This post explores the significance of a concept related to diversity and inclusion called “intersectionality.” But first, let’s get the vocabulary lesson out of the way. Oxford English Dictionary defines intersectionality as, “the interconnected nature of social categorizations such as race, class, and gender, regarded as creating overlapping and interdependent systems of discrimination or disadvantage.”

That might sound like a lot of academic jargon, and it is. The concept of intersectionality is complex, but it essentially describes how different aspects of culture and identity interconnect to affect a person’s holistic life experiences. Initially, the concept of intersectionality was used to explain how many black women didn’t relate to the early feminist movement. This was because mainstream feminism was largely popularized by white, middle class women—who didn’t generally consider how feminism might be different for black women facing the additional effects of poverty and/or racism.

Today, intersectionality has expanded to reflect a wide range of cultural components. To demonstrate how these “social categorizations” can affect our life experiences, I’d like to share a little of my family tree with you:

Understanding Intersectionality at a Fundamental Level

I come from a white middle-class family, American on my father’s side, French on my mother’s side. Although I grew up in the US, my mother retained a strong connection to her roots, and I spent time each summer as a child visiting my family in France.

My bicultural background has made French tradition, language, and culture integral to my sense of identity and my daily life. One of the most simple examples of this is food. I love hot dogs and mac n’ cheese, but I also never eat Velveeta, prefer pain perdu to pancakes, and am thoroughly convinced that you can never have too much butter, garlic, or fresh basil. I can’t help but be reminded of the differences between myself and my US peers when I compare my friends’ stocks of ketchup and Miracle Whip to my supply of Dijon and homemade [garlic] mayo.

Of course, my French background impacts more than just the food that I eat; it also influences my level of formality, my sense of patriotism, my political beliefs, and personal values. In other words, my “Frenchness” is one part of who I am, but is also intersects with all the other aspects of my identity that make me, me.

Intersectionality Is Part of Our Relationships

To understand the full scope of intersectionality, I’d like to draw a comparison between my grandmother and I. My grandmother is in her 70s. She was raised in an era where women tended to marry in their early twenties, and there was a stronger expectation that men would be the breadwinners while women would fulfill a domestic role. To this day, my grandmother feels that it’s a woman’s duty to support her husband in his career, and she has never pursued a profession of her own.

My grandmother also has a serious physical disability. She contracted paralytic polio as an infant, many years before science had developed a vaccine. Her disability impacted her ability to work, particularly given that employers 50 years ago did not tend to make workplaces accessible to people with disabilities.

As a woman who feels very invested in her professional life, I sometimes wonder why my grandmother chose not to work. Whether it was the teachings of her generation, the limitations set forth by her disability, her economic status and agency, or simply a personal choice, is impossible to determine because all of those elements (generation, gender, ability, and socioeconomic status) create one interconnected experience. That, is intersectionality.

My grandmother and I both share French heritage, we are both white, middle-class, well-educated women. But, she’s a Baby Boomer, and I’m a Millennial. She’s a person with a disability, and I am not. I’m bi-national, and she is not. In some ways, we share similar key life experiences that have shaped and defined us, but it would be silly—and even demeaning—for me to assume that I can fully grasp her worldview.

Why Intersectionality Matters in the Workplace

In the business world, understanding intersectionality is an important part of practicing inclusion because it defines how different facets of identity contribute to our unique perspective and team participation, as well as the ways in which different types of discrimination overlap with one another.

Intersectionality serves as a reminder that when you address discrimination toward one group, it’s important not to neglect or disregard discrimination for another group. A business that focuses on being culturally diverse and inclusive should also make efforts to ensure that their space is as accessible as possible to people with disabilities, for example.

Or, consider the situation of a female employee who wears a hijab and works on a team of predominantly white colleagues. She is more likely than anyone else on her team to experience discrimination because of how her gender, religion, and ethnicity interconnect and overlap to place her in a unique minority.

Understanding intersectionality also underlines the importance of not stereotyping, even in a joking way. There are so many different contributing factors that make up the individual, many of which are not visible, so it’s often ineffective and problematic to make assumptions. To create a more inclusive workplace, it’s important to challenge our biases and recognize that our personal experiences, advantages or disadvantages, are only one piece of the puzzle.

Successfully inclusive teams feel more engaged and know how to be more productive because they embrace the fact that everybody can bring something different to the table. Being mindful of intersectionality in the workplace can therefore help retain—and even recruit—top talent because it promotes respectful acknowledgement and inclusion of different and overlapping types of diversity.

Learn more about inclusion with our new Global Inclusion Course.