Inclusive Leadership – The Antidote to Intersectional Discrimination

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Some Diversity Programs do not succeed

Why is it that many diversity programs have fallen short of the goals or expectations of those who designed them and why are women and members of a range of diverse minority groups still so under-represented in leadership?  Traditionally, strategies to achieve equity in the workplace or to combat discrimination or exclusion of diverse persons have been premised on the idea of isolating the characteristics or attribute that is the reason for the discrimination.

This perspective has inherent and fundamental limitations. Every individual has an identity which is a composite of multiple dimensions. No one is simply a woman or gay or disabled or Asian. Two people who could be placed in the nominal category of Asian may experience exclusion or discrimination very differently, even if the fact of being Asian plays some part in the adverse treatment. By the same token, even the proverbial straight white male has multiple identities.

Exclusion on the basis of intersecting attributes

Insight as to the complex nature of personal identity led to the pioneering writings of the American discrimination lawyer, Kimberle Crenshaw, who contended that isolating a single ground of discrimination meant that those disadvantaged because of the convergence of two or more attributes would simply become invisible( intersectional discrimination ). They would not be able to claim discrimination because they could not position themselves neatly into any of the categories of persons discriminated against.

On the other hand, as Crenshaw suggests, once the complexity of personal identity is acknowledged and understood the disadvantages experienced by women and other diverse minorities in the workplace can be explained as a manifestation of the playing out of power relationships between those who have power and those who don’t because of the intersectional nature of their identity. Eliminating disadvantage requires focussing on the structural or institutional factors that reinforce those power structures and inhibit the possibility that everyone realises their full potential

Bystanders in the workplace are able to recognise either that some-one has been disadvantaged on separate occasions on completely different grounds or that a person has two attributes each independently causing negative stereotyping or exclusion (discrimination occurring consecutively or additively).

Crenshaw’s analysis by contrast, identifies that bystanders are often oblivious to the fact that  individuals can languish in a state of invisibility when they are affected simultaneously by two or more negatively-perceived attributes   Only the victim of intersectional discrimination  can, him or herself bring the adverse treatment to the spotlight and understand the complex matrix which is the cause of it.

So, for example an Asian woman may suffer exclusion in a particular context because of the combination of being both Asian and a woman. Neither being Asian nor being female is sufficient to explain the exclusion in and of itself and a male Asian or Anglo-Celtic woman would probably not have encountered the same exclusion. It is the victim who instinctively and implicitly understands that being an Asian woman in the particular context renders her unequal and disempowered.

Laws against discrimination in the workplace in Australia, as presently framed, cannot deal with multiple intersecting grounds of discrimination as they focus only on discrete grounds. Organisational policies often do not adequately address issues of intersectionality either.

Inclusive Leadership and Intersecting Discrimination

This is where inclusive leadership comes in.

Truly inclusive leaders are by definition not constrained by the need to impose unipolar identities on any person.  They understand implicitly that where employees, however they may be described, are included and engaged these employees will bring their whole-selves to work and can optimise organisational performance.

While many diversity programs proceed on the basis that a diverse workplace should be built first and then the question asked as to whether leaders are sufficiently inclusive, in fact the reverse is true. Inclusive leadership is the foundation from which many benefits including greater diversity will flow.

To this end Symmetra has been a firm advocate of the idea that the inclusivity of leadership is measurable and should be measured. As a consequence Symmetra has developed  the ‘Inclusive Leadership Index’ (ILI)  – a sophisticated diagnostic tool which measures the degree of inclusiveness displayed by a leader across 7 constructs- encompassing many observable behaviours.

Two of these constructs, in particular authenticity and self-awareness are most important in enabling a leader to  identify and overcome intersectional discrimination. When manifest in the leader, these constructs position the leader to be fully responsive to every person’s innate complex identity, including their own.

By emphasising and measuring the level of inclusivity displayed by leaders, organisations will, Symmetra believes, be better able to address discrimination, exclusion and unequal treatment in whatever guise. It is those organisations with substantive inclusion skills in their leadership cadre who are best placed to address intersectionality   and other types of exclusion. This all embracing paradigm of inclusion is more likely   to achieve the ideal of diverse representation in leadership

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