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Ain’t I a Woman?: Intersectionality and the Workplace

“Ain’t I a woman?” asked abolistionist and formerly enslaved feminist Sojourner Truth,  at her speech at a Women's Rights Convention in Akron, Ohio in 1851, where she demanded equal rights for all women as well as for all African Americans. There is some controversy over whether Truth actually said this phrase and that her words may have been edited for effect by a white feminist!

But this is possibly the first recorded example of a debate which continues to be a significant gap in both feminism and the discourse of diversity; are certain groups being privileged even amongst the underprivileged and are certain calls for rights heard more clearly than others?

There is no easy answer to this, for sure, but given lawyers like order and process, how does intersectionality play out in the workplace in general and the legal profession in particular?


Intersectionality is a theory first coined by Civil rights activist and academic Kimberlé Crenshaw that considers that the various aspects of human identity such as classracesexual orientationdisability and gender, do not exist separately from each other, but are interwoven, and that their relationships are essential to an understanding of diversity. Rather than thinking of identity as a collection of separate elements, (man, woman, African American,Caucasian) it is better understood if the elements are thought of as inextricably linked and that all aspects of identity are parts of the whole.

I’m a white, working class, woman. At times I can feel both aspects of my identity, positively and at other times these are labels that are thrust upon me via behavior or prejudice of others. In those circumstances they can feel limiting separately but when experienced together even more so. 

But when dealing with issues as large as systematic inequalities how can organizations, such as companies or law firms, do anything other than break these huge issues down into manageable pieces and agendas? I have frequently heard companies or firms say, ‘we’re focusing on the gender issue at the moment’ or ‘we’re prioritizing promoting African Americans into leadership.’ But when very siloed approaches are taken to diversity, it can feel as though a significant part of your identity is being marginalized. Do I have to choose between my identity as a woman and as socio-economically disadvantaged and check one of those at the door?

However, some experts in the field of diversity and inclusion think that unless we focus on the intersectionality of oppression -- the systematic inequalities and privileges in society which affect a multitude of groups -- we will never truly solve the issues we face. They argue that current legislation focuses  too much on understanding identity in isolation and therefore this can lead to misconceptions. Ultimately, intersectional theorists would argue, unless society considers the myriad forms of identity politics true change can never take place. 

Samantha Grant of Shepherd & Mullin, points out how strategies and initiatives in a law firm can often be focused primarily on one identity group and not take into account the realities and experiences of those who embody multiple identities such as black women: 

“ Quite frequently when people think of strategies for promoting racial diversity and inclusion, they think of men of color first, and when they think of gender, they think of Caucasian women first. This is particularly problematic because women of color often don't experience things the same way that Caucasian women or men of color do.  Women of color also often still have to walk the fine line of being able to negotiate and advocate for themselves—as they effectively do for their clients everyday—while at the same time not seeming overly aggressive.”   

Nicole Sanchez of Vaya Consulting has been advising companies on diversity and inclusion for over 25 years. She reports that it’s common for leaders of companies to try to separate different  agendas because it can make diversity goals seem more obtainable. In her experience she has found that the reverse is true. Companies that take an initiative-by-initiative approach to diversity are generally more likely to fail than those who take an intersectional approach. The key is that recognizing the range of diverse experiences and how they interconnect is what enables inclusive culture.


Many of the key debates around intersectionality emerged during the rise of feminism as an academic discourse during the late sixties and seventies in what was termed the second wave of feminism. In 1976, the African American feminist academic bell hooks wrote a critique of conventional feminist theory, which used the title of Sojourner Truth’s 1851 speech Ain’t I A Woman as its title.

In this hooks argued that conventional feminist theory was skewed towards the viewpoint of white middle class women and was therefore only fighting for an equality which would serve them and not women  of color, working class women, gay women etc. 

That issue has been coming to the fore more recently as some have criticized the Women’s Marches and #TimesUp as focusing too much on the perspective of white middle class women. This is an issue which is obviously not just confined to feminist debate.  


For many, the question of true culture change hinges on facing up to the truth of privilege and recognizing that white, straight masculinity is an identity and not the norm from which everything else is a diversity. It is both a privileged identity and one that needs to be part of the discourse on diversity.

Verizon GC Craig Silliman recounts being on a panel at the 2017 MCCA Gala where he initially apologized for being non- diverse but was pulled up by fellow panelist, Grace Speights of Morgan Lewis,  who is African American and female. She told him, that the panelists were all different identities and therefore diverse.

Silliman told me that was important for him to hear and that it’s been a key aspect of driving diversity forward at Verizon that as a leader he does not opt out of the diversity discourse.

“I think there’s a lot of discussion about diversity, about a lot of social issues, in which straight white males feel that they don’t have  right to express, to have their voice heard. I understand the rationale for that, there’s a lot of discussion about checking your privilege. But I think there is a danger there because it’s incredibly important that this discussion includes everyone including straight white males. If the discussion about gender is only taking place with women, then it’s a gender issue. If it’s only people of colour having the sessions about ethnic diversity, then it becomes an ethnicity issue, and it needs to be a people issue, a talent issue, a culture issue. And so it’s important that people like me are  involved in the discussion not despite the fact that I’m a straight white male, but because I’m a straight white male.”

But for straight white men to be involved in discussion there needs to be an acknowledgement of their privilege. Indeed perhaps the whole point of intersectionality is about the acknowledgment of privilege. There is a fantastic essay on  this written by Carl Martin, a white, straight male, tech company founder, who took part in a workshop curated by Fearless Futures, a diversity  and inclusion consultancy that specializes in training based in intersectionality theory.

In his essay  at, Carl describes how he was forced to think about privilege and how this fundamentally changed how he now thinks:  “One exercise in particular stood out, where we were presented with a sheet of paper that listed 32 privileges — everything from ‘the ability to easily access any building’, through to ‘not fearing physical harm from a sexual partner’. We were asked to circle the privileges that we felt like we had. I circled every single one. I can be honest in that 50% of them I’ve never thought about once in my life before. The notion that ‘privilege is invisible to those that have it’ had never been so radically apparent. This moment was emphasized by the results of another participant — a young black woman and fellow founder, having circled just four.” 

What the acknowledgement of privilege can bring, though, counsels Nicole Sanchez, is discomfort for those with more advantages. But this is unavoidable if an organization is dedicated to sustainable change.

Sanchez told me that much of her work hinges on, “People starting with their own self-awareness. None of us ask to be born into our lot in life. But we still have to understand our role in a diverse society.”

In her workshops, Sanchez often uses visual exercises to show the advantages participants do and don’t have.  She feels it’s important to see this as a continuum, for example, she says, “Just because I was born poor and Latina in the US doesn’t mean I don’t have advantages.” She also counsels that advantages are not a fixed state and some change depending on circumstance; for example, in Silicon Valley where age can seem like a liability. “When you can graphically map privilege for people you remind them that you were born with some, and some were built over time. That relieves the pressure on those with advantage, as it shows them it is the system not them.” Sanchez explains, “The challenge is rebuilding this system that puts people on such entrenched pathways.”

Sanchez believes we are currently at a unique moment with movements like #MeToo. “For the first time we are seeing people who assumed they were going to be in power forever, being toppled. The danger is that they are then using the language of oppression to re-assert themselves. For example, James Damore, the engineer fired by Google for sexist posts, wants to say he has been discriminated against as as a white man the first time his status is called into question.“


Essentially yes. Whilst companies or law firms may think they have ticked the diversity box with their gender initiatives and don’t need to worry about other issues, they can actually be missing the bigger picture and therefore setting their initiatives up to fail. If initiatives fail then there can be a danger to assume the problem is too big for the organization to tackle, or that its root cause lies in the diverse populations and not the system itself.

The problems of ‘code switching’ and the pressure to fit in can exacerbate these systemic imbalances for diverse employees, As Samantha Grant of Shepherd Mullin remarks about the way law firms credit success it can also work against women of color.

“At law firms many women of color are so focused on trying to fit in and be team players that they spend a lot of time on administrative committees for which they don’t receive credit or they don’t ask for origination credit even when they helped bring in the business. Also, because there are very few women of color at majority law firms and a lack of mentors, supporters, and champions who will naturally gravitate towards us, we often feel isolated and may not receive as many opportunities for advancement and growth.” 

For law firms this is an entrenched problem and is often at the heart of their challenges in becoming more inclusive.

New research being undertaken by Professor Joan C. Williams and Marina Multhap which, is supported but the MCCA and the ABA Commission on Women in the Profession shows how all work in law firms is not equal. Data shows that work is often highly skewed with the ‘glamour work’ (more lucrative, high profile etc.) going more  to white men and what the research terms ‘office housework ‘ ( sometimes literally the housework like getting coffee, but also the more mundane,  less high profile work) going predominantly to women and employees of color. Backing up Samantha Grant’s experiences, the research found that women lawyers of color were the most likely to be saddled with administrative tasks.

I asked diversity consultant, Nicole Sanchez, what she felt companies could practically do to adopt a more intersectional approach in their diversity and inclusion initiatives and their workplaces.

For Sanchez, the key is in the inclusion part and taking that are the core of how you think. But the first step is acknowledging the problem. 

“I always tell companies that the best place they can start is by normalizing the conversation; asking people where they are failing, polling the employees, using focus groups. It’s a good start to say they want to start this.” 

For Sanchez, the initial step is often executive coaching and working with executive officers and CEOs who may be nervous to start the conversation. 

Sanchez told me she often gets asked, “Can we do this in spite of our leadership?” 

“Sure, to a point,” says Sanchez. “But at the end of the day, improving diversity and inclusion costs money, resources and time; for systematic change, the leadership has to understand why, and get behind it.”

Often day to day mechanisms in organizations are unconsciously biased against certain groups. This is often not a case of overt discrimination but just unthinking or thinking from a position of advantage. However, the end result is the same. For example, most reimbursement policies will assume possession of a credit card and ability to access cash whilst waiting for reimbursement. Lack of access to credit, or indeed factors such as support of other family members, would not enter into how these were devised. Employee away days may also assume the norms of a certain identity group. Sanchez and I discussed the example of skiing – if you’re working class and did not live near a ski resort, chances are skiing was not on your radar!

Sanchez details how she often counsels companies when planning trips or social engagements to “take the position of the most diverse employee and find something they find comfortable.”

It may sound like a bad joke that diversity opponents might scathingly tell, but in reality the truly diverse and intersectional workplace, legal or otherwise will be one where an African American, disabled, LGBT, Muslim woman can come to work and feel truly comfortable and valued. Now that’s a great ambition for MCCA and for all of us to work towards over the next twenty years!

First appeared in Diversity and the Bar Magazine Spring 2018

Diversity & The Bar Q1 2018  copyright Minority Corporate Counsel Association 


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