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.

In addition to opening remarks from Megan Smith, we began the panel with Lauren Kuntz posing the question of "when did you first come in contact or understand of the intersectionality framework?"

Joy Ladin, in 2007, became the first (and still only) openly transgender employee of an Orthodox Jewish institution. She approached the question of coming to understand intersectionality through the derivative of the intersectionality framework.

"Intersectionality was originally invented as a sociological tool of analysis to try to provide a language for understanding the situation of people that belong to multiple groups that are structurally oppressed. It’s not about how people identify themselves, but how people are structurally identified from the outside based on fixed characteristics of their identity. When you have more than 1 of these external characteristics that’s built into a structure of oppression, what you experience at a given moment can become quite complicated.
When we talk about diversity, we often talk about asking people to point to one defining character of themselves. When I’m hiring it’s like “do I have one of these, do I have one of those”. That’s the way institutions work, but the reality of human beings is we’re multiple. We occupy multiple cultures, multiple situations, and we all keep changing.
My problem wasn’t that there were multiple intersecting ways that I was being oppressed from the outside, the problem was that there was no box for me at all. There wasn’t anything that was like me." -Joy Ladin
Joy Ladin, Professor and David and Ruth Gottesman Chair in English, Yeshiva University

Joy Ladin: Joy Ladin holds the Gottesman Chair in English at Yeshiva University, and, in 2007, became the first (and still only) openly transgender employee of an Orthodox Jewish institution. Her memoir, Through the Door of Life: A Jewish Journey Between Genders, was a finalist for a National Jewish Book Award; her recent book, The Soul of the Stranger: Reading God and Torah from a Transgender Perspective, was a Lambda Literary Award and Triangle Award finalist. She has also published nine books of poetry, including, most recently, The Future is Trying to Tell Us Something: New and Selected Poems. A nationally recognized speaker on trans and Jewish identity, she has been featured on NPR's “On Being” with Krista Tippett her TEDxBeaconStreet talk, “Ain't I a Woman?,” has over 18,000 views. She serves on the Board of Keshet, an organization devoted to full inclusion of LGTBQ Jews in the Jewish world. Episodes of her online conversation series, “Containing Multitudes,” are available at JewishLive.org/multitudes; links to her writing are available at joyladin.wordpress.com.

As Joy reflected on her personal experience with intersectionality, she addressed identity erasure as a blindspot in appreciating someones overlapping identities.

"I originally thought of it like “either the whole world has to see gender in a way that includes me, or I get completely erased.” But I’ve learned that we all live among multiple, overlapping systems and cultural codes that make meaning of these things." -Joy Ladin

As the panelists explored ways for organizations to be inclusive to intersectional identities, Joy implored us to dig deeper and check our own biases.

"As somebody involved in the hiring process [At Yeshiva University], it took me a long time to realize I wasn’t hiring anyone that wasn’t White and Jewish. I had a set of assumptions of what kind of person would work well with our students. Our students were white people. I didn’t even realize that I was part of systematic oppression. I wasn’t aware of this in my own practice. I wasn’t asking myself, “who isn’t here”? If you’re a workplace that wants access to perspectives that are marginalized, ask yourself, ‘who isn’t here that we want to be here?’ And when they’re here, how do we want to create a culture that invites them to share aspects of themselves and their own experiences. How do we create a space for that?" -Joy Ladin

Joy closed the panel with a final statement on navigating a world where "most people see sex and gender in ways that don’t have room for me."

"It's important to realize that we tend to think of identity as a zero-sum game, in which recognition of people who are traditional marginalized means diminishing those who have traditionally been central; then recognize the anxieties created by this zero-sum approach; and create a work environment in which identity is not zero sum, both to reduce those anxieties and to encourage everyone to value one another's different perspectives and experiences. What I’ve found is there is nobody that doesn’t have feelings of feeling estranged or marginalized." -Joy Ladin

When posed with the question on how she came to first understand intersectionality, panelist Mary Lou Jepsen considered that "there’s advantage to intersectionality because the low hanging fruit is seeing things that other people can’t see. You’re then able to see unique things that others can’t."

Mary Lou Jepsen, Founder & CEO, Openwater

Mary Lou Jepsen: Dr. Jepsen is the CEO and Founder of Openwater, a company creating MRI-quality medical imaging at 1000x lower price. Previously she was an engineering executive at Facebook, Oculus, Google, and Intel. She has designed and shipped billions of dollars worth of consumer electronics at the edge of what physics allows. She has also founded four startups, including One Laptop per Child where she was CTO, chief architect, and delivered to mass production the $100 laptop. She was a professor at MIT and is an inventor of over 250 published or issued patents, She has been recognized with many awards including TIME magazine’s “Time 100” as one of the 100 most influential people in the world, as a CNN top 10 thinker, and in the Forbes 2018 inaugural listing of the Top 50 Women in Tech.

Mary Lou encouraged organizations to "map our cultures, our intersectionality, and then we figure out and define what the culture of the company should be. Women are penalized for very direct feedback, so you create a slider bar for how you persuade, how you lead, and how you make decisions."

"The key thing is; the best idea should win, not the person that screams the loudest." -Mary Lou Jepsen

When addressing systemic issues of stereotyping and microaggressions, Mary Lou approaches these issues pragmatically, as if they were an engineering problem to solve.

"When was doing my PHD it was 2% women in Physics. What I did that was the most effective thing through this pain. I tried to figure out what they didn’t think I was good at. Then number one thing they didn’t think I was good at was; math. So when I presented the first slide was really heavy on the math. I demonstrated math competence. In the last year I’ve been called naïve, inexperienced, “bad at tech”, and even a “fraud”, by people that are actually more junior than me and my accomplishment level. They look at me and they perceive that. So the challenge is, how can I make it into an engineering problem so that I don’t feel that.
If you can understand how they see you, you can change the view of them, if you can just understand how they see you." -Mary Lou Jepsen

In her closing statement, she reflected on the benefits of holding intersecting, marginalized identities in and out of the workplace.

"There’s advantage to intersectionality because the low hanging fruit is seeing things that other people can’t see. You’re then able to see unique things that others can’t." -Mary Lou Jepsen

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.