Employee Resource Groups (ERGs) can be a fantastic tool for organizations to create a safe space for different people to share and grow, to test new inclusion initiatives, to hear what really matters to its people, and to encourage diversity and inclusion initiatives.
The CIPD Good Work Index 23 links ERGs to decreasing staff turnover, driving productivity, and developing productive business connections. However, if not led correctly, ERGs can become a place where dominant groups monopolize the conversation and overall agenda. This can lead to stagnation and less engagement from would-be active members.
Once an ERG reaches this point, the only way to revitalize it is to address intersectionality.
What Is Intersectionality?
According to Kimberlé Crenshaw, intersectionality is defined as “the interconnected nature of social categorizations such as race, class, and gender, regarded as creating overlapping and interdependent systems of discrimination or disadvantage.” Often, diversity and inclusion agendas and ERGs focus on specific aspects of an individual such as gender, ethnicity, or sexuality. To cultivate a truly inclusive and diverse culture, ERG groups must acknowledge that member identities encompass various interconnected components.
By embracing intersectionality, the ERG members can recognize that focusing on just one dimension of its members’ lived experiences can lead to exclusion.
Instead, the group must acknowledge that each member’s identity is composed of various intersecting aspects. The group recognize and celebrate those diverse aspects to create a truly safe space. It’s also important to recognize that identities change over time (people can become parents or disabled, for example).
Intersectionality in ERGs
To acknowledge intersectionality, a disability ERG must recognize that if you are a Black disabled woman, you can’t separate those different identities. It’s understandable that a disability ERG would want to build a voice and access related to the disability identity but to do so, the ERG members need to understand that the lived reality of being disabled is different from person to person. If they don’t recognize this, they risk creating change only for the individuals who traditionally have more power.
The intersectionality wheel provides us a reference point for intersectionality. By looking at the wheel from different angles, we can visualize what intersectionality really means. At the core of the wheel is power. As we move further from the center of the wheel, power declines, which often leads to marginalization.
The levels of power and exclusion shift depending on the specific area you examine. This shift illustrates that each person’s experience is unique and influenced by their position within the wheel.
By embracing both intersectionality and the complexity of multiple identities, your ERG group can foster a truly inclusive environment where all members feel seen, heard, and supported. This inclusive approach nurtures a sense of belonging, fosters meaningful connections, and enhances the overall experience of your group members.
3 Ways ERGs Can Promote Intersectionality
So, what can an ERG do in practice to recognize and embrace the intersectional needs of its members?
#1: Recognize the Importance of Intersectionality
Talk about the fact that the ERG does and should consider the different identities of its members and that they want people to truly bring their whole identity to the group. That means not shying away from talking about power and privilege and acknowledging that some people have advantages that others don’t have. That doesn’t mean that they won’t have experienced any disadvantages, just not as much as others.
#2: Acknowledge Past Mistakes and Address the Balance of Power
If this is the first time the ERG is discussing the subject of intersectionality, then it may not have been a safe space for all its members up until this point. To move forward, your ERG needs to own that past and be able to address previous power imbalances. First, the ERG committee needs to have an honest conversation about who is not represented and actively seek representation of other lived experiences. The committee should represent the diverse identities that it serves. To ensure equity of power, the committee should also address the ways it interacts and makes decisions.
#3: Make a Commitment to Recognize Intersectionality in the Future
Moving forward, let your ERG members know exactly how you will recognize intersectionality in future activities and initiatives. Just as the ERG should check any of its events or activities for accessibility and inclusion, there should also be a check that it considers intersectionality. A great way to ensure this balance of power is to collaborate with other ERGs. Invite them to provide feedback on your plans and to invite their members to your future meetings.
ERGs Should Commit to Inclusive Behaviors
It’s important for ERGs to create a safe and inclusive space for all of its members. Everyone within the ERG should commit to inclusive behaviors by being authentic, curious, self-aware, collaborative, and empathetic. It’s okay to make mistakes as a member or as a network, but we must acknowledge our mistakes with humility, learn from them, and move forward.
By creating this inclusive space for the different identities within our ERGs, we create safe channels for different people to be able to share their lived experiences. We also improve the well-being, productivity, and engagement of the ERG members, which helps to educate the business on how to create an inclusive culture for the many, not the few.