self-selecting identities: I’m half Portuguese, half Australian, a Londoner, Straight(ish), a father, married, a Spurs fan, an  atheist etc.).

Fig.1

Fig.1 represents a traditionally monocultural organisation. By this, I mean a culture with a narrow range of identities represented within it. The figure reduces this to the smallest number of identities for illustrative purposes, where, for instance, one circle might represent “straight”, another “white”, another “liberal”, another “Ox-bridge educated”.

Of course, with the fractality of the model in mind, there are sub-identities at an individual level, but for simplicity’s sake and the sake of the model, I’m sure you get the point. 

An advantage of a monoculture is that the shaded, shared bit in the middle is large. In this intersection, all members of a group share facets of identity. This means that communication can be quicker, and direction clearer and easier to arrive at, facilitated by a broad range of universally shared cultural reference points, experiences and perspectives. 

Fig 2

The messier Fig.2 represents a more diverse organisation – with a broader range of cultures or identities represented within it (i.e. it is no longer a “monoculture”). Again, each circle represents a personal identity (for instance, “white”, “black”, “Latinx”, “straight”, “gay”, “male”, “female”, “non-conforming”, “liberal”, “conservative” “university educated”, non-university educated”, etc.). 

In contrast, this model’s bit in the middle, where people share all identities, is vanishingly small. And the more identities you add, the even smaller it gets. If yours is a diverse business culture that this model describes, and for it to work, you needed everyone to occupy this central intersection, that’s a problem. And that’s the trap.

However, I think that this focuses upon the wrong part of the model. The interesting, scaleable bit is elsewhere (and it’s where diverse organisations, ultimately, will always beat monocultural ones). 

The exciting bit, for me, isn’t in the middle, but at the edges.

Get out more, and explore the edges

Fig.3

It is at these edges, illustrated in Fig.3, where members of a group share something with people outside their group, that’s not shared with all of their group, where there’s possibility of growth and learning beyond the familiar. For instance, the experience of being Ox-bridge educated gives our monocultural group, on the left of the figure, the potential of reaching out to and connecting with anyone who’s shared this educational experience – irrespective of ethnicity, gender or politics or other identity marker. 

But in an increasingly complex, fractured business environment, the more worlds that you can show up in with credibility and legitimacy, the better. Today, being able to receive and transmit at whatever frequency the echo chamber is tuned in to, is a business-critical advantage. And that brings us to Fig.4. 

Fig.4

In this figure, we compare the worlds that a monoculture (on the left) can reach out to and connect with, with those for a more diverse culture (on the right). 

Simply put, even when it has decided to look beyond its own confines, the monoculture has many fewer potential links out than the diverse business. For a business like ours, that exists to help other organisations, the greater the number of potential points of connection with outside worlds we have, the more likely it is to identify deeper, more nuanced insights, across a growing number of market segments, that lead to better decision making and ultimately more resilient businesses.    

But where does that leave the small, shared centre in a diverse business?

Well, I believe that this is where universal values play a part. Tolerance, curiosity, kindness, humbleness, forgiveness. You know, the basics. At B+A we believe that in the 21st century, if you build a business’s shared purpose on these human fundamentals, whilst growing, nurturing and celebrating ever-widening diversity, and reaching beyond your familiar, you’ll spring the intersectional trap. Do this and you’ll gain the dividend that diversity offers and you’ll likely win.