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Farhana Mahbub, photographed in downtown Toronto, says she balances the different facets of her identity in and out of the workplace.Tijana Martin/The Globe and Mail

Many companies are taking a hard look at their business – the way they operate, the charities they support, the people they hire, the values they hold – to determine how they can make progress on their diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) goals.

Intersectionality often gets overlooked in the process.

Sarah Saska, co-founder and CEO of Toronto-based consulting firm Feminuity, says organizations have tended to focus on one aspect of a person’s identity when thinking about how to support them. For example, when organizations focus on supporting women, the women who often get the most support are white, non-disabled and cisgender – leaving many others behind.

Intersectionality is the idea that identities (such as “immigrant” or “transgender” or “disabled”) do not exist independently of each other, and that people’s overlapping identities and lived experiences can complicate their relationship to prejudice and oppression.

Feminuity recently released a new report, 40+ Dimensions of Diversity and the Many Intersections, that aims to shed light on the infinite intersections that compose people’s identities and “unpack the challenges and biases people with different identities face” in the workplace.

“What we’re trying to do is figure out a way to bring the methodology of intersectionality to the workplace and land it in a really practical and applied way, showing organizations the different places where it goes wrong, why certain [DEI strategies] haven’t worked, and why they’re not seeing the progress that they hope to see,” Dr. Saska says.

Lived experiences of intersectionality

One of the points raised in the Feminuity report is that focusing on visible characteristics or segmenting people into singular categories can unintentionally “flatten” individuals, who may have both visible and invisible identities that may change and evolve over time.

Farhana Mahbub, who is head of global markets, strategic initiatives and integration at RBC Capital Markets, understands how the different facets of her identity have impacted her life and workplace experience.

“I’m an immigrant woman from Bangladesh. I moved to the Middle East at a very young age, and therefore experienced overlapping cultural identities,” she says.

Ms. Mahbub says that her identity as a woman restricted both her educational and professional options, so her family decided to emigrate to Canada.

Now, as a professional, she still balances the different identities and “pieces” of herself.

“At work, I have to maintain a high level of professionalism and judgment,” she says. “In other venues, I can be more myself, wearing traditional attire [such as a sari] and speaking in my own language [Bengali]. At home, I am also the primary caregiver of three school-aged children and an aging in-law who lives with us.”

Ms. Mahbub, who is Muslim, says her religion causes many people in the workplace to question why she doesn’t drink or why she fasts during Ramadan, a month of fasting, prayer, reflection and community for Muslims worldwide.

“While that can limit my social interactions, I have found a way to balance the expectations of my faith with local cultural norms, such as participating in ‘Happy Hours’ with my work colleagues without drinking,” she says.

Komal Zaidi also understands how intersectionality can shape an individual’s work life. She made a career shift from tech to DEI strategy a few years ago, partly due to her experiences in the workplace.

Ms. Zaidi identifies as a South Asian woman of colour, a settler on the traditional territories of the Blackfoot Confederacy, a post-secondary degree holder, a speaker of several languages and more.

She is also neurodivergent. Since that’s not something people would know simply by looking at her, she says people have often perceived her behaviour as contradictory because of the way she comprehends and processes information both creatively and analytically.

“I ended up not living up to [colleagues’] expectations, or catching people off guard,” she says.

She also has an “invisible illness” – an auto-immune disorder that affects how she regulates heat.

“There have been so many times in the workplace that I’ve been given the advice of being more mindful of my body language and that I come off as being insecure, when in reality I’m trying to keep myself warm,” she says.

The ‘secret sauce’ to an inclusive workplace

Feminuity’s intersectionality report provides key ways companies and their leaders can create inclusive workplaces where all people can thrive. These include creating psychological safety, designing inclusive workplace benefits, supporting multiple ERGs (employee resource groups) and celebrating everyone’s special days among other suggestions.

In a psychologically safe environments, people at different levels of hierarchy and varying cultural backgrounds engage fully in work decisions and junior employees feel unafraid to share their opinions.

“At a fundamental level, psychological safety is [present] when people can mess up, make a mistake, and they can feel comfortable enough to own it,” Dr. Saska says.

In order to have inclusive workplace benefits, Dr. Saska says companies should consider whether their benefits truly support all of the different ways people can create a family. Companies could also examine dress codes to see if they are inclusive to racialized team members or those of different religions, socioeconomic statuses or people with disabilities. Inclusivity might also be about offering private spaces to make a workplace more inclusive of people who breast or chest feed, pray or need a sensory retreat.

“Often organizations can actually end up saving themselves money by not over-indexing on certain benefits that people don’t [really] need, and then they can reallocate those funds to the different things that people really, truly do need,” Dr. Saska says.

In Canada, the majority of companies work on a European-centric, Christian calendar, which means many people are working during their sacred holidays while others get their special days off. Dr. Saska says there could be room to reimagine time off by allowing people to work holidays they don’t celebrate and take off the days that are important to them.

The report also suggest workplace leaders should “be curious, be brave” when engaging in dialogue about a company’s DEI goals, inviting unique perspectives during meetings and contributions from everyone.

Ms. Mahbub agrees that leaders play an important role in creating an inclusive culture at work.

“I think support from the top of the company, like the board or CEO, is critical in setting the right cultural tone and role-modeling inclusive behaviours,” she says.

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