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Intersectionality in the Workplace: LGBT+ Commission Inquiry Session

Chaired by Steve Wardlaw, a prominent LGBT+ rights campaigner and international business lawyer, the fourth inquiry session of the LGBT+ Commission took place on 6th June. This session focussed on the issues that the LGBT+ community in the UK face with respect to employment, employability and skills, bringing together the recommendations of leaders in this field.

Please note that this report is not intended to be an exhaustive account of all areas covered in the meeting, nor all areas that the Commission will focus on regarding LGBT+ employment, employability and skills. Instead, this paper seeks to highlight key areas of consensus discussed by the panel, some of the problems in these areas and the recommendations that were suggested. The full recording of the session can be found here.

Third Session: Intersectionality

The third section of this inquiry session of the LGBT+ Commission focused on the importance of intersectionality when considering LGBT+ inclusion at work. The panel for this session included:

  • Laks Mann (Equality, Diversity and Inclusion Adviser to the Mayor of London/Secretary for the National LGBT+ Police Intersectionality Group)
  • Gurchaten Sandhu (Director of Programmes, ILGA World)
  • Sarah Stephenson-Hunter (Founder, Simply Equality)

Understanding intersectionality in the workplace

While the term ‘intersectionality’ is at times amorphous, it is more than simply a buzzword used by people in D&I sectors, but rather a fundamental lens through which we can develop a better understanding of equality issues.

As was noted by Laks Mann, there are two key components to the intersectional lens in the workplace, understanding the whole individual and dominant workplace cultures:

“[Intersectionality] is about viewing the whole person and understanding that there are different aspects of people’s identities. The second thing is dominant cultures…who they benefit and how those become the workplace norms and how it then becomes difficult to challenge because they are the entrenched culture.” – Laks Mann

When businesses say that they want their employees to be able to bring their whole selves to work, this is reflective of an intersectional understanding of discrimination – for instance that the way a white gay man experiences homophobia is different to the way that a south Asian lesbian woman experiences homophobia.

Taking account of all these factors and overlapping inequalities is especially important for the wider LGBT+ community in the workplace. As was noted by Gurchaten Sandhu, measures that harm women in the workplace often have the effect of being harmful to the LGBT+ community. Here, an intersectional lens allows us to see the interconnection between advocacy for women in the workplace and advocacy for LGBT+ inclusion in the workplace:

“We know that LGBT+ people are often found in very feminised sectors, like hospitality, healthcare…and as a result of that, the gender pay gap will impact them. And that’s where the issue of solidarity across and within our communities is integral to this.” – Gurchaten Sandhu

Indeed, when the Government backed down on mandating businesses reporting of their gender pay gap data, this will have inadvertently impacted much of the LGBT+ community.

There is certainly a gap in existing legislation that protects people against discrimination. The Equality Act 2010 (see following section for wider discussion) protects employees from discrimination based on a protected characteristic and allows people to bring multiple, separate claims in relation to a single event (for instance if an instance of discrimination was both homophobic and sexist).

However, intersectional discrimination does not fit into such a framework, as this involves discrimination due to a particular combination of two or more protected characteristics. For instance, consider a workplace that had a space for Muslim workers to pray during the workday, but was not accessible for wheelchair users. This would not affect Muslims without a disability, nor non-Muslim people with a disability. This could not be said to be purely religious or disability-based discrimination, but rather the unique combination of being both disabled and Muslim.

While this kind of discrimination is accounted for in Section 14 of the Equality Act, this section was never brought into force and there remain no plans to do so. Enforcing Section 14 of the Equality Act would be an easy step to bring intersectional protections into law immediately, and account for this gap in legislation.

What can businesses do?

It was noted that understanding dominant cultures in the workplace is the starting point for any employer seeking to embed an intersectional approach to D&I in their workplace. Here, employers should seek to understand what cultures are at play and who they serve compared to who they disadvantage. After this, it is about taking active steps to level the playing field, particularly among those who benefit from dominant workplace cultures:

“If you are part of that dominant culture and you have that power, privilege and influence, you need to acknowledge it and say, I need to go on a journey of learning. A lot of the time, the pressure is always put on people who are in minority cultures, who are not in the dominant culture to do the work, to come up with the solutions. Well, actually no, it’s not for queer people to stop homophobia, biphobia and transphobia.” – Laks Mann

It was also noted that while some workplaces can develop a D&I hierarchy of sorts, with some protected characteristics getting more attention than others, an intersectional approach embedded in D&I policies offers a more holistic framework through which to approach these issues and avoid such a hierarchy.

In terms of practical steps to developing an intersectional framework, the panel insisted on the importance of co-creation. It was noted the importance of bringing employee resource groups to the table to discuss how different policies might impact different members of the LGBT+ community depending on their ethnicity, religion, disability and other protected characteristics. As was noted by Sarah Stephenson-Hunter:

“The statistics on disabled people who aren’t in work are just scary…if you just haven’t got those people in your work environment then they’re not going to be there to help give that intersectional lens.” – Sarah Stephenson Hunter

In order to make sure that these intersectionalities are considered, different staff network groups must be brought together, including religious groups, disability groups and other protected characteristics. Fundamentally, if these people are not included in the process, they are much more likely to not be considered in the policy.

Key Recommendations:

1. Co-create inclusive policies: When LGBT+ employees are not involved in decision-making processes, they are unlikely to be properly accounted for in the policies, practices and guidance that result. Bringing in employees from a wide range of backgrounds and overlapping protected characteristics will be important in ensuring that intersectionalities are carefully considered and a more holistic framework is used.

2. Facilitate collaboration of staff networks: It is often the case that staff employee networks are siloed from each other, with LGBT+ groups rarely interacting with staff disability groups, or groups for different ethnic minorities. The more that these groups work together, the better the understandings that will be developed surrounding the overlapping components of advocacy for these groups, allowing them to work together to develop more inclusive workplaces for all.

3. Enforce section 14 of the Equality Act 2010 – It is vitally important that Section 14 of the Equality Act is enforced to embed protections against intersectional discrimination in law. Currently, case law precedent tends to separate cases of multiple discrimination into siloes in a manner that does not reflect the true nature of intersectional discrimination. This, and accompanying guidance from the Equality and Human Rights Commission, will also provide employers with more certainty around what intersectional discrimination looks like in a practical sense.

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