Intersectionality and Sexual Harassment in the Workplace
If you are not utilizing the lens of intersectionality to understand experiences of sexual harassment in the workplace, you won't be able fully, safely, and effectively, address it.
Intersectionality, coined by Black feminist scholar Kimberle Crenshaw, challenged the notion that gender and race, and the experiences that arose out of these identities, were mutually exclusive. Her work centered on Black women, whose experiences were continually absorbed into the singular experience of white women in legal proceedings. In discrimination cases, oppression on the basis of gender was seen as separate than discrimination on the basis of race, and furthermore, when legal scholars and practitioners discussed gender discrimination, they did so in terms of the experiences of white women. For Crenshaw, race was never separate from gender, and the experiences of Black women were never on the basis of race OR gender, but rather, on the basis of race AND gender – an intersection of identities (Crenshawe).
In her groundbreaking work “Demarginalizing the Intersection of Race and Sex: A Black Feminist Critique of Antidiscrimination Doctrine, Feminist Theory and Antiracist Politics”, Crenshaw explains “Black women are sometimes excluded from feminist theory and antiracist policy discourse because both are predicated on a discrete set of experiences that often does not accurately reflect the interaction of race and gender” (140). Since Crenshawe’s groundbreaking work, the theory has expanded to encompass many other social identities, such as disability, class, Indigeneity, and more.
I cannot stress this enough - please watch Brittany Packnett Cunningham's talk Living at the Intersection.
So why does this matter for sexual harassment in the workplace? Because in order for us to understand and address sexual harassment in the workplace, we need to understand that different people experience this harassment differently.
In a paper by the Ontario Human Rights Commission, they explain “An intersectional approach takes into account the historical, social and political context and recognizes the unique experience of the individual based on the intersection of all relevant grounds” (OHRC). As Crenshawe urges us to remember, a Black woman and a white woman who experience sexual harassment in the workplace will not experience it in the same way on the basis of being women, but rather, will experience sexual harassment differently on the basis of having different intersecting identities.
Most of us have probably heard that women in Canada earn less than their male counterparts in comparable positions. But when we apply an intersectional lens, we can see that the category of ‘woman’ doesn’t capture the whole story. According to a report on the gender pay gap in 2018:
Indigenous women earn 35% less than white men
Racialized women earn an average of 35% less than white men
Newcomer women earn an average of 29% less than white men
If we fail to analyze gender equity from an intersectional lens, we fail to build a solution that works. Indeed, we may even fail to recognize incidents of sexual harassment. Considering the rates of sexual harassment for those in equity-seeking groups, this is a considerable risk.
Black women are 3.5 times more likely to repost sexual harassment in the workplace. While white women have seen a decline in this reporting, Black women’s reporting has actually increased (Pacific Standard, CUPE). Indigenous women in Canada are more likely to experience gender-based violence (Canadian Women’s Foundation). Non-white women are more likely to occupy jobs in precarious industries such as the restaurant and service industry, which only increases the likelihood of sexual harassment in the workplaces (Rosette et al). Canada is working to improve its collection of data that speaks to intersectional experiences of sexual harassment in the workplace. We can expect the evidence to continue to grow and develop.
Using intersectionality to understand your own workplace is key in developing and fostering a culture that protects your employees from sexual harassment – especially when that harassment is complex, multifaceted, and differently experienced by different employees. Avoid one-size fits all solutions for all employees, push for buy-in from top executives and managers, consider implicit bias training for all staff, and most of all, be open to change and growth in the direction of a more equitable and safe workplace (Randstad, Gender and the Economy, Canadian Equity Consulting, Harvard Business Review).
There is so much that can be written on this topic, because intersectionality is so relevant, and because inequity in the workplace is vast and pervasive. I urge you to remember the key takeaways from this blog post:
Experiences of inequity and sexual harassment in the workplace will look different and be experienced differently for those with different social identities.
Understanding the ways in which those with different social identities experience sexual harassment is key in building solutions that protect your employees.
Be open and willing to embark on a journey of equity that will take you down a long, winding, and never-ending path of growth and development.
Listen to those who have privileged you with the opportunity to hear about experiences different from your own – demonstrate your ability to actively listen, empathetically respond, and appropriately act on the information you have been given.
Crenshaw, K. (1989). Demarginalizing the intersection of race and Sex: A Black feminist critique of Antidiscrimination Doctrine, feminist theory, and Antiracist Politics . Feminist Legal Theory, 57-80. doi:10.4324/9780429500480-5
Gunjal, S. (2020, December 30). The urgency of intersectionality. Retrieved March 08, 2021, from https://canadianequality.ca/the-urgency-of-intersectionality/
Heath, V. (2019, August 16). Intersectionality and the implications for workplace gender equity. Retrieved March 08, 2021, from https://www.gendereconomy.org/intersectionality-and-workplace-gender-equity/
Intersectional feminism in Canada: Learn the facts. (2020, April 16). Retrieved March 08, 2021, from https://canadianwomen.org/the-facts/intersectional-feminism/
Jacobs, T. (2019, June 24). Black women are more likely than white women to report sexual harassment. Retrieved March 08, 2021, from https://psmag.com/news/black-women-are-more-likely-than-white-women-to-report-sexual-harassment
Jain-Link, P., Bourgeois, T., & Kennedy, J. T. (2019, April 23). Ending harassment at work requires an intersectional approach. Retrieved March 08, 2021, from https://hbr.org/2019/04/ending-harassment-at-work-requires-an-intersectional-approach
Jean Lock Kunz, P. (2015, July 14). UNEQUAL access: A Canadian profile of racial differences in education, employment and income. Retrieved March 08, 2021, from https://www.crrf-fcrr.ca/en/component/flexicontent/item/23538-unequal-access-a-canadian-profile-of-racial-differences-in-education-employment-and-income
Ontario Human Rights Commission (2001). An Intersectional Approach to Discrimination: Addressing Multiple Grounds in Human Rights Claims. Policy and Education Branch, 1-30.
Rosette, A. S., Ponce de Leon, R., Koval, C. Z., & Harrison, D. A. (2018). Intersectionality: Connecting experiences of gender with race at work. Research in Organizational Behavior, 38, 1-22. doi:10.1016/j.riob.2018.12.002
Szklarski, C. (2018, December 18). Women are more likely to experience workplace harassment than men: Statcan. Retrieved March 08, 2021, from https://globalnews.ca/news/4771481/women-workplace-harassment-stats-canada/
The gender pay Gap: Wage gap in Canada: The facts. (2020, August 04). Retrieved March 08, 2021, from https://canadianwomen.org/the-facts/the-gender-pay-gap/
Tugend, A. (2018, September 30). The effect of intersectionality in the workplace. Retrieved March 08, 2021, from https://www.nytimes.com/2018/09/30/us/the-effect-of-intersectionality-in-the-workplace.html
Why intersectionality matters in the workplace. (n.d.). Retrieved March 08, 2021, from https://www.randstad.ca/employers/workplace-insights/women-in-the-workplace/why-intersectionality-matters-in-the-workplace/
Workplace harassment and mental injuries: Examining root causes. (n.d.). Retrieved March 08, 2021, from https://cupe.ca/workplace-harassment-and-mental-injuries-examining-root-causes-1