First coined by Kimberlé Crenshaw in 1989, the concept of intersectionality, the interconnected nature of social categorizations such as race, class, and gender, offers a way to understand the complexity of identity and compounded discrimination. In the workplace, intersectionality helps us understand how every woman’s individual identity “layers” contribute to her ability to get a job and whether she feels like she can be her whole self at work.
To paint a complete picture of women’s employment experiences, we must acknowledge how every woman’s experiences are affected by the intersections of race, age, ability, sexual orientation, and other facets of identity.
In other words, you can be discriminated against because you're a woman and because you're a person of color. You can be discriminated against because you're 50 years old and because you have a disability.
Pooja Kothari, a diversity, equity, and inclusion trainer, says, “Without intersectionality, we look at workplace discrimination through a white lens, which means we look at combined discrimination only one identity at a time and in comparison to whiteness, maleness, ability, etc, when in reality, multiply marginalized people face unique, compounded discrimination.”
Now let’s look at discrimination with what Kothari says in mind. Here are eight of the many aspects of identity that affect employment for different people.
Read more: What Is Intersectional Feminism?
8 ways identity affects employment
Gender or sex
We already know about the gender pay gap—women make, on average, about 81 cents for every white man’s dollar. Maya Raghu, director of workplace equality at the National Women’s Law Center, says, “no matter what [a woman’s] education achievement is—or whether the job is low- or high-paying, where they live or what their age is—they face a wage gap.” In addition, women are still underrepresented in the workplace and are consistently passed over for promotions. To make matters worse, every two in five women have experienced some form of sexual harassment over the course of their career because of their gender.
These are things that all women face. But to understand all women’s unique experiences, we have to keep in mind other identity factors. Kothari says, “If a Black woman faces sexism, we compare her experience to the sexism a white woman may experience. In other words, we look at her sexism claim without looking at how racism figures into that sexism. This comparison is inherently wrong because it misses the compound effect of racism and sexism.”
Women of all racial and ethnic backgrounds remain underrepresented at every level in the workplace, but women of color are at even more of a disadvantage than their white peers. In addition to being underrepresented, women of color are less likely to be promoted to manager, more likely to face everyday discrimination, and less likely to receive support from their managers. And the cycle starts with the hiring process. Companies are more than twice as likely to call minority applicants for interviews if they submit ‘whitened’ resumes that remove all references to their race and ethnicity. That’s a lot to chew on.
And if we look at Black women’s experiences specifically, Kothari says, “Black women have a specific history and a distinct set of experiences that do not overlap with that of white women or of Black men. When people discriminate, they aren’t thinking, ‘I’m going to discriminate against this Black woman in a racist and a sexist way.’ They simply discriminate against the person by not providing opportunities, or not believing them, or taking their ideas seriously, etc. It is the effect of not providing access to opportunity to a Black woman that is intersectional. It impacts her on a racist and sexist level in a way that only Black women experience.”
Women are constantly scrutinized for their weight and physical appearance—and the workplace is the last place we need to continue to deal with that BS. Yet, studies have shown that overweight women make less money compared to “average-size” women and are less likely to attain higher-paying positions that interact with the public. Instead, and not necessarily by choice, heavier women fill more lower-paying, physically demanding occupations. This bias puts women employees who are overweight at a disadvantage, and they’re paid roughly 5 percent less than “average-size” women with the exact same position and title.
And although gender discrimination in the workplace is illegal, size-based discrimination is not in almost all 50 states. In other words, it’s been perfectly legal in the past—and still is—for employers to monitor weight gain and impose BMI limits on their employees.
Generational wealth is defined as the money or assets that are passed down from one generation to another, and it can greatly affect the likelihood of attending college and landing a job. While 45 percent of children from higher-income families achieve a college education, only 4 percent of children from low-income families do. And college debt puts those lower-income kids at a financial disadvantage straight out of the gate. It affects their debt to income ratio, making it hard to take risks and decide on big life moves, like buying a home.
Only about 60 percent of children from poorer families are working at age 30, compared to 80 percent of children from median-income families—and the gap increases even more as you move up the wealth ladder. Plus, children from richer families are more likely to develop personality characteristics and aspirations that benefit them when job searching, like extroversion, leading to higher salaries.
And socioeconomic status isn’t just reinforced by money. Those with higher socioeconomic status often know people as well, and those connections usually provide advantages when seeking jobs and promotions—70 percent of professionals get hired at companies where they have a personal connection.
Age discrimination disproportionately impacts women in the workplace, meaning older women are less likely to be hired and are often perceived as having lost interest in their careers, being forgetful, and being less adept at using technology. Jobless women are 18 percent less likely to find new work from age 50 to 61. At 62 or older, they are 50 percent less likely to be rehired. According to the National Bureau of Economic Research, the reason behind higher aged-based discrimination rates for women may be that “age detracts more from physical appearance for women than for men.” And with reduced job opportunities and income, older women might feel forced into tapping their retirement funds (if they have them—the gender pay gap makes that difficult to achieve, too) leaving less to live on when they do retire.
Older women are disadvantaged even more since age discrimination is super difficult to prove, despite its illegality. This notion that older women need to uphold a certain appearance to validate themselves and their work causes women over 40 to miss out on countless advancement opportunities.
Sexual orientation and gender identity
In recent months, the Supreme Court decided that existing federal law, Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, protects gay, lesbian, and transgender workers from discrimination. Although the decision comes as a major victory for LGBTQ rights, LGBTQ employees still face an abundance of discrimination in the workplace—20 percent of LGBTQ Americans have experienced discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity when applying for jobs, and 22 percent have not been paid equally or promoted at the same rate as their cishet peers. Plus, LGBTQ employees of color are even more likely to experience workplace discrimination than white LGBTQ people.
Even within the LGBTQ community, there are layers of intersectionality that affect employment. For example, transgender employees often have to worry about bathroom accessibility, pronoun misuse, inappropriate questioning—issues that some nonbinary employees might face but other LGBTQ employees might not. They also have a much steeper hill to climb when job searching—16 percent of transgender and non-binary people are unemployed.
Ableism, discrimination based on disability, heavily impacts both an employee’s ability to get a job and how they’re perceived once they finally enter the workplace. It’s estimated that only only one in three individuals with disabilities is employed in the US, while 76 percent of their peers without disabilities have jobs, and that gap is increasing over time. While legislation exists to protect people with disabilities in the workforce, many disabled employees have found their employers already harbor prejudices against them, making it harder for them to be recruited, be considered “qualified,” and get promoted.
Kothari gives another example of how to view ableism through an intersectional lens: “Fatima is Black and has an invisible disability. In every job interview, her Blackness is apparent, but her disability is not. If she gets offered the job, she asks for the accommodation for her disability. The company, while obligated to provide that accommodation, does not want to spend the money on it and finds another excuse to not hire her. This discrimination impacts Fatima not only because of her disability, but also because lack of access to opportunity is all too common for Black women.”
According to the Center for American Progress, 40 percent of mothers are the primary breadwinners for their household, with Black mothers twice as likely as white mothers to be their family’s primary breadwinner. Despite this stat, mothers and pregnant women remain disadvantaged at work—69 percent of working Americans say working moms are more likely to be passed up for a new job than other employees and 60 percent say career opportunities are given to less qualified employees instead of working moms who may be more skilled. Research also shows that when men and women have children, men’s earnings increase, but women’s pay decreases by 4 percent per child.
Many companies—around 40 percent—don’t offer extended or paid parental leave, and when women take a leave, they feel it negatively impacted their careers, with some women feeling like they have to prove their worth after returning from maternity leave. This “motherhood penalty” even prevents women from having children in the first place out of fear of hurting their career trajectory.
About our source
Pooja Kothari is an expert facilitator, trainer, and consultant on equity and inclusion. After witnessing firsthand how deep racism, sexism, and homophobia are ingrained in the criminal justice system as a public defender, Kothari founded Boundless Awareness to address unconscious bias in workplace culture. At Boundless Awareness, she offers tailored workshops and exercises to explore the intersections of identity, language, and bias in a fun, non-judgemental way.
Meghan Prabhu contributed to this reporting.