This week Cogo Labs hosted "Intersectionality At Work" a virtual event to create space for intersectional experiences, encourage tough conversations, amplify diverse voices. This event was an opportunity to both learn and partake in a discussion surrounding actionable inclusive practices, understand intersectionality, and empower everyone to feel comfortable bringing their identities to work. We hosted an incredible panel of four speakers, with an introduction by Megan Smith, 3rd U.S Chief Technology Officer and Assistant to the President (Obama) CEO & Co-Founder, shift7, and moderation by Lauren Kuntz, CEO & Co-Founder, Gaiascope.
Before we reflect on the conversations that took place, we want to define Intersectionality, and how that framework is critical in creating a diverse and inclusive work environment.
Intersectionality is a term coined 30 years ago by American Lawyer, Kimberlé Crenshaw. Intersectionality is a framework for conceptualizing a person, group of people, or social problem as affected by a number of discriminations and disadvantages. It takes into account people’s overlapping identities and experiences in order to understand the complexity of prejudices they face. Intersectional theory asserts that people are often disadvantaged by multiple sources of oppression: their race, class, gender identity, sexual orientation, religion, and other identity markers.
The dialogue began with opening remarks from Megan Smith, who implored us to think of intersectionality as "both topical as well as human."
Megan Smith: Megan Smith was the third Chief Technology Officer of the United States (U.S. CTO) and Assistant to the President, serving under President Barack Obama. She was previously a vice president at Google, leading new business development and early-stage partnerships across Google's global engineering and product teams at Google for nine years, was general manager of Google.org, a vice president at Google and the former CEO of Planet Out. She serves on the boards of MIT and Vital Voices, was a member of the USAID Advisory Committee on Voluntary Aid and co-founded the Malala Fund. Today Smith is the CEO and Founder of shift7. On September 4, 2014, she was named as the third (and first female) U.S. CTO, succeeding Todd Park, and serving until January, 2017.
Opening the conversation with a call to action, Megan emphasized one of the challenges of intersectionality is "it’s not prioritized enough with leaders. We have huge challenges with how leaders and teams have decided one method is the way and this group is in and others have to act accordingly rather than creating a climate that’s deeply welcoming to everybody."
When organizations consider "diversity", Megan discussed the idea that "diversity is also about diversity of topics and diversity of what’s worthy of our treasure. Not only who’s on my team and what’s my climate like for inclusion, but also what do we think is worthy?"
Panel Moderator, Lauern Kuntz began the panel by asking how panelists have each been introduced to the idea of intersectionality either personally or conceptually. Lauren emphasized that she's "still on my journey of being more inclusive, being more cognizant of all of the different ways that in my work and in my life, the decisions we’re making and who we’re including impact the world around me."
Lauren Kuntz: Lauren Kuntz is Co-Founder and CEO of Gaiascope, Inc, a Y Cominator-backed company working to harness the power of AI for electric grid applications and accelerate our energy transition. Previously, she was a NOAA Climate and Global Change Fellow at the University of Washington and received her PhD in earth and planetary science from Harvard University and SB in physics and mechanical engineering from MIT. Lauren is also an advocate for equity in athletics and continues to compete in the women's decathlon at the national level.
When illustrating how she came to understand intersectionality, Panelist, LaNell Williams, examined her personal experiences with the framework:
"Intersectionality wasn’t necessarily a choice for me, it was a piece of language I learned along my journey that helped describe the complexities or intersection of being a black person and also being a woman. It was something I was personally born into. Something I’ve had to learn in my journey is we not only have to think about them separately, but also in the way that they overlap. It’s important to think of them not only as identities, but the various ways that those identities impact us." - LaNell Williams
Lanell Williams: LaNell A. Williams is a current Ph.D. student at Harvard University studying soft condensed matter physics. Born and raised in Memphis, TN, LaNell graduated high school from City University School of Liberal Arts in 2011 and in 2015, she graduated with her Bachelors of Arts Degree in Physics at Wesleyan University. While at Wesleyan, she performed research under the guidance of Professor Christina Othon on further understanding the dynamics of the lipid membrane. As the founding member and chair of the Society of Underrepresented Students in STEM, she passionately advocates for creating meaningful resources to support underrepresented researchers in pursuit of physics. After Wesleyan, LaNell went on to finish her Masters of Arts Degree from Fisk University and continued on to Harvard University to pursue her Ph.D. Her current research interest includes an in-depth analysis of the physics of self-assembled systems by studying the assembly pathway of viruses. She is a current member of the Equity and Inclusion committee in Harvard’s Physics Department. She is also the co- founder of the Women of Color Project (WOCP), an initiative geared towards providing women of color resources on graduate school. As of January 2020, she was elected as Councilor of the Forum on Graduate Student Affairs (FGSA) and the Forum on Early Careers (FECS). As of August 2020, she has also joined the APS IDEA – Steering committee.
When addressing intersectionality in the workplace, LaNell talked through the consequences of having marginalized intersectional identities in certain workplaces. '
"I think for me I’ve found that there are just a lot of consequences to me coming into an environment as my authentic self. But then there’s this question of; “what is my authentic self?”, the self that people want to project on me in particular. In general, in physics, Women only make up 20% of the field, Black Women in particular make up less than .01% of the field, in terms of PHDs in physics. So being a Black Woman in physics is like seeing a unicorn. Often times, I’ve been subjected to other people’s expectations of who I’m supposed to be because of their perceptions of what it means to be both Black and a Woman. I often have to deal with people having very low expectations when I walk into a room." -LaNell Williams
While organizations continue to make strides towards more inclusive work environments, LaNell stated that "a good start would be reevaluating the people that are already in your network, and thinking about ways you can be conscious about who is in those networks so that you are reaching more people."
As the dialogue came to a close, LaNell gave attendees some tangible advice to take to their organizations and personal lives.
"I want to encourage everyone that when we think about what’s important and not; to understand that racism can range from “I touched your hair”, to “a huge issue with certain folks being targeted and killed”. I want to move away from focusing on specific targets and recognizing these targets come from different issues. I want to encourage people to be aware that we’re all trying to have these conversations and move towards the same goals. We have to keep a balance between not erasing people but focus on the very important things that are happening too." -LaNell Williams
Panelist Juan Enriquez reviewed his introduction to intersectionality through being "very interested in how we got so polarized. Why can’t people see right from wrong? It’s hard to listen from somebody from the position of 'I’m right and they’re wrong'."
Juan Enriquez: Juan Enriquez thinks and writes about the profound changes that genomics and brain research will bring about in business, technology, politics and society. A broad thinker, he bridges disciplines to build a coherent look ahead. He is the managing director of Excel Venture Management, a life sciences VC firm. He cofounded the company that made the world's first synthetic life form and seed funded a company that may allow portable brain reading. Enriquez's book, Right/Wong: How Technology Transforms Our Ethics, shows why we should be a little less harsh in judging our peers and ancestors and more careful in being dead certain that what we do today will be regarded as ethical tomorrow. In 2015, he published Evolving Ourselves: How Unnatural Selection and Nonrandom Mutation Are Shaping Life on Earth with Steve Gullans. The book describes a world where humans increasingly shape their environment, themselves and other species.
When approaching the conversation of intersectionality, Juan emphasized:
"The ability to see and speak to people different from you and the ability to identify with people who are different from you. This has lead the US to go from 2/3 against gay marriage in 1997 to 2/3 for it in 2017. It’s a time for humility and a time for forgiveness as our understand of right and wrong change faster and faster over time." -Juan Enriquez
Juan examined his own intersecting identities in his final thoughts on the panel stating; "The reaction I get when I bring up certain issues is; 'well you don’t look Mexican', because there’s a stereotype about Mexican people. I think that stereotype of who has the right to speak and who looks like 'x' and who looks like 'y'."
Cogo Labs is grateful to create spaces to have these conversations, elevate others voices, and provide employees with access to thought leaders across various industries. While we recognize there's much more work to be done, we hope you enjoyed learning more about the experiences, knowledge, and advice from today’s panelists to continue to build more equitable, inclusive, and affirming workplaces.