Intersectionality in Diversity and Inclusion


Intersectionality isn’t a new concept. But it is one that too often has been overlooked in the legal profession’s diversity efforts. Historically, ours is a profession that has addressed issues of gender, race and ethnicity, sexual orientation/gender identity, disability status, etc. as if each operated in isolation. Moreover, throughout the legal profession, people who identified themselves as diverse in more than one dimension found themselves having to choose which, among the diversity characteristics with which they identified, they chose to emphasize. A Latina lawyer, for example, had to choose whether to prioritize her ethnicity or her gender. A gay Asian lawyer had to decide whether to emphasize his sexual orientation or his race. There were few opportunities to choose all of one’s diversity characteristics, or to choose not to choose. Intersectional diversity was an afterthought, if it was considered at all.

Sometimes the legal profession has tried to combine a variety of diversity types into single, unified diversity committees. But invariably, these committees would devolve into sub-groups focused on the traditional, single dimension diversity identities, or address their mission in a rotation of diversity types. There’s nothing overtly wrong with that. Yet it illustrates a degree of discomfort or confusion about how to effectively include intersectionality into our profession’s diversity and inclusion efforts.

One reason for this is that although many of the issues with which each of these types of diversity must deal might resemble each other, we are not always cognizant that despite the outward appearance of similarity, they are rooted in different biases, prejudices, and stereotypes. For women lawyers, it has long been a question of proving their commitment to large law firm practice, the presumption being that their loyalties, and thus their time and energy, would be divided between career and family. For minority lawyers, it has been a question of demonstrating competence[1] and proving that they have the intellect, discipline, cultural competency, temperament, and personality, among other traits, to handle the sorts of legal work typically handled by large law firm partners. For openly LGBT lawyers it has been a matter of disproving biases about their morality and suitability for the noble profession of the law. And for our colleagues with disabilities it has been a question of proving that they have the physical or mental ability to practice law successfully.

But the failure to more organically and comprehensively integrate intersectionality into the legal profession’s diversity and inclusion efforts has proved frustrating for diverse lawyers, particularly those who are women of color or LGBT people of color or part of the Millennial generation.

Some organizations have attempted to address an increasingly obvious need for greater intersectionality in their diversity and inclusion efforts by forming smaller, sub-affinity groups. Thus, you may find a Latina group organized within a larger Hispanic group or, within an Asian organization you may find groups of Asian women or LGBT members. But the effectiveness of these sub-groups to satisfy the needs and interests of intersectional members is questionable. We have seen a Black Women Lawyers group form because its founding members were not satisfied with being a sub-group within a larger Black lawyers’ organization. We have seen Asian LGBT lawyers form a separate group to address their needs and interests outside of a broader Asian lawyers group. And we have seen an organization of younger women law students and lawyers coalesce when more established groups of women lawyers failed to satisfy generational diversity and inclusion needs. Intersectionality is a reality and organizations that wish to remain relevant will need to find ways to integrate it into their structures in such a way that it is not an afterthought or an exception to the rule.

Within our organization, the Institute for Inclusion in the Legal Profession (“IILP”), we have gone so far as to describe ourselves as addressing all types of diversity and including all types of people and practices. It’s the broadest of focuses; it embraces intersectionality unequivocally. And it enables us to offer an unprecedented platform to advance diversity and inclusion within the legal profession. In doing so, we hope to demonstrate that despite the challenges that intersectionality brings, it is possible to make it integral to an organization.

Intersectionality isn’t easy, but it is the future. Ultimately, organizational sustainability and growth will require leadership to change, or even discard, traditional diversity and inclusion efforts and substitute those with strategies to effectively integrate diversity, inclusion, AND intersectionality into its focus, culture, and leadership. It’s a multi-dimensional approach for a multi-dimensional profession.

What are your ideas on how organizations can effective integrate intersectionality into their diversity and inclusion efforts? Leave a comment below and subscribe.

[1] We credit Anna L. Brown, Director of Diversity & Inclusion, Baker & McKenzie, for identifying the contrasting pressures placed upon women lawyers – commitment – versus racial/ethnic minorities – competence.