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How Intersectionality Affects the Advancement of Women | What Every Executive and Leader Should Know

March 4, 2021 Kristen Howe

The numbers on the state of women in the workplace are in, and they are not good.  

Since the pandemic began in 2020, women in the U.S. have lost 5 million jobs, with women of color being disproportionately affected. The UN warns that decades of progress toward gender parity could be reversed. The LeanIn/McKinsey’s Women in the Workforce Report finds that one in four women are considering downshifting their careers or leaving the workforce altogether due to COVID-19. 

What many executives and gender parity proponents have feared since the early days of the pandemic is coming to fruition: Existing inequities in our systems and society have been compounded and worsened by a truly unprecedented crisis. Women, and especially women of color, are bearing the worst of it.

This pandemic was a recipe for disaster: It deeply and immediately impacted industries dominated by women, it unleashed a childcare and schooling crisis, and worsened the burden on women to provide for an aging elder population.  

Before the pandemic, we knew that the advancement of women, especially women of color, simply wasn’t happening fast enough. Women still lag significantly when it comes to ascending to higher levels of leadership, particularly in promotion from individual contributor to manager, in all industries. Even organizations committed to the important goal of gender parity in their leadership ranks are not making progress as they would like. 

Now, we’re faced with a more pressing crisis, as the pandemic disrupts the progress we have made. So, where do we go from here?  

It is critically important for organizations to understand the role that intersectionality plays in the professional advancement of women leaders.  

Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw, a leading scholar of critical race theory, first brought this important concept to broader public awareness.  

Intersectionality is “the complex, cumulative way in which the effects of multiple forms of discrimination (such as racism, sexism, and classism) combine, overlap, or intersect, especially in the experiences of marginalized individuals or groups.” It’s often discussed as a part of daily life, but it’s especially prevalent, albeit sometimes overlooked, at work. 

Recently, Linkage’s research team discovered a critical insight related to intersectionalityRace and ethnicity have a substantial effect on how women leaders assess themselves and how other leaders assess them, surfacing real differences—as well as evidence of bias—that organizations must consider when developing their women leaders. 

For women in different racial and ethnic groups, factors like cultural expectations, life experiences, and a complex combination of different forms of discrimination—including racism and sexism—overlap in ways that profoundly affect their ability to professionally advance. 

When organizations work to mitigate the professional impact of COVID-19 on women leaders, they must consider how race, orientation, class, and other factors intersect with gender to create unequal workplace dynamics and instances of discrimination.  

Here are three reasons why every leader must understand intersectionality:


1. Intersectionality is negatively affecting women at your organization.

Whether or not you personally experience the individual aspects of intersectionality, this is an issue that is 
affecting employees in your organization.  

To provide the most welcoming and most successful working environment for everyone, leaders in every industry must strive to better understand intersectionalityAs a purposeful and thoughtful leader, you need to appreciate the complexity of overlapping forms of discrimination, and meaningfully act in ways to challenge existing disparities.  

Understanding intersectionality helps not only individuals, but your team and your organization as a whole. Creating a more inclusive work environment benefits everyone by increasing team cohesion and workplace happiness, and improving inclusion. And, critically, your employees want a more inclusive environment: According to Linkage research, 80% of employees agree that it is extremely important that their organization be inclusive.


2. As a leader, you can make a difference! 

Women overall do not receive as much feedback and insight on their performance as men do. This means it
s harder for them to improve their performance, harder to advance, and more difficult to be considered for highprofile roles and special assignmentsall of which are the hallmarks of advancement. As a leader, your job is to enable your team members to develop and advance, and feedback is one of the keys to accomplishing that. Creating a regular dialogue on performance, both opportunities for development and success moments, can plant the seeds for self-discovery and learning.  

Your other job as a leader is to support your team members. Addressing and discussing current events are particularly important, especially with team members who are part of the impacted community. For instance, when the George Floyd murder happened in 2020, did you check in with your team? Did you ask your Black team members how they were feeling? Did you ask your Black women and mothers how this impacted them? When the 2018 Pittsburgh synagogue shooting happened, did you talk to your Jewish team members to understand their feelings? 

Fewer than one in three Black women said their manager checked in with them during the racial violence of 2020. This lack of discussion on emotional topics makes Black women feel excluded and that they can’t bring their whole selves to work. This impacts their engagement, productivity and wellbeing. You can make a difference!


3. Access the data on intersectionality – and apply what you learn to your leadership style and your talent decisions.  

Linkage’s research on 
intersectionalitywhich analyzed thousands of 360° assessments of high-performing women leaders at global organizations, uncovered significant differences among women of different racial and ethnic groups, as well as evidence of bias.  

A few examples of important behaviors and biases uncovered by this research include: 

  • African American/Black women and Asian American/Asian women are less likely to volunteer to work on high-profile projects than White women. With this insight, how can organizations proactively engage these groups and ensure they have access to the same critical experiences and exposure necessary for career advancement? 
  • Latina and multiracial women unfairly received overall assessment scores that were significantly lower than those of women in other groups. With this awareness, how can organizations begin to successfully challenge biases in hiring, evaluation and promotion practices? 

As a leader, discuss the topic of bias and microaggressions with your team. A first step is to ask your team: What microaggressions have you witnessed? Your role as a leader is to create a safe space to enable the conversation. It must be open, encouraging and a learning environment.

Everyone has bias; we can’t change that. But we can recognize our bias and change our behavior to be more inclusive once we open the door for learning. Looking at the needs of women as one homogeneous group can create and reinforce existing biases, and further disadvantage the population you are working to support. By accessing data on how women at your organizations perceive themselves and how others perceive them, you can uncover important barriers.  


Every executive leader has a critically important role to play when it comes to the advancement of diverse populations of women leaders at their organization, and a thoughtful understanding of intersectionality is an important starting point for meaningfully engaging on this subject. For more information, check out Intersectionality in the Workplace and the Advancement of Women Leaders,” a groundbreaking white paper from Linkage, which includes new research into the role intersectionality plays in the advancement of women leaders and outlines key recommendations for integrating intersectionality data into leadership development efforts.


Now is the time for a new vision for inclusion in the workplace. Learn more about Linkage’s transformative solution, Redesigning Inclusion: Superpowers and Symphony,” and how you can bring this solution to your organization to reach your inclusion goals.

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Women in Leadership Institute

NOV. 13–16, 2023 | Orlando, Florida, or Virtual
A 4-day immersive learning experience designed to equip women leaders with actionable strategies to overcome the hurdles women often face in the workplace.

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