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date: 16 September 2021

Theories of Difference, Diversity, and Intersectionality: What Do They Bring to Diversity Management?

Abstract and Keywords

This chapter addresses theories of difference, diversity, and intersectionality, and what they bring to understandings of diversity management. The chapter begins by examining the broad arenas of difference, diversity, and diversity management, as they have become established in organization and management studies. It continues by considering the increasing complexity that can be engaged with through the notion of intersectionality, and how such a broad view of different kinds of intersectionalities widens further understandings of diversity/ies and diversity management in organizations and management. These various formulations include external intersectionalities (formation, location, and form of organizations), internal intersectionalities (internal structuring and processes of organizations), and diversity and diversity management seen within intersectional contexts.

Keywords: difference, diversity, intersectionality, theory, diversity management


Diversity, diversity management (DM), and intersectionality are clearly interconnected: they intersect. The question is how. This chapter overviews these concepts and related researches, and seeks to contribute to understandings of interdisciplinary, relational, and intersectional approaches to diversity in organizations. It examines the relationship of diversity and DM to various theorizations of intersectionality, specifically the relevance of theories of intersectionality for understanding diversity.

The notion of ‘diversity’ is now widely in use in organizational, management, and analytical discourses, sometimes critically, often less so. Initially, academic interest in diversity and DM was somewhat limited and atheoretical (Prasad and Mills 1997), but nowadays diversity attracts numerous scholars studying the phenomenon from various theoretical perspectives. There is an annual conference devoted to equality, diversity and inclusion, a dedicated journal with the same name, and many academic titles on diversity have been published in recent years. Diversity is the focus of other institutional developments, for example, the Gender and Diversity Division at the Academy of Management, the Standing Working Group on Gender and Diversity at the European Group for Organizational Studies (EGOS), and the Strategic Interest Group on Gender, Race and Diversity in Organisations at the European Academy of Management (EURAM). Diversity has also entered academic institutions, as diversity chairs have been created in business schools and universities (see, for example, Bendl, Hanappi-Egger, and Hofmann 2010). At the same time, the concept of intersectionality (p. 63) (Davis 1981; Crenshaw 1989, 1991; Collins 1990; Meekosha and Pettman 1991; McCall 2005; Meekosha 2006) has been much far less developed in studies of organizations, perhaps because it, in some ways, challenges any simple approach to, or prescription of, promoting ‘diversity’.

The chapter is organized in three main parts. First, the broad arenas of difference, diversity, and DM are introduced, as they have become established in organization and management studies. Second, it considers the increasing complexity that can be engaged with through the notion of intersectionality. The third section considers how a broad view of different kinds of intersectionalities widens further understandings of diversity/ies and DM in organizations and management. These various formulations include external intersectionalities (formation, location, and form of organizations), internal intersectionalities (internal structuring and processes of organizations), and diversity and DM seen within intersectional contexts.

Difference, Diversity, and Diversity Management


DM has been said to be all about differences, identities (Nkomo and Stewart 2006), and categories (Anthias 2013). Indeed, different assumptions on difference and different forms of social categorization often shape the way not only diversity and DM, but also intersectionality, are understood. So, is difference something that ‘we’ have, prior to the interaction with ‘our’ environment? And who exactly is this ‘we’? Where does our identity, or identities, come from? How do differences rest upon, or how are they invoked or formed by, immediate social and broader societal categories, beyond the organizational boundaries?

There are numerous answers to these questions. In a classic 1987 article, Barrett (1987: 30) discusses:

[T]‌hree particular uses of the idea of difference. These are: (I) a sense of difference effectively to register diversity of situation and experience between women; (II) difference as an understanding of the positional rather than absolute character of meaning, particularly as developed in Derridean terms; and (III) modern psychoanalytic accounts of sexual difference. These three uses of the concept of difference seem to me to be quite distinct, although I should acknowledge here that the third category is difficult to place in relation to the other two, and involves significant contradictions and disagreements.

However, in general terms it is possible, as an initial statement and cutting across these three usages, to distinguish between and contrast two main and broad (p. 64) approaches: essentialist and constructionist. The essentialist perspective sees differences as inner characteristics of individuals. Differences and identities are rather stable and fixed, and stem from biology, from socialization into a group, or from more fixed structural categorization and positioning. The identity of a person may consist of several dimensions of difference, but these are, or tend to be, coherent. The individual is expected to be (relatively) unified and consistent in his or her differences. As differences here are seen as internal to the person, differences precede action. Therefore, the difference of a person can be used as a prediction of his or her behaviour, or at least as an explanation of it (Burr 1995). For instance, being a woman is often related to an expectation of being caring (or related to being a woman in some other way), and the act of taking care of an elderly person is seen as stemming from the gender identity of a woman, rather than a process where the gender identity is formed and performed (Butler 1990).

From a constructionist position, differences look quite different. Differences are not seen as internal to the individual but as constructed in interaction with others and the wider social environment. Difference is produced, rather than existing by itself. The production of difference takes place in the social context, where discourses shape the way that people are categorized as different and/or similar. There, where the essentialist approach sees differences as somehow neutral matters of fact, the constructionist approach sees differences as intimately related to the power relationships existing in society. Differences are not innocent, but reflect and perpetuate, or, on the contrary, resist and challenge, the given social order. From this latter perspective, an individual does not have a unified identity; instead, each individual has plural and fragmented identities, and may change identity from one situation to another (Weedon 1987, 1996). There are numerous ways in which individuals can identify; however, not all positions are available to everyone. Discourses of class, gender, or ethnicity may tend to limit identities to specific groups or dimensions. A constructionist approach does not deny that there may exist real differences between people. A Finn may speak better Finnish than a non-Finn, or vice versa. But the meaning of language skills, and the way that the language skill positions people, is not pre-given and obvious. Other differences could rather be focused on, and other patterns of similarity and difference could be put forward.

How do essentialist and constructionist approaches affect how DM is to be understood? If one follows essentialist assumptions, differences exist prior to the organization, and are at base unrelated to it. From a constructionist perspective, differences are (also) constructed in the organization, for instance, in the organizing of the work. These starting points give quite different bases for DM. Where an essentialist approach to DM manages fixed, stable, and pre-existing differences, a constructionist approach acknowledges that DM is also a site where differences are produced.

Having said this, there are many different versions of constructionism. According to some constructionist approaches, such as those using positioning theory (Davies and Harré 1990), individuals are free to choose the discourses that best suit them, and can be regarded more as strategic users of discourses (on different approaches to constructionism, see Burr 1995). Other approaches, such as poststructuralist approaches, (p. 65) hold that discourses define the ways in which individuals can come to understand themselves, and also delimit the range of positions that are available at a given moment or context (Weedon 1987, 1996). Individuals are never totally free from discourses, but always produced by them. Researchers can position themselves in an intermediate position in-between these two positions, emphasizing discursive agency or discursive determination (Alvesson and Kärreman 2000; Bergström and Knights 2006), and see that individuals understand themselves in ways that stem from interactions between their agency and existing structures and discourses. Such a tension between the free choice of individuals and the force of structures has a long history within the social sciences, as seen in the agency-structure debate (Weber 1968; Giddens 1984; Archer 1996).

Diversity and Diversity Management

The term ‘diversity’ has been part of organizational and management literature for more than twenty years. Defining the field of diversity is, however, still not easy (Nkomo and Stewart 2006). Indeed, the field is characterized by ambiguities, contradictions, and unclarities (Cox 1994). These stem, on the one hand, from the term ‘diversity’ itself, which lacks a binary opposition, and, as with any concept, is ascribed meanings only in context. On the other hand, even though diversity research has become more theoretically rigorous, fuzziness remain around uses of such terms as discourses, rhetorics, and practices in relation to DM.

Different overviews of DM have brought a richness and variety to the field. Nkomo and Stewart (2006) suggest a broad categorization into dominant or mainstream, and critical, perspectives. The difference between these two relies on the way social identities are understood—as essential properties of individuals or as socially constructed—and in the belief versus scepticism of whether DM will lead to significant changes in organizations. Bairoh (2007) suggests a broad threefold categorization of literatures into practitioner/consultant, mainstream, and critical. Her inclusion of consultant literature is a strength, as practitioner-focused diversity material is abundant, and indeed has been described as an industry (Prasad and Mills 1997). Practitioner literature, which could be said to vary in terms of its criticality, is also important in forming diversity practices in organizational and management contexts.

One of the more comprehensive categorizations has been that of Prasad, Pringle, and Konrad (2006), building on Burrell and Morgan’s (1979) paradigms, and distinguishing positivist and non-positivist work. Within these two groups, they further distinguish work with a low versus high power awareness. In non-positivist work, a distinction is further made between research that considers identities as fixed versus fluid. This is a useful and detailed classification which, in contrast to Nkomo and Stewart’s (2006) and Bairoh’s (2007) classifications, sheds light on the great variety within both dominant and critical streams. Thus, it is clear that DM, like diversity, is indeed diverse. So how do these debates connect or not with those on intersectionality?

(p. 66) Intersectionality/ies: Some Genealogies

From even this brief introductory overview, the notions of diversity and DM, as used in organization and management studies, can be seen as having clear connections with that of intersectionality, even if all three concepts have rather different histories, located within different traditions, as we discuss further in this section. The term ‘intersectionality’, and to some extent the broader range of kindred concepts noted below in this section, have become very widely used in recent years (Davis 2008), and there are now several excellent broad reviews of the state of knowledge on intersectionality (for example, European Journal of Women’s Studies 2006; Lutz et al. 2011; Cho, Crenshaw, and McCall 2013). However, we stress here that the broad notion of intersectionality, or more precisely intersectional social relations, is not new. This is despite the fact that, in various countries, regions, and epistemic communities, it has sometimes been asserted as some kind of ‘new’ concept or perspective, as when the concept is rediscovered or picked up to address some particular societal configuration or problematic, such as (im)migration or the recognition of multiple and complex identities.

Approaches to intersectionality range from those based in one dominant social division, such as class, with other divisions ‘added on’; to more double or triple power framings of intersectionality (for example, class–gender–race); to more multiple models (including age, disability, sexuality), to multifactor models, to engagement with intra-categorical and inter-categorical boundary constructions; to anti-categorical approaches (McCall 2005).

Intersectional perspectives, and the complex social phenomena to which they refer, go under many different names and labels, including interrelations of oppressions, multiple oppressions, multiple social divisions, mutual constitution, multiple differences, hybridities, simultaneity, multiple oppressions, multiculturalisms, multiplicities, postcolonialities, multiple intersecting social inequalities (Walby 2007), and indeed ‘diversity’, amongst many more. Some researchers use the concept of intersectionality explicitly (Crenshaw 1989, 1991: Lutz et al. 2011); others discuss intersections under other conceptual categorizations, such as differential consciousness (Sandoval 2000), and inappropriate/d otherness (Minh-ha 1986/7; Haraway 1992). This partly reflects different disciplinary traditions, partly different societal contexts of those knowledges, and partly, it might seem, lack of awareness or evasion of other earlier societal contexts or traditions of knowledge.

Intersectionality can be understood, albeit very differently, within the full range of epistemologies. It can also be seen as methodology, ontology, and as combinations of methodology, ontology, and epistemology, including problematizing the separation of those framings. Intersectionality can be directed mainly at the level of identity, or, more generally, towards meso and macro structures and processes, whether organizational, societal, or transnational, or indeed may problematize those very distinctions.

(p. 67) Of special interest is in what times, places, and situations do intersectionalities, and indeed which intersectionalities, appear most evident. Historically, intersectionality can be said to have always been there, whether seen or not. ‘Friends, Romans and countrymen’ can easily be analysed intersectionally. In one sense, the concept of intersectionality can be understood as a reworking of some very persistent themes of modernist social theory and specifically modernist sociology, such as the place of individuals and groups in complex multidimensional societies. Indeed, such sociological theorizing and empirical work has fed directly into intersectional thinking. The traditions of the ‘founding fathers’ of sociology—Marx, Weber, and Durkheim—prioritized: class, class fractions and factions; multiple power relations; and industrialization and interdependence of divisions of labour under organic solidarity, respectively. These different traditions all feed into intersectional thinking. Most clearly, intersectional thinking is pervasive in the action sociology of Weber, and his writing on the intersections of class, status, party.

Intersectionality was, at least implicitly, spoken of in black feminism and the anti-slavery movement of the nineteenth century, in terms of the intersections of race and gender and class—and probably long before then too. In 1851 Sojourner Truth (Isabella Baumfree) (1797–1883) delivered the famous ‘Ain’t I a Woman?’ speech at the Women’s Convention, Akron, Ohio (<>), which can be understood as an impassioned plea for intersectional thought and politics:

Well, children, where there is so much racket there must be something out of kilter. I think that ’twixt the negroes of the South and the women at the North, all talking about rights, the white men will be in a fix pretty soon. But what’s all this here talking about? That man over there says that women need to be helped into carriages, and lifted over ditches, and to have the best place everywhere. Nobody ever helps me into carriages, or over mud-puddles, or gives me any best place! And ain’t I a woman? Look at me! Look at my arm! I have ploughed and planted, and gathered into barns, and no man could head me! And ain’t I a woman? I could work as much and eat as much as a man—when I could get it—and bear the lash as well! And ain’t I a woman? I have borne thirteen children, and seen most all sold off to slavery, and when I cried out with my mother’s grief, none but Jesus heard me! And ain’t I a woman?

Moreover, the concept of intersectionality has a rich feminist and anti-racist history (see, for example, Crenshaw 1989, 1991; Brah and Phoenix 2004; McCall 2005), and is sometimes seen as one of the major contributions of feminist thought. In the elaborations that followed so-called second-wave feminism of the 1960s (Rowbotham, Segal, and Wainwright 1979), it was reaffirmed, though often under different names, especially in calling attention to the intersections of gender, ‘race’ (or ethnicity), and class . . . the ‘big three’ of class–gender–‘race’. Intersectional thinking is central to debates and analyses in the politics and political movements of race, racism and anti-racism, anti-imperialism, (neo-)Marxist feminism, (neo-)Marxist anti-racism, migration, and coalition politics (Carastathis 2013). The Combahee River Collective, a black feminist lesbian collective (p. 68) active from 1974 to 1980 in Boston, Massachusetts, is perhaps best known for developing the collective statement, on interlocking oppressions, racism and identity:

As women, particularly [. . .] privileged white women, began to acquire class power without divesting of their internalized sexism, divisions between women intensified. When women of color critiqued the racism within the society as a whole and called attention to the ways that racism had shaped and informed feminist theory and practice, many white women simply turned their backs on the vision of sisterhood, closing their minds and hearts. And that was equally true when it came to the issue of classism among women.

(hooks 2000: 16–17)

In 1981 Angela Davis published Women, Race and Class (also see Anthias and Yuval-Davis 1983); in 1984 bell hooks wrote on black women and black men as potential allies in Feminist Theory: From Margin to Center; and in the same year Mary O’Brien drew attention to the dangers of commatization (O’Brien 1984), critiquing lists of oppressions, separated by commas. And in 1989 Fiona Williams brought such ideas to the centre of critical debate on United Kingdom social policy, adding age, disability, and sexuality to make the ‘big six’. More recently, more elaborate multidimensional analytical schemes have been developed:

One of the most comprehensive attempts to include additional axes of social divisions is that of Helma Lutz—although in her formulation they are not axes but rather ‘basic dualisms’; this is problematic and she herself considers it a ‘challenge to consider the spaces in-between’ (Lutz, 2002: 13). Her list includes the following 14 ‘lines of difference’: gender; sexuality; ‘race’/skin-colour; ethnicity; nation/state; class; culture; ability; age; sedentariness/origin; wealth; North–South; religion; stage of social development. Lutz, however, sees this list as ‘by no means complete; other categories have to be added or re-defined’ (Lutz 2002: 13). Indeed, the list is potentially boundless.

(Yuval-Davis 2006: 202)

Such a list at times is framed slightly differently, for example, in terms of ‘able-bodiedness’ rather than ‘ability’, and ‘property ownership’ rather than ‘wealth’ (also see Lutz 2001, 2014). Recently, there have also been extensions of intersectional thinking into broader environmental issues, such as animal studies (Twine 2010) and climate change (Kaijser and Kronsell 2014). These approaches have further implications for widening debate on diversity, DM, and organizational analysis.

Probably the most cited scholar on intersectionality is the black feminist law professor, Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw. She codified the concept, arguing that you cannot understand black women’s oppression and discrimination by considering only gender or only race/racialization: the two are intertwined, including when making legal claims. Accordingly, she developed the metaphor of crossroads, that is, intersections of roads:

[A]‌n analogy to traffic in an intersection, coming and going in all four directions. Discrimination, like traffic through an intersection, may flow in one direction, and (p. 69) it may flow in another. If an accident happens in an intersection, it can be caused by cars traveling from any number of directions and, sometimes, from all of them.

Similarly, if a Black woman is harmed because she is in an intersection, her injury could result from sex discrimination or race discrimination [. . .] But it is not always easy to reconstruct an accident: Sometimes the skid marks and the injuries simply indicate that they occurred simultaneously, frustrating efforts to determine which driver caused the harm.

(Crenshaw 1989: 149)

Many other black feminists, for example, Patricia Hill Collins and Audre Lorde, have developed this field further. Debates on intersectionality can also be related to other debates around gender, class, and race. For example, the 1980s were a period of revision of the concept of patriarchy, and identification of multiple arenas, sites, structures, and historical forms of patriarchy that may operate in uneven development or contradiction. Walby (1986, 1990) specified these patriarchal structures: capitalist work, the family, the state, violence, sexuality, and culture; while Hearn (1987, 1992) specified reproduction of labour power, procreation, regeneration/degeneration, violence, sexuality, ideology. More recently, the concept of transnational patriarchies (transpatriarchies) (Hearn 2009) has been used.

A related set of theories around men and masculinities developed from the late 1970s, alongside feminist auto-critiques of the concept of patriarchy. While much intersectionalities debate has been directed towards recognition of differences, yet commonalities, among women, and their intersections, questions of difference and intersection, apply equally to men (Kimmel and Messner 1989/2009; Hearn and Collinson 2006). Masculinities operate as intersections of gender and other social divisions (Connell 1995): hegemonic masculinity as intersections of gender, class, ethnicity, and sexuality, legitimating patriarchy; subordinated masculinity as intersections of gender and sexuality, for example, gay masculinities; marginalized masculinity as intersections of class, ethnicity, and racialization, for example, black masculinities. Notions of plural, multiple, or composite masculinities, such as black straight masculinity or white gay masculinities (Hearn and Collinson 1994; Aboim 2010), are widely used. Jørgen Elm Larsen and Ann-Dorte Christensen (2008: 56) argue ‘(t)he concept of intersectionality complements the concept of hegemonic masculinities, in that it stresses the interaction between gender, class and other differentiating categories, and at the same time articulates different power structures and their reciprocating construction’.

Other inspirations for considering intersectionality have come from critical and feminist disability movements and studies, notably the work of Helen Meekosha (2006) and Ingunn Moser (2004) on interferences, and from studies on gender, sexuality, and other intersections in and around work organizations (Hearn and Parkin 1993). On the latter point, it is very difficult to study gender and sexuality in and around organizations without being aware of organizational position, hierarchy, work/labour, status, class, occupation, profession, and management. These inevitably intersect with gender and sexuality and much more.

Intersectionality also figures increasingly as a focus in policy development and policy studies (Verloo 2013). This is not least through the work of the United Nations (UN) and the (p. 70) European Union (EU), including the EU Anti-Discrimination Directives, even if they only name six grounds for legal action on illegal discrimination—gender, ethnicity, disability, age, religion/belief, sexual orientation—but not class, which is excluded on the grounds it is not ‘justicable’ inequality (Walby, Armstrong, and Strid 2012). Intersectionality is open to many uses and abuses (Lewis 2013; Pringle 2006; also see Lewis 2015).

Broader geographical, geopolitical, transnational, and translocal understandings of intersectionality can also be developed. At a global and glocal level, the development and impact of postcolonialism in theory and practice has been a great stimulus to intersectional thinking, as, for example, in the work of Grewal and Kaplan (2002), Scattered Hegemonies, McClintock (2003), Imperial Leather, and Chandra Talpade Mohanty (2003), Feminism without Borders (see Lewis 2013). Patil (2013) has recently brought together debates on transnational feminism. Having said all this, there are certainly some neglected intersectionalities to be acknowledged, or at least some social arenas where intersectionality theory might be developed more fully. These include studies of ageing; disability and lived embodiment; virtuality; and transnationality (Hearn 2011). Such neglected intersectionalities are also a way of challenging the gender hegemony of men.

Intersections of Categories and Differences

It is clear that the term, intersectionality, has been used in many different ways—between relatively fixed social categories, in the making of such categories, in their mutual constitution, in transcending categories. In this respect, McCall’s (2005) clarification is especially useful, distinguishing approaches that are:

  • inter-categorical: adopting existing analytical, relatively fixed categories, with the focus on relations between them;

  • intra-categorical: using more provisional categories; acknowledges stable, even durable, relationships that social categories represent at given point in time; also maintains critical stance towards categories; focus on particular social groups at neglected points of intersection—‘people whose identity crosses the boundaries of traditionally constructed groups’;

  • anti-categorical: categories not basic; deconstruction of categories.

In broad terms this framework moves from more modernist inter-categorical conceptions of intersectionality to more ambiguous intra-categorical conceptions, to postmodernist/poststructuralist anti-categorical conceptions thereof.1 These distinctions by (p. 71) McCall mirror, to some extent, earlier discussions of more essentialist and more constructionist approaches to difference. The relationship between different differences, both substantive and conceptual, is thus a further aspect that differentiates more essentialist and more constructionist approaches to difference. More essentialist approaches to differences tend to highlight differences between groups and treat groups as relatively internally homogeneous. Constructionist approaches tend to focus more on variations within groups: not all women are alike, not all ethnic minorities are alike.

There are always several dimensions of difference that interact simultaneously and position people in different ways (Holvino 2010). A person may, for instance, be a woman, but she may also be white, educated, and heterosexual. These could be dimensions of difference that are of relevance in a certain professional context, while in the domestic context other dimensions could be more relevant. A DM programme based on an underlying assumption that differences are discrete and groups are internally homogeneous is likely to develop very differently from one taking an intersectional approach. DM has been criticized for treating differences as add-on categories, where individuals have difficulty fitting into specific groups, or can belong to all of the groups at the same time (Litvin 1997). An intersectional approach to DM might suggest building on the simultaneity of difference(s), seeking to avoid constructing generalizations about groups such as women or ethnic minorities (Holvino 2010). While non-intersectional programmes might treat women as a homogeneous group and promote gender equality by taking only gender into account in staffing, an intersectional diversity programme would highlight not only gender but also intersections with age, ethnicity, and other differences and divisions.

Essentialist and constructionist approaches to difference also give different importance to context in relation to the meanings of difference. The role of language can be seen as one aspect of context, but is also an important question of its own. As the essentialist view sees differences exist within the individual, the related assumption is that we do not need language in order for the difference to exist. Differences pre-exist language, and language is only seen as a medium we use to express the differences. The constructionist perspective radically differs from this point. According to the constructionist view, differences are produced through language. Language provides individuals with a way to structure their reality, and as there are a variety of languages available, reality can be structured in many different ways. In this way, simple distinctions between essentialist and constructionist approaches to difference can be problematized, with both existing and framed within languages.

Moreover, as different languages have different repertoires of words, different languages allow for different constructions of reality. Not all languages have, for instance, exactly corresponding words for ‘diversity’. What in English is called ‘diversity’ is in French called ‘diversité’, in Finnish it is expressed by the term ‘monimuotoisuus’ (having many forms), and in Swedish by ‘mångfald’ (multilayeredness). Even though the definitions of these terms in the different languages to some extent overlap, some differences can also be noted. While in English and French diversity is composed of many units and it is the variety of the units together that creates diversity, in Finnish and Swedish (p. 72) the terms also allow one to presuppose an ensemble having many sides or characteristics. Thus, in Finnish and Swedish it is possible to fragment a specific unit into many diverse parts on the basis of several criteria. However, it is not only the existence or non-existence of a particular word that shapes the way reality is perceived in a given language. Languages cannot be detached from their cultural contexts, and words within different languages have different social and historical backgrounds.

An example of a deconstructive linguistic approach is Walgenbach and colleagues’ (2007) concept of interdependence. According to this, social categories are seen as dependent on and determined by other categorizations that are themselves interdependent. In this vein, Lorey (2008: 5) summarizes how:

Hornscheidt investigates how people are organized into different categories through forms of naming, and thus how categories impose a hierarchical order [Hornscheidt 2007: 77]. In this perspective, categorizations are conceptualized not just as linguistic constructions with materializing effects that extend as far as structural discrimination. Categories are at the same time a ‘structuring factor of knowledge’

[Hornscheidt 2007: 73].

Thus not only intersectionality is a contested approach and concept, but the very coordinates that generally underpin the concept are also subject to deconstruction (cf. McCall 2005).

The Implications of Intersectionality for Diversity and Diversity Management

What are the implications of these broad theorizations of intersectionality for organizations and management? In this third main section we address two main implications: external intersectionalizing of organizations and management, and their internal intersectionalizing; and the placing of studies of diversity and DM in an intersectional context.

External and Internal Intersectionalizing of Organizations and Management

In many cases, these questions of diversity and intersectionality are illuminated by attention to historical and transnational issues, both contextualizing and embedded in practice. There is a need to bring together, in analysis, the internal intersectionalizing of organizations and the external intersectionalizing of organizations through (p. 73) transnationalizations. This is even the case, indeed perhaps even more so, when matters of diversity, intersectionality, and transnationalizations remain unnamed and unmarked. A move beyond national, societal cultural contexts has been prompted by global(ized) and transnational researches over recent years, and the intersectional effects of globalization. Transnationalizations constitute external intersectionalizations of organizations, as in such transnational issues as: environmental questions, ‘Third World’ development, war and armed conflict, finance capitalism, and information and communication technologies. Obvious candidates for intersectional gendered analysis are multinational enterprises (MNEs), and their organization and management within transnationalizations (Hearn and Louvrier 2011).

Intersectional transnationalizations form the business environment of MNEs, reconstructing their internal structures and processes. Concentrations of capital are increasing, with gendered and intersectional forms and effects. At the same time, MNEs are themselves vulnerable to huge risks, ranging from terrorism to financial crises and computer hacking and viruses. MNEs operate at the intersections of global, national, regional, and local traditions, and strategic international management, and are thus subject to contradictory intersectional gendered pressures. There is immense scope for far greater attention to such issues in the intersectional gendering of transnational business-to-business activity, alliances, supply chains, financial dependencies, and other inter-corporate relations—formal or informal, and often involving those at high levels.

These transnational processes can be translated into various forms of intersectional variation (Hearn, Metcalfe, and Piekkari 2012). At the institutional level, MNE headquarters may find it difficult to align less regulated forms of employment in developing regions, such as Eastern Europe, Asia, and Latin America, with their internally standardized practices. A second form of variation is functional, for example, in how MNEs have used changes in trade and financial agreements to move their production and services around the globe. Much production, such as electronics, toys, and sports goods, and business services, such as call centres, has become part of ‘global assembly lines’. MNEs manage hidden production relationships in less developed countries through subcontracting networks employing low-paid female workers. Yet, in such blue-collar work contexts the business case for diversity is rarely made. Intersectional gendered production networks are evolving as a result of major changes in international political economy, themselves intersectionally gendered. In responding to and shaping these conditions, MNEs have used different strategies, in effect intersectional gendered strategies, in strategic management. In addition, there are intersections in local cultural and religious patterns with global restructuring. Recruitment and appointment processes can sometimes be contradictory processes, with local units sometimes resisting expatriate recruitment or standardization in methods, whatever corporate policies may say. Research here can be assisted by attention to transnational cultural change and various forms of deterritorialization and hybridity (Ong 1999; Hearn 2004, 2015).

DM is one means of managing external intersectionalizing within the internal intersectionalizing of corporations. In terms of internal intersections, corporations and (p. 74) many other organizations are themselves contexts of, and arenas and sites for, gendered intersectional relations—hence the need for the specific recognition of the intersectional gendered corporation (Hearn and Louvrier 2011). Most organizations can be seen as doubly intersectionally gendered: first, public domains and the organizations within them are dominantly valued, intersectionally gendered, over the private domains; and, second, within organizations their structures and processes are themselves intersectionally gendered, perhaps most obviously in certain men’s usual domination through management and other mechanisms, including DM. In the case of MNEs and large business corporations, organizations can be seen as triply gendered, with the global and transnational dimension adding further intersectional gendered dominations, across space, place, cultures, interorganizational power relations, and virtual technologies.

Diversity and Diversity Management within Intersectional Contexts

As the concept of DM has become a global trend and has ‘travelled’ or has been ‘translated’ from the United States to other parts of the Western world (Boxenbaum 2006; Calás, Holgersson, and Smircich 2009), the importance of diverse contexts for understanding DM has been underlined (Prasad, Pringle, and Konrad 2006; Pringle 2009). In recent years much progress has been made in the area, for instance, in the form of an edited sixteen-country book on DM, diversity, and equality work (Klarsfeld 2010).

Empirical studies acknowledging the importance of national context have examined several different aspects of context. However, most studies have tended to treat context as a neutral given fact, focused on one or a few of the following aspects: national demographics (Glastra et al. 2000; Jones, Pringle, and Shepherd 2000; Risberg and Søderberg 2008; Omanovic 2009; Bendl, Hanappi-Egger, and Hofmann 2010); the institutional context of legislation and policies related to equality and anti-discrimination (Klarsfeld 2009; Bender, Klarsfeld, and Laufer 2010); labour market structures related to minority groups (de los Reyes 2000; Glastra et al. 2000; Omanovic 2009; Cornet and Zanoni 2010), minority groups’ histories (Jones, Pringle, and Shepherd 2000; Booysen and Nkomo 2010); or public policies at the time diversity is recognized in specific national contexts (Glastra et al. 2000; Omanovic 2009). Less attention has been paid to how different aspects of diverse national contexts intersect with and give meaning to diversity and DM.

Both similarities and differences can be found between different contexts. National context intersects with the formulation of diversity: in particular, which differences are given voice, and which are silenced. In some contexts, such as in Sweden and the Netherlands (de los Reyes 2000; Glastra et al. 2000), diversity is mostly attached to ethnicity and immigrant status; in others, age is specifically focused on, such as in Austria (along with ethnicity) (Bendl, Hanappi-Egger, and Hofmann 2010), or gender, such as in Italy (Murgia and Poggio 2010). Diversity initiatives have been implemented locally, with differences in the extent to which diversity has attracted organizational and public authorities’ attention in different countries (see contributions in Klarsfeld 2010). (p. 75) Differences between diversity dimensions, approaches to diversity, and implementation of initiatives are also dependent on differences between organizations (Janssens and Zanoni 2005), units within organizations (Kamp and Hagedorn-Rasmussen 2004), and different parts of a given country (Cornet and Zanoni 2010).

When DM is adapted to new national contexts it is constructed in ways to correspond to the existing practices of naming and non-naming. It can be seen as an empty category, filled by, and used for, the purposes of corporate management. Indeed, DM is related to different dimensions of difference in different countries. Management ideology crosses national borders. DM can be seen as formulated in the crossing forces of international management ideology, reinforced and spread by large international companies, and national conceptions of ‘us’ and ‘them’. It can thus be a way of managing internal intersectionality.

Not problematizing national context, and focusing on one aspect of context at a time, thus ignoring the intersectionality of context, significantly delimits the way in which diversity and DM are regarded in research. Kalonaityte (2006) has shown, by studying diversity in Sweden within the context of postcoloniality, how discourses on diversity illuminate the construction of Swedishness and non-Swedishness. Diversity studies should indeed bring context into the analysis and be open to how discourses of diversity construct knowledge about more than difference. Studying the meanings of diversity, difference, and DM in Finland and France, Louvrier (2013) treated the socio-historical contexts of Finland and France as discursive constructions, and examined how knowledge about context was key to the construction of diversity and DM. She showed that meanings of DM are constructed in discursive fields relating diversity to understandings of society, organization, the individual, and the contextual nature of differences. The complexities of the meanings of these are again difficult to understand without a thorough understanding of the specificities of context.

Overall, discursive approaches to categorization, difference, diversity, and intersectionality have highlighted the important assumptions that DM practices build upon, but may have also increased uncertainty, perhaps even confusion, within the field: Namely, what is the relationship between DM and discourse? Is DM a discourse? Or is diversity best seen as rhetoric, metaphor, or theory (Kersten 2000; Kirby and Harter 2003; Zanoni and Janssens 2003)? Does there exist a discourse of DM, or several such discourses (Sinclair 2006; Tomlinson and Schwabenland 2010)? Is there a managerial discourse of diversity, contrasting to some other type of discourse of diversity? Or is diversity a model (Barmes and Ashtiany 2003) or a platform for debating identity (Holvino and Kamp 2009)? All these approaches are viable, and all have contributed to critical analysis of the functioning of diversity in different contexts. Interestingly, the findings are often very similar in terms of how diversity is understood, regardless of the defining of diversity as discourse, metaphor, or something else.

The field of critical diversity research would, however, benefit from more rigorous usage of terms and consistent usage within specific studies. The most common diversity discourses discussed in the literature are the business discourse and the equality discourse (see also Chapter 12, this volume). These discourses have long been seen as separate oppositional discourses, identified through their different underlying (p. 76) arguments for diversity. Recently, the separation of these two discourses has, however, been questioned, and it has been suggested that they may indeed intertwine (Tomlinson and Schwabenland 2010). Diversity discourse should be looked at more broadly, not just through arguments for or against diversity. Discursive studies should be open to identifying the many knowledges diversity discourse produces, which certainly go well beyond the business versus equality arguments for diversity.

Concluding Remarks

In addressing DM, the weakness of the term ‘diversity’ is that in some senses it can mean almost anything to anyone; it can indeed function as an empty, often an ideological, signifier. The concept of intersectionality is also open to many interpretations, ranging from categorical to anti-categorical. Arguably, intersectionality complicates and to an extent demystifies the ideological power of diversity and DM.

While stressing the importance and contribution of thinking on intersectionalities, we do not seek to ignore or downplay single dimensions of difference. This is especially so, as across different geographical spaces signifiers of difference have different meanings, understandings, and legitimacies (Metcalfe 2010). A related challenge in research on diversity and intersectionality is to maintain a focus on difference without neglecting structured asymmetrical structural power relations (Hearn and Parkin 1993, 2001; Hearn and Collinson 2006; Holvino 2010). In discussions of such matters of power, men and masculinities are generally left unspoken; they are, in that sense, an ‘absent presence’, even despite (perhaps because of) their dominance, especially at the highest levels, and within management policy, practice, and discourse. In many organizations, particular groups of men are the most powerful actors. The (transnational) capitalist class is in practice very much a male (transnational) capitalist class (see Hearn, Blagojević, and Harrison 2013).

Finally, it is important to note that intersectionality is a very dynamic field, both empirically and theoretically, somewhat in contrast to more static conceptualizations of diversity and DM. Indeed, even broader understandings of intersectionality can be developed to locate intersections and diversity/ies, for example, multiple varieties and forms of intersections themselves. One example is presented as the policy position of the Routledge Advances in Feminist Studies and Intersectionality book series (<>), as ‘committed to the development of new feminist and profeminist perspectives on changing gender relations, with special attention to:

  • • Intersections between gender and power differentials based on age, class, dis/abilities, ethnicity, nationality, racialization, sexuality, violence, and other social divisions.

  • • Intersections of societal dimensions and processes of continuity and change: culture, economy, generativity, polity, sexuality, science and technology.

  • • Embodiment: Intersections of discourse and materiality, and of sex and gender.

  • (p. 77) • Transdisciplinarity: intersections of humanities, social sciences, medical, technical and natural sciences.

  • • Intersections of different branches of feminist theorizing, including: historical materialist feminisms, postcolonial and anti-racist feminisms, radical feminisms, sexual difference feminisms, queerfeminisms, cyberfeminisms, posthuman feminisms, critical studies on men and masculinities.

  • • A critical analysis of the travelling of ideas, theories and concepts.

  • • A politics of location, reflexivity and transnational contextualizing that reflects . . . diversity and transnational power relations.’

Each of these different developments and elaborations of intersectionality, as well as the intersections between them, has further and broader implications still for how diversity and DM are to be understood in theory and practice as multifaceted phenomena. Seen thus, diversity and DM are themselves open to multiple, diverse, intersectional, and often transnational understandings, rather than being a specific and separately identifiable field, with a single purpose or function.


We are grateful to the editors for their constructive comments on earlier drafts of this chapter.


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(1) Anthias (2013) has recently set out another framework for understanding social categories, and thus, by implication, difference, in terms of different levels of abstraction: as social ontologies, in terms of conceptions on how different realms of world are being organized; as providing criteria based on which people can be categorized; and as concrete relations. She locates intersectionality at the level of concrete relations, seen as embedded in both intersecting categorizations (and thus differences) that are distinct between themselves, as well as wider societal processes.