Intersectionality can’t just be a buzzword. It requires structural change


In order to make true progress on your organisation’s gender equality strategy, you need to include intersectionality as a key pillar. Gender equality needs to be for all women, says expert.

In today’s dynamic diversity, equity and inclusion landscape, business and HR leaders must recognise that gender equality strategies cannot just be designed for one type of woman.

Embracing intersectionality, the interconnected nature of social categorisations such as race, class and gender, is crucial. This approach acknowledges the diverse experiences and challenges individuals face, ensuring that efforts toward gender equality are truly equity based, targeted and effective at the system level. 

Div Pillay is on a mission to get organisational leaders to not only acknowledge this, but act on it. As the CEO and Co-Founder of MindTribes and Culturally Diverse Women, a D&I management consultancy and social enterprise arm, respectively, she has spent over a decade trying to move the needle on intersectionality. But it hasn’t always been an easy sell.

In 2016, she spoke with hundreds of business leaders who told her that they “weren’t ready” to include more culturally and linguistically diverse (CALD) women in their gender equality plans.

“Back then, people didn’t understand intersectionality at all. They said it was too complex. They didn’t have demographic data to understand who would identify as culturally diverse. [Because of this] they couldn’t understand workforce composition and therefore couldn’t make decisions based on that.”

These organisations went on to create their gender equality plans over the following five years without taking an intersectional lens to their approach, which means that now we’re seeing less and less CALD women in positions of power.

“So while organisations can report to WGEA and say they are reducing the pay gap, if you disaggregate women who aren’t born in Australia or women who are from different cultural background or speak a different language, migrants or those with asylum seeker status – you see there’s a significant pay gap. It’s just that they are a minority in the gender pay gap composition,” says Pillay, who will be speaking on a panel at AHRI’s virtual International Women’s Day event on 12 March.

Pillay cites research which shows that CALD men can earn up to 16-20 per cent less than their Anglo male colleagues and that number jumps to 36 per cent for CALD women.

Headshot of Div Pillay
Image: Div Pillay, upcoming speaker at AHRI’s IWD virtual event.

Inequity around progression opportunities is also a consistent barrier for CALD women.

“The data shows that the women getting onto boards were Anglo Saxon, Australian born and from the same education and social classes as the men in the room, and it was the same for C-suite and executive director roles. For me, that was a case for change.”

Australia is lagging behind

According to 2023 ratings, Australia is 26th in the world for gender equality. New Zealand sits in fourth position.

“New Zealand has been in the top ten forever. Why? Because they’ve taken a gender intersectional approach from the beginning. Their structure tells you that you have to look at all women, all of the time. You don’t look at some of the women, some of the time. It doesn’t work.”

And intersectionality doesn’t just mean a woman from a CALD background – it encompasses all kinds of experiences, she adds.

“It could be an Anglo woman who is a single parent caring for a chronically ill partner or an older parent – which is a rising demographic – or women who have a neurodiversity [diagnosis] that they find out about late in life. Those are the types of women, even in the Anglo cohort, who do not progress into leadership.”

Read HRM’s article ‘How to support the ‘sandwich generation’ at work.’

“If you’re going to do intersections well, then you’ve got to do all intersections, all the time. Then you’ve got to redress the inequity that sits there at the system level, and we are talking to HR leaders about employment systems, of recruitment, selection, onboarding, development and advancement or promotion. All these systems at work have inherent structural biases that are still keeping some women out.”

These women then also earn less superannuation, says Pillay, which means they’re vulnerable throughout their entire lifespan.

“So our data shows [these women] have to continuously work closer to 75 [years-old] to pay the rent – especially single women who don’t have a double income and may take on caring for older parents, so they’re working part-time.

“Singapore calls it a ‘silver economy‘. But they value the silver economy. They’ve done an amazing job of bringing older women back into the workforce and paying them well to use their knowledge and skills. 

How to shift the dial in employment systems

Gender intersectionality needs to be considered at its core rather than as an afterthought, says Pillay.

“It’s always been like, ‘Look at our progress for women. But oh, what about the First Nations women?'”

HR professionals can help change this mindset in their organisations by assessing some of their progresses from beginning to end. Take development strategies, for example. Consider who is exposed to opportunities to be visible and vocal at the senior leadership level. It’s often not the women below the mid-level in the organisation.

“So what they end up doing is switching. They reach that middle level, they can’t progress upwards to get the pay impact they deserve, so they end up switching sideways to other organisations and they kind of begin again. They’ll do two to three years at that organisation and then they’ll move on again. 

“Their resumes look great because they’ve had great movement through different organisations and sectors, and they might have marginal differences in their pay, but it’s often so little that it’s negligible.”

Audit your processes to factor in intersectionality

Part of Pillay’s work at MindTribes is to audit the promotional criteria in organisations to identify potential structural racism or sexism.

“Often promotional criteria, in its language, carries a lot of exclusionary criteria that can hold some women back.”

For example, one role Pillay recently audited required that people had ‘X’ years experience in a specific type of role which, historically, would not have been opened up to CALD women or women with disability. So it perpetuates a cycle of hiring the same people over and over again.

“And it required Australian experience in that specific sector. So you could have had an absolutely talented person who had all of their key experience internationally, in a market that’s ahead of Australia, but you excluded that person by [adding in this criteria].

“You have to look at all women, all of the time. You don’t look at some of the women, some of the time. It doesn’t work.” – Div Pillay, CEO and Co-Founder, MindTribes and Culturally Diverse Women

Pillay also audits organisations’ development plans.

“My background is as a behavioural psychologist… so I like to find the evidence. So I ask people to give me de-identified development plans for their teams and, for ten years now, I’ve been able to guess which plans are for people who are Anglo and which are for people of colour.

“They say, “How did you guess?” and I’ll say, ‘Because what you tell an Anglo person in your team to do in terms of development is very light – it’s around things like getting exposure and going to conferences. What you tell a CALD person to do is deepen technical knowledge, which worsens their [pathway] to leadership. You ask them to do behavioural stuff – style, communication, profiling themselves at an SLT level, which can be hard to get access to.'”

Sometimes these plans are also asking people to go against their natural ways of connecting with stakeholders or communication styles, she adds.

“Let’s say someone spoke with an accent and you kept telling them to speak clearer or slow down… or if they are quieter or more reserved and you keep asking them to speak up. That’s not how their brain or mouth works. They might be a reflector, a thinker or an observer. They’ll give an insightful comment when they need to or see value in it.

“You’re asking them to be more like you than they are themselves and you’re losing the difference that they bring.

“Development plans promotional criteria need to be audited properly, to give leaders some agency to figure out where to take capability builds with managers when they’re having one-on-one and feedback conversations… the bias happens there.”

When Pillay relays these insights to Anglo leaders, she says they’re often quite comforted by it. because they know what to solve for. 

“They see they might need to learn how to develop a person who is not born here differently – equitably but differently,” she says.

Most organisations do a good job of teaching managers about these biases at a theoretical level, but less are doing a great job of telling managers where they are most likely to be introducing biases into their decisions and conversations on a day-to-day level.

“Many [people] go through this leadership training year in year out, but do they have accountability to their team to actually make a substantive shift in [diverse talents’] career mobility and pay?

“And then we go to those managers and say, ‘You’ve lost all the women from your team; gender retention has gone out the window.’ Yeah, because they didn’t know how to promote and develop well; they had no chance to retain her because they didn’t know how.

So now it’s time to give managers and leaders a starting point – and hold them to it, says Pillay.

“Make it a personal development action on their performance scorecard. And ask, ‘Can you show us the evidence of how you’ve done that?’ Then people actually rise to the occasion.”

“You’re asking them to be more like you than they are themselves and you’re losing the difference that they bring.” – Div Pillay, CEO and Co-Founder, MindTribes and Culturally Diverse Women

Also, consider how you use diversity targets or scholarship programs, she adds. While they can be beneficial in elevating diverse talent into high-profile roles, when such positions are scarce, it can cause challenges.

“It means all the women of colour, First Nations women or women with a disability must fight for the one spot that represents them. It means you’re leaving 80-90 per cent of them behind. You’re giving a small ticket to play that doesn’t create a groundswell.”

Instead, Pillay suggests developing an entire cohort of talented CALD and First Nations women in leadership programs that you can draw from when positions become available, that way you’re giving everyone the same development opportunities.

Change requires transformational effort

Pillay worry is that people are treating intersectionality as a “buzzword”.

“It’s not that; it’s a structural change. You’ve got to rethink your talent pipeline, rethink your promotional pathways, rethink what your executive should look like. And do it aggressively in two-to-five-year tranches. 

“It’s a transformation effort to address some of the generational inequity that has existed for the women that I stand up for. [It can’t be] slow, glacial, some-of-the-time activity.”

Pillay would like to see official governance introduced to elevate intersectionality in the DEI space, such as mandatory intersectional reporting included as part of the new gender pay reporting rules that are coming into effect next month. With no incentive to collect and report on gender intersectional pay gaps, Pillay fears women who are marginalised will be further forgotten and hidden in the data.

“The Gender Equality Act [2020] in Victoria is the only gender equality legislation that… has intersectionality in it. That’s good, but [Victoria’s Gender Equality] Commissioner Dr Niki Vincent can only strongly suggest that gender intersectionality be part of the audit, action planning and impact assessments, as the Act guides this thinking, but organisations need to invest and commit to this action. We are not seeing this direct investment in clients we work with, it is still an under-resourced and underinvested area of data collection and planning.”

Pillay shares a gender intersectionality toolkit her organisation developed as guidance for Victorian entities that is on the Commission for Gender Equality’s website. Here you can find a paper, podcasts and case studies. She also suggests watching the TEDX talk by Kimberlé Crenshaw on gender intersectionality, systems, power and privilege.

“The whole diversity and inclusion and gender space is all about education and awareness, [but we need to take] a change management lens to the everyday people experiences where we need to reduce or eliminate gender bias or racism. So that’s my call to action – give them something tangible to do next and then hold them accountable.”

Hear more from Div Pillay along with a range of other experts, including Sam Mostyn AO, Deloitte’s Pip Dexter and Professor of Gender and Employment Relations Marian Baird AO CAHRI at AHRI’s International Women’s Day virtual webinar on 12 March. Sign up here.

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Gwilym Davies
Gwilym Davies
1 month ago

Shouldn’t intersectionality be inclusive of both genders? The more we segregate and divide the more we add to the problem

Tobias
Tobias
1 month ago

Hi there, I’d love to know more about how to implement this practically. My initial concern is along the lines “if you’re marketing to everyone, you’re marketing to no one”, and trying to adapt all policies to the entirety of the female experience – seems exhausting? My second question is along the line of development and progression. There are naturally less roles towards an organisations peak, and not everyone innately wants to climb that mountain. Getting the most effective people in the right roles is advantageous and personal characteristics should play second fiddle? I can see why organisations find this… Read more »

More on HRM

Intersectionality can’t just be a buzzword. It requires structural change


In order to make true progress on your organisation’s gender equality strategy, you need to include intersectionality as a key pillar. Gender equality needs to be for all women, says expert.

In today’s dynamic diversity, equity and inclusion landscape, business and HR leaders must recognise that gender equality strategies cannot just be designed for one type of woman.

Embracing intersectionality, the interconnected nature of social categorisations such as race, class and gender, is crucial. This approach acknowledges the diverse experiences and challenges individuals face, ensuring that efforts toward gender equality are truly equity based, targeted and effective at the system level. 

Div Pillay is on a mission to get organisational leaders to not only acknowledge this, but act on it. As the CEO and Co-Founder of MindTribes and Culturally Diverse Women, a D&I management consultancy and social enterprise arm, respectively, she has spent over a decade trying to move the needle on intersectionality. But it hasn’t always been an easy sell.

In 2016, she spoke with hundreds of business leaders who told her that they “weren’t ready” to include more culturally and linguistically diverse (CALD) women in their gender equality plans.

“Back then, people didn’t understand intersectionality at all. They said it was too complex. They didn’t have demographic data to understand who would identify as culturally diverse. [Because of this] they couldn’t understand workforce composition and therefore couldn’t make decisions based on that.”

These organisations went on to create their gender equality plans over the following five years without taking an intersectional lens to their approach, which means that now we’re seeing less and less CALD women in positions of power.

“So while organisations can report to WGEA and say they are reducing the pay gap, if you disaggregate women who aren’t born in Australia or women who are from different cultural background or speak a different language, migrants or those with asylum seeker status – you see there’s a significant pay gap. It’s just that they are a minority in the gender pay gap composition,” says Pillay, who will be speaking on a panel at AHRI’s virtual International Women’s Day event on 12 March.

Pillay cites research which shows that CALD men can earn up to 16-20 per cent less than their Anglo male colleagues and that number jumps to 36 per cent for CALD women.

Headshot of Div Pillay
Image: Div Pillay, upcoming speaker at AHRI’s IWD virtual event.

Inequity around progression opportunities is also a consistent barrier for CALD women.

“The data shows that the women getting onto boards were Anglo Saxon, Australian born and from the same education and social classes as the men in the room, and it was the same for C-suite and executive director roles. For me, that was a case for change.”

Australia is lagging behind

According to 2023 ratings, Australia is 26th in the world for gender equality. New Zealand sits in fourth position.

“New Zealand has been in the top ten forever. Why? Because they’ve taken a gender intersectional approach from the beginning. Their structure tells you that you have to look at all women, all of the time. You don’t look at some of the women, some of the time. It doesn’t work.”

And intersectionality doesn’t just mean a woman from a CALD background – it encompasses all kinds of experiences, she adds.

“It could be an Anglo woman who is a single parent caring for a chronically ill partner or an older parent – which is a rising demographic – or women who have a neurodiversity [diagnosis] that they find out about late in life. Those are the types of women, even in the Anglo cohort, who do not progress into leadership.”

Read HRM’s article ‘How to support the ‘sandwich generation’ at work.’

“If you’re going to do intersections well, then you’ve got to do all intersections, all the time. Then you’ve got to redress the inequity that sits there at the system level, and we are talking to HR leaders about employment systems, of recruitment, selection, onboarding, development and advancement or promotion. All these systems at work have inherent structural biases that are still keeping some women out.”

These women then also earn less superannuation, says Pillay, which means they’re vulnerable throughout their entire lifespan.

“So our data shows [these women] have to continuously work closer to 75 [years-old] to pay the rent – especially single women who don’t have a double income and may take on caring for older parents, so they’re working part-time.

“Singapore calls it a ‘silver economy‘. But they value the silver economy. They’ve done an amazing job of bringing older women back into the workforce and paying them well to use their knowledge and skills. 

How to shift the dial in employment systems

Gender intersectionality needs to be considered at its core rather than as an afterthought, says Pillay.

“It’s always been like, ‘Look at our progress for women. But oh, what about the First Nations women?'”

HR professionals can help change this mindset in their organisations by assessing some of their progresses from beginning to end. Take development strategies, for example. Consider who is exposed to opportunities to be visible and vocal at the senior leadership level. It’s often not the women below the mid-level in the organisation.

“So what they end up doing is switching. They reach that middle level, they can’t progress upwards to get the pay impact they deserve, so they end up switching sideways to other organisations and they kind of begin again. They’ll do two to three years at that organisation and then they’ll move on again. 

“Their resumes look great because they’ve had great movement through different organisations and sectors, and they might have marginal differences in their pay, but it’s often so little that it’s negligible.”

Audit your processes to factor in intersectionality

Part of Pillay’s work at MindTribes is to audit the promotional criteria in organisations to identify potential structural racism or sexism.

“Often promotional criteria, in its language, carries a lot of exclusionary criteria that can hold some women back.”

For example, one role Pillay recently audited required that people had ‘X’ years experience in a specific type of role which, historically, would not have been opened up to CALD women or women with disability. So it perpetuates a cycle of hiring the same people over and over again.

“And it required Australian experience in that specific sector. So you could have had an absolutely talented person who had all of their key experience internationally, in a market that’s ahead of Australia, but you excluded that person by [adding in this criteria].

“You have to look at all women, all of the time. You don’t look at some of the women, some of the time. It doesn’t work.” – Div Pillay, CEO and Co-Founder, MindTribes and Culturally Diverse Women

Pillay also audits organisations’ development plans.

“My background is as a behavioural psychologist… so I like to find the evidence. So I ask people to give me de-identified development plans for their teams and, for ten years now, I’ve been able to guess which plans are for people who are Anglo and which are for people of colour.

“They say, “How did you guess?” and I’ll say, ‘Because what you tell an Anglo person in your team to do in terms of development is very light – it’s around things like getting exposure and going to conferences. What you tell a CALD person to do is deepen technical knowledge, which worsens their [pathway] to leadership. You ask them to do behavioural stuff – style, communication, profiling themselves at an SLT level, which can be hard to get access to.'”

Sometimes these plans are also asking people to go against their natural ways of connecting with stakeholders or communication styles, she adds.

“Let’s say someone spoke with an accent and you kept telling them to speak clearer or slow down… or if they are quieter or more reserved and you keep asking them to speak up. That’s not how their brain or mouth works. They might be a reflector, a thinker or an observer. They’ll give an insightful comment when they need to or see value in it.

“You’re asking them to be more like you than they are themselves and you’re losing the difference that they bring.

“Development plans promotional criteria need to be audited properly, to give leaders some agency to figure out where to take capability builds with managers when they’re having one-on-one and feedback conversations… the bias happens there.”

When Pillay relays these insights to Anglo leaders, she says they’re often quite comforted by it. because they know what to solve for. 

“They see they might need to learn how to develop a person who is not born here differently – equitably but differently,” she says.

Most organisations do a good job of teaching managers about these biases at a theoretical level, but less are doing a great job of telling managers where they are most likely to be introducing biases into their decisions and conversations on a day-to-day level.

“Many [people] go through this leadership training year in year out, but do they have accountability to their team to actually make a substantive shift in [diverse talents’] career mobility and pay?

“And then we go to those managers and say, ‘You’ve lost all the women from your team; gender retention has gone out the window.’ Yeah, because they didn’t know how to promote and develop well; they had no chance to retain her because they didn’t know how.

So now it’s time to give managers and leaders a starting point – and hold them to it, says Pillay.

“Make it a personal development action on their performance scorecard. And ask, ‘Can you show us the evidence of how you’ve done that?’ Then people actually rise to the occasion.”

“You’re asking them to be more like you than they are themselves and you’re losing the difference that they bring.” – Div Pillay, CEO and Co-Founder, MindTribes and Culturally Diverse Women

Also, consider how you use diversity targets or scholarship programs, she adds. While they can be beneficial in elevating diverse talent into high-profile roles, when such positions are scarce, it can cause challenges.

“It means all the women of colour, First Nations women or women with a disability must fight for the one spot that represents them. It means you’re leaving 80-90 per cent of them behind. You’re giving a small ticket to play that doesn’t create a groundswell.”

Instead, Pillay suggests developing an entire cohort of talented CALD and First Nations women in leadership programs that you can draw from when positions become available, that way you’re giving everyone the same development opportunities.

Change requires transformational effort

Pillay worry is that people are treating intersectionality as a “buzzword”.

“It’s not that; it’s a structural change. You’ve got to rethink your talent pipeline, rethink your promotional pathways, rethink what your executive should look like. And do it aggressively in two-to-five-year tranches. 

“It’s a transformation effort to address some of the generational inequity that has existed for the women that I stand up for. [It can’t be] slow, glacial, some-of-the-time activity.”

Pillay would like to see official governance introduced to elevate intersectionality in the DEI space, such as mandatory intersectional reporting included as part of the new gender pay reporting rules that are coming into effect next month. With no incentive to collect and report on gender intersectional pay gaps, Pillay fears women who are marginalised will be further forgotten and hidden in the data.

“The Gender Equality Act [2020] in Victoria is the only gender equality legislation that… has intersectionality in it. That’s good, but [Victoria’s Gender Equality] Commissioner Dr Niki Vincent can only strongly suggest that gender intersectionality be part of the audit, action planning and impact assessments, as the Act guides this thinking, but organisations need to invest and commit to this action. We are not seeing this direct investment in clients we work with, it is still an under-resourced and underinvested area of data collection and planning.”

Pillay shares a gender intersectionality toolkit her organisation developed as guidance for Victorian entities that is on the Commission for Gender Equality’s website. Here you can find a paper, podcasts and case studies. She also suggests watching the TEDX talk by Kimberlé Crenshaw on gender intersectionality, systems, power and privilege.

“The whole diversity and inclusion and gender space is all about education and awareness, [but we need to take] a change management lens to the everyday people experiences where we need to reduce or eliminate gender bias or racism. So that’s my call to action – give them something tangible to do next and then hold them accountable.”

Hear more from Div Pillay along with a range of other experts, including Sam Mostyn AO, Deloitte’s Pip Dexter and Professor of Gender and Employment Relations Marian Baird AO CAHRI at AHRI’s International Women’s Day virtual webinar on 12 March. Sign up here.

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2 Comments
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Gwilym Davies
Gwilym Davies
1 month ago

Shouldn’t intersectionality be inclusive of both genders? The more we segregate and divide the more we add to the problem

Tobias
Tobias
1 month ago

Hi there, I’d love to know more about how to implement this practically. My initial concern is along the lines “if you’re marketing to everyone, you’re marketing to no one”, and trying to adapt all policies to the entirety of the female experience – seems exhausting? My second question is along the line of development and progression. There are naturally less roles towards an organisations peak, and not everyone innately wants to climb that mountain. Getting the most effective people in the right roles is advantageous and personal characteristics should play second fiddle? I can see why organisations find this… Read more »

More on HRM