Episode 12: Intersectionality

June 27, 2019
Intersectional feminism
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Resources mentioned in this podcast:

Kimberlé Crenshaw’s TED Talk “The Urgency of Intersectionality”

Spring Reading: 20 Books to Help You Become a Better, More Self-Aware Ally


Angie Chang: Welcome to Girl Geek X Podcast connecting you with insights from women in tech. This is Angie.

Sukrutha Bhadouria: This is Sukrutha.

Gretchen DeKnikker: This is Gretchen.

Rachel Jones: And this is Rachel, the producer of this podcast, and we’re the team behind Girl Geek X. This podcast brings you the best of Girl Geek X events, dinners, and conferences, where we’ve been elevating women in tech for over ten years.

Angie Chang: And today we’ll be discussing intersectionality.

Rachel Jones: Is this something that comes up a lot at the dinners?

Gretchen DeKnikker: I think so, and you see it a lot in the press also, and I think there seem to be a lot of different interpretations. There’re the people who are deep in doing the work, that are using intersectionality in the way that it’s intended, and then you see on the other end of the spectrum where it’s become like a buzzword, and people hear it and they start saying it without actually fully understanding what it means.

Rachel Jones: What does it mean?

Gretchen DeKnikker: Well, there’s a great TED Talk by Kimberlé Crenshaw, where she outlines everything. For years and years it existed and it was called a bunch of different things–double jeopardy–it was something that black feminists talked about a lot, and then there was a case, I think in the seventies, with General Motors where there was a woman who was suing them and the court wouldn’t let her combine race and gender. So because they hired white women in the secretarial pool and because they hired black men to work in the factory, she could not prove a case that she was being discriminated against as a black woman because they wouldn’t let her join the two intersecting–where the word comes from–parts of her identity that were preventing her from getting a job. So that’s kind of where it started.

Angie Chang: That’s wild.

Gretchen DeKnikker: Yeah.

Rachel Jones: Silly pop culture example that I always think of, there’s an episode of Scrubs where Elliot, who’s a white female doctor, and Turk, who’s a black man, are having this debate about who has it harder, black doctors or female doctors, and then thankfully a black woman doctor walks by and they’re both like ooh. Wow. This argument is dumb for the two of us to be having. And how have you seen this definition play out in tech and how people understand it in that context?

Gretchen DeKnikker: I think I see it a lot, where you’ll hear diversity and inclusion and intersectionality and they’re not the same thing. You know, if you wanna back up and really try to understand intersectionality, then you first need to understand privilege. But then once you acknowledge privilege, then you can really understand how these identities intersect, because each time you add one, right you’ve got “I’m a woman”, and “I’m a black woman”, and “I’m a lesbian” or even a trans woman, right, and you start adding and then you can look at, as you add those identities, how marginalized those people actually are. And I think that’s my definition, what do you think?

Angie Chang: A group called Project Include, which includes a woman by the name of Ellen Pao and in case her name doesn’t ring a bell, she’s a woman who sued the venture-capital firm Kleiner Perkins for gender discrimination and–

Gretchen DeKnikker: Thanks, Ellen.

Angie Chang: –and lost, and I remember feeling so sad and everyone feeling so sad when that happened because we all felt in our bones that we were being let down in the workplaces around the world and we can’t prove it in court. Anyways, she is now part of this amazing Project Include and they have so many resources on the web, I read some on Medium that were very illuminating in terms of the stories that we are not living ourselves, we can listen to in podcasts and documentaries, talk to people on the street.

Angie Chang: So the blog post that really struck me was one called, it was actually titled #FFFFFF Diversity, and if you don’t read HTML, that’s the code for white diversity, and it was written by a engineer, now engineering manager called Erica Joy, and she talks about how her experience at Google–when she worked there, she was confused when the company started spending a lot of money on very outward facing initiatives about how they’re inclusive to women, and women of color, and yet she was feeling like they were not really spending any of that money internally on their black women at Google, who were a very underrepresented group, and she said that if she was a white woman in tech she’d probably have been delighted that they were investing in a diversity initiative but she’s a black woman in tech so things didn’t feel so good to her. And whether by design or by inertia, the favor seems to land on white women.

Sukrutha Bhadouria: Every time I read any news that’s celebrating how many more CEOs that are of Indian origin and you notice that none of them are women. Microsoft and Google and so many other big companies that have visible Indian men running the company, and maybe, I don’t know if people are starting to notice now this obvious ceiling for Indian women and Asian-American women in general, for rising in the ranks, and so there’s this Harvard Business Review article titled “Asian-Americans are the least likely group in the US to be promoted to management,” where they say Asian-Americans are the forgotten minority in the glass ceiling conversation. We have, like I said, you know, not just for Indian men but when you see the Asian women and Indian women at the top very rarely.

Gretchen DeKnikker: When you’re talking about privilege and talking about intersectionality and diversity and inclusion, I think sometimes they all get swirled together and you can lose sight of what those things are individually and what they mean individually and that they are very unique distinctive things.

Rachel Jones: Yeah. Language, it gets tricky, there are so many words and some of them mean similar things, and there’s new ones, which never travels well. I remember even when people were getting really fed up with diversity as a word because it was losing its meaning and they’re like, oh we’re not gonna do that anymore, now it’s about inclusion, and now inclusion has lost all of its saltiness so it’s interesting just what happens with language.

Angie Chang: And now we have the letter X which has… has the letter X, as a variable it’s supposed to be more inclusive, I think the word come around the corner as the next big thing.

Gretchen DeKnikker: Well, it’s a good thing we got on that train early then.

Angie Chang: So, Sarah Staley leads communications and culture at Realtor.com and she spent a portion of her talk at the Realtor.com Girl Geek dinner touching on intersectionality. Here’s what she said.

Sarah Staley: You know, intersectionality–we often talk a lot about–you may not know what this means, but intersectionality is beyond inclusion. It’s beyond diversity. It’s when you really take time to get to know a person’s story, and that’s when the real color comes in.

Rachel Jones: What would you add to Sarah’s definition of intersectionality?

Gretchen DeKnikker: What’s not in the quote is just before that she’d had people think of something unique about themselves, then turn and share with the person sitting next to them, that unique thing about them. So I think, she’s very much trying to bring out a full personality, find a way to bring someone’s full self into a conversation. It’s not quite the traditional sense of how intersectionality would be used but you can sort of see where she’s headed and she’s really close, but I think we see that a lot, right, like people are understanding part of what it means, but not all of what it means. Or we see it where it’s very close to inclusion, which as Rachel was saying earlier, has also lost its shine and luster, given that the word itself is trying to say that it’s an assimilationist theory that the group needs to be brought in and assimilated into this environment, they need to be included in the existing environment as opposed to the environment adapting to all of the people.

Sukrutha Bhadouria: I think it’s important when you’re trying to create an equal environment that there’s no one definition of equal, right? That’s the whole problem when you assume there’s one definition of what it means to feel marginalized or to feel like a minority, so you have to identify where you stand and what the differences in experiences are for other people and perhaps that’s what she was driving to. Like, learn more about other people’s experiences, especially when they’re different from yours so you can be more informed when you’re trying to create a more equal environment. But you have to have a good understanding of what it means and not have this blanket oversimplified definition of what intersectionality is in the first place. What do you think, Angie?

Angie Chang: I don’t like to define what intersectionality is, I just like to talk about the different ways it shows up.

Rachel Jones: I have definitely been in a space where I’ve had to challenge people bringing weak versions of diversity. So when I was working in my last job in Chicago, I became a member of our “culture committee”. You can’t see this on the podcast but I’m doing air quotes.

Gretchen DeKnikker: Oh yeah, they’re very cute air quotes too.

Rachel Jones: Because, so we were a nonprofit organization serving mostly black and brown youth, and a lot of what was happening in the organization was just plain racist. The way that student stories were being used and the ways that they were being tokenized and positioned. As we were trying to hold the organization accountable for that ,they were like Oh! Let’s have a culture committee help figure this out. And for a while, the only assignments that we had were planning parties and that was very confusing, like this is not why we exist. And then we brought in a consultant to help do a race and justice training, that ended up getting us in trouble with our executive director and HR, and so it was like they were asking for diversity and inclusion and asking for our expertise and outside expertise, and then when actually confronted with, “Hey here are the ways that you’re falling short and here’s exactly what you can do to make a change,” they kind of faltered. So even just by the show of creating a culture committee they thought the work was done, when we were trying to do the actual work.

Gretchen DeKnikker: No, no, they wanted you to do the work–

Rachel Jones: –But it’s just like–

Gretchen DeKnikker: –right oh we’re gonna have a committee we’re gonna put people of color on it, they’re gonna solve this problem. We, the white people, the executives, the whatever, we don’t have to stop and look and think about our role in this.

Rachel Jones: And, yeah, I think that’s the danger when these words kind of lose their meaning, it’s something that you can just pass off to someone to figure out, and that’s something that takes actual investment and work and thought and a complicated lens that’s looking at these issues in an intersectional way.

Gretchen DeKnikker: So, this is a great lead in to a quote from Audrey Blanche who is the Global Head of Diversity and Belonging at Atlassian. She did a talk called Thank You, Next, at our recent Atlassian dinner and she is amazing, and she purposely doesn’t have inclusion in her title for the reasons that we were kind of talking about a little bit earlier, and in this quote talks about how you build a greater sense of belonging within your culture.

Aubrey Blanche: We need to move away from ‘diversity,’ which has a limited meaning and actually is not aligned with the goals that we’re trying to build. We need to build balance in our organizations. We also need to move away from ‘inclusion’. Inclusion assumes that I can fit like an add-on into a power structure that was built for straight white men, and I have no interest in doing that. I’m not any of those things and I don’t know how to show up that way. I wanna actually build belonging, I wanna show up in a space where I was considered and where I was thought of.

Aubrey Blanche: And that doesn’t mean… it can be the littlest things that show me that. You’ll see here, research shows that women feel like they belong when there’s more plants in an office. You’ll see that our bathrooms, even the ones that because of building codes have to have gendered words on them, do not actually contain pictures of what a man or a woman looks like. That might not matter to a lot of you. But to folks who are gender-nonconforming or non-binary or transgender, that has huge meaning. That little subtle clue actually tells their brain that they belong in that space, and that’s what we’re trying to build at Atlassian and I think we can all resonate with wanting to feel like we belong.

Aubrey Blanche: We need to stop thinking that women = diversity, and embrace an intersectionality-first strategy. So how does this look like? It’s pretty simple. If I think of someone who has intersectionally marginalized identities, let’s say myself. If I as a queer Latina woman can succeed in the organization, any changes that are made are definitely gonna benefit straight white women, too. But when we start with diversity = women, we only build programs, processes, and structures that help straight white economically privileged women succeed. Who certainly face barriers compared to their male counterparts, but we end up further marginalizing anyone who doesn’t fit that bucket. And I genuinely, genuinely believe that we can all win together, this does not have to be a competition.

Gretchen DeKnikker: I love her. I’m gonna get like, I love Aubrey t-shirts printed, stickers, I might just stand outside Atlassian with a sign.

Gretchen DeKnikker: Ooh, maybe I could do the Say Anything where he’s holding up the boombox, play her a song. I love her that much.

Rachel Jones: Everything that she said is every critique of white feminism, ’cause there are so many approaches like white feminists organizing and trying to push for women in workplaces and just leaving so many people out, but what was harsh about that was that so many times when people would try and give that feedback and hold these women accountable, they’re saying oh we’re trying to find solutions that work for all women, and you’re proposing things that are just specific to you, not realizing that the things that work for white women are specific to white women and not just the general universal solution for everyone. It’s actually solving the easiest problem, and leaving most of the struggle still there and saying like, “We did a good job.” So I like that she pointed that out.

Gretchen DeKnikker: And white women, if you’re out there trying to figure out how you play a role in this: Pull up a chair. When you get a seat at the table, pull up a chair for someone of a different race, or sexual orientation, or whatever.

Angie Chang: It is a little frustrating to me whenever I hear about ‘a woman has cracked this big tech board!’ And I’m like, “White woman. It is another white woman.” And it’s gonna be, if we’re lucky, the second white woman on an all white male board, so definitely, if you are a person of privilege, pull up a chair for someone that doesn’t look like you.

Sukrutha Bhadouria: Yeah and [inaudible 00:15:55] other women with different experiences will start to see someone that they can identify with, because not everybody will identify with you, they’ve got that amazing ability that we really need.

Gretchen DeKnikker: That’s what I love about the dinners, ’cause it’ll be all different roles and all different levels of experience, and the more diversity we can get there from even just a cognitive level, that means that there’s one more person in the audience who, at least one more, who’s like I wanna be her someday or like I finally feel this connection with this person and I see it being possible, kind of like you were describing earlier, Sukrutha, that panel where you were like, Oh I’m out of excuses, all of these women have all of the things and now I feel empowered to go do it.

Sukrutha Bhadouria: A lot of times–speaking of intersectionality–I’ll go to a panel or at a Girl Geek dinner, I will find something that I can connect with each speaker because we have so many different identities, and I also notice that the meter of how diverse the panel is or the speaker roster is defines how diverse the attendee group is, so we have to be really mindful of, look beyond just gender or [inaudible 00:17:25].

Gretchen DeKnikker: Yeah, as we’re in the fourth wave of feminism and I feel like we can get it right this time, and not end up in a bunch of fragmented… with different goals.

Rachel Jones: How do you actually use an intersectional lens to create inclusion or belonging, in your…?

Gretchen DeKnikker: I feel like as a manager you have to, particularly once you start managing a team, you have to start thinking about how each individual person is approaching this, and at that point they’re individuals and they come with their own little unique snowflake selves that you have to start thinking about how those things impact. Right, and someone who’s more soft spoken, right, and at that point you’re not really thinking about what the race of the person is who’s more soft spoken but like how do I help this person get their ideas out there, stuff we’ve talked about on previous podcasts.

Gretchen DeKnikker: But I think from a day to day management level it’s really thinking about little things, the way that Aubrey talked about like simple little things, the not using the male and female icons on the bathroom, like at tech conferences for a long time and you still see it sometimes they wouldn’t have women’s t-shirts, and it’s like, oh well, you know, there just weren’t very many of you so they’re unisex shirts. And the conferences that I’ve planned, it’s like you have to have women’s shirts and they have to be nice women’s shirts, cut for a woman without a huge logo right in the middle of her breasts, right, a smaller logo moved up a little bit so she’s not some weird warped billboard with your logo on it. But it’s like those little things that make people feel welcome, it’s those little things of like, oh you know I was gonna be here and you knew there weren’t gonna be a bunch of me here, but you thought about it, and there’s something for me. And so I think, it’s not in the big things, it’s in the teeny tiny little details.

Angie Chang: You talk about little details and in Aubrey’s talk she mentions putting plants and magazines in work spaces so women can feel more comfortable within their workplace and studies have shown that women and girls react better to a workplace that has plants and magazines, so just little things to make women or other underrepresented groups feel like they’re part of this culture.

Gretchen DeKnikker: Yeah, but I mean that’s also not, if there’s someone listening to this and they’re like oh if I get plants and magazines women will feel more included, it has to be unique to your company, you have to be thinking about what are these things, because it can work in the opposite way too, right. You walk in one day and they’re like we heard women like plants and magazines like, oh perfect, well I must be like all other women so I’ll be thrilled.

Angie Chang: I think the study was probably meant to say if you were, I don’t know, very technology heavy environment and there were servers everywhere, maybe do some things to make it more hospitable.

Rachel Jones: There are big and small changes that you can make that communicate to a person. Yeah, you do belong here, or it’s something that’s actually accommodating needs that are specific to different groups, like providing childcare, providing transportation or other things that specific groups have a harder time accessing or could be more of a barrier for them for participating. It really should be led by what are people’s needs, what are people’s barriers and how do we respond to those?

Angie Chang: Yeah, I think it’s also understanding and helping people who are fasting for Ramadan through their work day that month, and not making them… helping them feel not so awful when they have to remind people this is why I’m not drinking water right now and stuff like that.

Sukrutha Bhadouria: And even when you’re pregnant, or you have someone on your team who is pregnant, being mindful of all their unique things and calling for the appropriate number of breaks, and when someone’s just had a baby, they shouldn’t feel stressed out or pressured to dial in while pumping.

Sukrutha Bhadouria: That can be very stressful so just, I mean…

Sukrutha Bhadouria: Thinking about barriers, scenarios and barriers. Situations that everyone else might be in, and building a team is like building a puzzle that when you take one piece out you have a totally different piece that you might want to add to it just based on who else is left on the team, so constantly thinking about who your next hire should be based on the team that you have. In terms of filling the blank, not extending the blank that might be there. Heidi Williams offered her own advice during our recent Elevate conference. We met her when she was the VP of Engineering at Box, and now Heidi Williams is changing the world for women as the CTO and co-founder of tEQuitable. At her Elevate conference talk, which was hugely popular by the way, she recommended using an engineering approach to debug the workplace culture and make systemic change that improves the lives of working women everywhere.

Heidi Williams: Psychological safety more than anything else is critical to making a team work. And so what is psychological safety? It’s the shared belief held by members of the team that the team is safe for interpersonal risk taking. Psychological safety may sound like it’s all about the emotions or about the mental aspect of the game, but really it’s the way that you encourage and promote behaviors that reinforce trust and respect and mutual empathy and authenticity, and discourage behaviors that tear those down. So the key here is don’t measure how people feel, measure how people behave and the impact it has on others.

Heidi Williams: So let me give an example of one of the things that we’ve seen and how we identified behaviors and talked about the possible systems that might have been causing those behaviors, and of course then what actions you can take to improve those systems. So the example we saw at one company was that interactions between teams were being reported as aggressive and bullying. So you could imagine that those people are just mean. But that’s probably not really the case. There’s some reason why they’re being aggressive and bullying.

Heidi Williams: There’s a bunch of different systemic issues that could be the root cause here. Maybe the two different teams don’t have aligned goals. They have goals that they are totally different from each other, they’re not reliant on each other, and they’re both measured on the success of achieving their own goals. And maybe the success metrics don’t include that you have to collaborate and help others achieve their goals, that you’re only measured on whether your team achieves their own goal. Or maybe the peer feedback system is not part of performance reviews, so there’s actually no way to even report this behavior, so maybe the team that’s being aggressive and bullying has no idea the impact of their behavior on others. So only if you look at the data, and then ask the five whys and debug it like an engineer will you get at the possible root causes, the systemic issues that could be causing that behavior.

Heidi Williams: So to talk through that, if you’re gonna make systemic change about your supportive culture, and create a supportive culture, start by examining behaviors to understand your current culture, then ask the five whys to find the root cause behind the behavior, and then create systems that encourage psychological safety so that you can promote all these good things around trust and understanding and empathy and communication. And don’t tolerate destructive behaviors.

Rachel Jones: I really like that she says don’t measure how people feel, measure how people behave, because I feel so often in these conversations, they get lost in this place of feelings and people don’t feel included and they don’t feel like they belong and then it makes other people feel like they don’t actually know what to do in response to that. But thinking about behavior, that’s something that you can observe and easily change and that doesn’t let you get away with, oh maybe people are always gonna feel some type of way, like no. We can actually change these behaviors. It also takes the pressure off of the person who is marginalized, so they’re not having to explain why they feel the way that they feel, we’re focusing on the behaviors that are damaging and working to change that.

Sukrutha Bhadouria: Yeah and you also don’t wanna wait till someone tells you how they’re feeling. You need to be observing their actions, and whether they’re showing up to events, those events aren’t inclusive enough, and when I say events I mean we do a lot of, in tech companies we do have a lot of events that are supposed to be team building and team bonding events, happy hours, ping-pong championships, and if you’re not seeing people participate, people of various groups participating, don’t wait till they tell you why they don’t.

Gretchen DeKnikker: You know when you were talking about don’t wait to have someone tell you how they feel, right, but if someone does, there’s certainly better ways to handle it than if you… a common thing that you’ll hear is giving feedback to a white person then at first they’re defensive, then eventually they feel victimized in some way, so then the person who is just trying to express their feelings is not only not getting their needs met but now they’re trying to meet the needs of the person who’s upset at having their behavior called out and called into question, which is sort of the thing that you really wanna stop doing and start avoiding, and listening. I don’t know, do you guys have tips on how people could hear feedback differently? Giving feedback and…

Sukrutha Bhadouria: I wish that when people–when I give feedback and I try to do this when I receive feedback–I wish the listener or the person who’s supposed to receive the feedback asked questions instead of responding to the feedback right away. I think the worst thing you can do is start to get defensive, is try to explain your actions when you’re getting feedback about something specific that you did or said. So if they ask the questions to get the context, to understand why someone’s feeling the way that they’re feeling. I’ve found that I’m more likely to give feedback if the person that I’m giving it to is listening and asking questions as opposed to responding to it straight away.

Rachel Jones: I think another thing you can think of, kind of flowing from what Heidi said, is really to focus everything on behavior, because it makes sense to be defensive if your whole identity is being called into question, and a lot of times when feedback is given people don’t hear it as, “Oh you did this one thing that made me feel this way,” they hear it as you are homophobic or you are a sexist or you are a racist. So it’s saying I’m not calling your whole identity into question or saying that you are one type of thing. We’re talking about the specific behavior that you exhibited and the impact that that had and the causes behind that so lets focus on that. I’m not talking about who you are as a person, so don’t take it personally in that way.

Gretchen DeKnikker: I think that’s perfect. And I think white people in this country, me included, need to get very comfortable with the fact that we are all racist on some level and that everyone has racist behaviors and that while the word is really powerful, we need to actually think about the definition of it and what that means, and how to correct those behaviors because even a racist will tell you they’re not racist, they’re just separatists. They just want you live over there. I don’t not like you, I just don’t wanna live with you kind of a thing, so just understanding there are racist behaviors. We all have them every single day and being open to hearing that feedback.

Angie Chang: I think intersectionality just reminds us how much further we have to go and be open to continuing to learn about each other, this evolving conversation and just keep trying to be curious about other people.

Sukrutha Bhadouria: Yeah, my final thoughts are just a reminder that must be [inaudible 00:29:46], more than just your gender or more than just your race, and there’s all kinds of diversity that you have to pay attention to in the workplace or in your social environment. So always pay attention to the space that you fit into and the space that you don’t fit into that others might fit into.

Gretchen DeKnikker: Right, I know for this wave of feminism to be successful it has to be intersectional, and if you find yourself in a place where you don’t totally understand what that means and the ways to approach it, then there’s only like–you know we just did a post on 20 books that you can read–you don’t have to read all of them–that can definitely, on the girlgeek.io site, a book on building allyship, but if it’s not intersectional, it will fail, the same way that the past three movements have failed on some level to elevate all women. And so it’s really, really important, and what’s that quote? My feminism will be intersectional, or it will be full of shit.

Rachel Jones: It’s definitely true, you’re setting yourself up to fail if you’re using definitions of these things that are empty or you’re using solutions that only work for the group that’s struggling the least out of everyone, and we’re at a point where people can very easily see through these things when they are bullshit, like people aren’t just gonna say like we have a culture committee and take that to mean like the work is done, people actually wanna see tangible results so… yeah, I think–

Gretchen DeKnikker: We have an ERG! Clearly, everything’s fine!

Rachel Jones: Yeah, mm-hmm (affirmative). Like as much as you can, hold people accountable to do the actual work and not just fly a diversity flag and say the work is done.

Gretchen DeKnikker: Or they think that the people in the marginalized group are the ones who are going to do the work. Ask them what needs to be done and then do it.

Angie Chang: Then give them money to do it.

Gretchen DeKnikker: Oh, money!

Angie Chang: Thanks for listening to this episode of the Girl Geek X podcast, we’ll be back for more advice from women in tech.

Rachel Jones: This podcast is produced by me, Rachel Jones, with recording help from Eric Brown. To learn more about Girl Geek X, or buy tickets to our next dinner, visit girlgeek.io. You can also find full videos and transcripts from our events. If you’re interested in hosting a Girl Geek dinner, email sponsors@girlgeek.io.

Angie Chang: This podcast was sponsored by Realtor.com, offering the most comprehensive source of for sale MLS-listed properties. For years, millions of home shoppers have turned to Realtor.com to find their dream home, and this podcast was also sponsored by Atlassian, a leading provider of collaboration development and issue tracking software for teams.

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