One of my earliest learnings was that my experiences as a woman were not identical to other women’s experiences, although they were similar. As with any dimension of identity, the way women experience the world depends on much larger context. As a white girl growing up in Victoria, British Columbia, there were multiple layers to my experiences. Although my brothers and I had what was necessary, we did not have much socioeconomic privilege. What I learned as I watched the world around me is that as a benefit of my race, it was easier for me to cover my socioeconomic status than it was for my friends who were not white.
The United Nations marked March 8 as International Women’s Day by declaring that “fundamental freedoms require the active participation, equality and development of women everywhere.” This declaration is inclusive of all women with intersectionality in mind.
Understanding intersectionality in the workplace
It starts with something as simple as the way we think about all the dimensions of our identity, including things like race, ethnicity, disability, religion, age and sexual orientation. Even class, education, geography and personal history can alter how we experience womanhood. When Kimberlé Crenshaw coined the term intersectionality 30 years ago, she explained it as how these overlapping identities and conditions impact the way we experience life’s challenges and opportunities, the privileges we have, the biases we face.
So simply focusing on a single dimension of identity, without that context, is not always helpful. When we consider women as a single category, as a monolith, it can be misleading at best, dangerous at worst. Doing so overlooks the variations of circumstances and perspectives within the group and obscures real lived experiences as outliers or exceptions. “Women’s workplace issues” is a vague term without enough specificity to drive action. Women of color, women with disabilities, transgender women, women who are the first of their family to work corporate or professional jobs, women who are caregivers — all women deal with additional social, cultural, regional or community demands that may not exist for others. Although all women navigate varying degrees of conscious and unconscious gender biases, intersections of identity can place compounded pressure on a woman to downplay other aspects of her life to conform — a behavior called covering, as explored by Kenji Yoshino — leading to even greater workplace stress.
To increase hiring, retention, representation and the development of women in the workplace, companies must be intentional and accountable for being aware of the diversity within the diversity. Conventional strategies to increase the representation of women in a workplace have mostly benefited those who do not also experience intersectional challenges. By getting curious and exploring the lived experiences of women through the lens of intersectionality, we become more precise about the root cause and about finding ways to generate systemic solutions for all.
Setting the stage for allyship
Understanding all this can be a powerful catalyst for change, not just for organizations as a whole but also for individuals. At Microsoft we are refining how we think about allyship. Part of that exploration is the recognition that as Microsoft employees each of us has some dimension of privilege. This isn’t meant to minimize or negate the very real ways that communities experience significant, systematic historical bias or oppression. But rather it is meant to shine a light on our opportunity to show up for each other. For example, as a community of women we have an opportunity to be more thoughtful about the experiences of our peers who face greater challenges due to their intersectional identity. So although traditionally we might look to men in the workplace to carry the full weight of allyship, women in the workplace also have an opportunity to be thoughtful allies for others in their community.
Such an awareness opens the door for true allyship — an intentional commitment to use your voice, credibility, knowledge, place or power to support others in the way they want to be supported. I am very aware of my opportunity, due to my personal privilege, to show up for other women in a meaningful way. I embrace my obligation to create space for other voices to be heard, not just on International Women’s Day, but all year round.