Navigating Intersectionality in the Workplace: An Employee-Led Approach to Equity and Inclusion in Renewables
Authors: David Ikejiani, Project Development Analyst, Solar Development and Marya Friedman, Senior Associate, IM&A
“We exist through intersections, but our conversations about diversity regularly push us to pick one identity for ourselves at the expense of others.” - Rohit Bhargava1
At EDPR, we ask ourselves daily the following question: “What does it mean in practice to create a workplace environment in which employees can show up as their full selves?" We believe this starts not only with the recognition that the U.S. labor force is still working towards equitable compensation, but also with the awareness that each person's experiences are informed by their own multifaceted categories of identity. Understanding the intersectionality of these coalescing categories allows us to design effective workplace policies, benefit programs, hiring initiatives, and resource groups that can transform the landscape of renewable energy into a truly future-facing field.
Intersectionality, coined in 1989 by civil rights advocate and professor Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw, examines the cumulative ways in which multiple forms of oppression and discrimination overlap, intersect, and compound themselves across the axes of identity—be they biological, social, or cultural categories.2 In the workplace, intersectionality is the recognition that, visible and invisible, we bring markers of identity into every space we occupy, on Zoom, in conference rooms, and far beyond the workplace. Our intersecting identities across race, gender, ethnicity, sexuality, class, religion, educational background, military status, age, geographic origin, disability status, and neurodiversity (among others) affect how we are privileged and marginalized as we move through the world.
Intersectionality & Identifying Challenges
These intersections of identity bring with them unique challenges that magnify within and beyond workplace. Societal biases and systemic inequalities converge into institutional practices that perpetuate discrimination and hinder equitable opportunities for advancement. Consequently, it is crucial to examine the specific barriers encountered by employees with diverse identities as they navigate their professional lives. These barriers include:
Lack of Representation:
The underrepresentation of diverse groups in leadership positions, taking into account the intersectionality of their identities, hinders their ability to envision themselves in positions of power. This perpetuates a cycle of marginalization and exclusion, where individuals from intersecting marginalized identities may feel unheard and excluded from key opportunities. In the renewable energy sector, the lack of intersectional representation poses a barrier to the development of inclusive policies and the formation of diverse teams that can effectively address the industry's challenges. Significantly, while women constitute 47% of the total U.S. workforce, their representation in the U.S. solar workforce is merely 26%.3
Unequal Access to Opportunities:
Intersectionality further exacerbates the unequal access to opportunities faced by diverse groups in the workplace. These disparities manifest in various forms, including limited access to training and development programs, exclusion from significant projects or networks, and biased performance evaluations. For instance, individuals from low-income backgrounds, who may already face economic challenges, encounter additional barriers that restrict their ability to pursue educational opportunities or participate in professional development programs. These intersecting disparities impede the acquisition of essential skills and experiences needed for diverse employees to advance in their careers.
Pay and Promotion Disparities:
Intersectionality further compounds the pay and promotion disparities experienced by diverse groups in industries like renewable energy. Women and individuals from racial or ethnic minority backgrounds, who possess multiple marginalized identities, frequently encounter wage gaps and face reduced chances of promotion compared to their counterparts. Factors contributing to these disparities include unconscious bias, discriminatory hiring and promotion practices, and opaque compensation structures. Consequently, these intersecting disparities not only perpetuate inequities but also contribute to lower job satisfaction, diminished motivation, and a heightened likelihood of diverse employees leaving their positions.4
Lack of Mentorship and Sponsorship:
Mentorship and sponsorship play crucial roles in professional development and advancement. However, diverse employees often face limited access to mentors and sponsors who can provide guidance, support, and advocacy within the workplace. The absence of mentors and sponsors who understand and can navigate the unique challenges faced by diverse employees can impede their progress. Without such guidance, individuals may struggle to navigate organizational politics, secure high-visibility assignments, or gain exposure to influential networks.
Hostile Work Environments:
Diverse employees may encounter hostile or exclusionary work environments that create additional barriers. Discriminatory practices, microaggressions, and lack of inclusion initiatives contribute to a toxic culture that erodes morale, stifles productivity, and leads to high turnover among diverse employees. A hostile work environment can result in individuals feeling isolated, undervalued, and unable to fully contribute their skills and expertise to their organizations.
The effects of these barriers compound for employees with multiply marginalized identities. As an example, considering disparities across gender alone, white women with bachelor's degrees in the U.S. in 2020 earned 81 cents for every dollar earned by white men; expanding this analysis across race reveals that the same figure for Black, Hispanic, and Native American women with bachelor's degrees was only 75 cents.5 These compounding effects hold true across C-suite leaders in the US—while 21% are women, only 4% are women of color, and only 1% are Black women.6 Within our smaller renewable energy industry, there is a dearth of quantitative and qualitative data across the intersections of these categories. To fully assess and commit to tackling inequity at the intersections of identity, companies should lead by prioritizing this data collection. Ultimately, these statistics matter not only as a reflection of where we currently stand, but as a benchmark of how included employees may feel in the workplace, and as door for future diverse talent.
Innovating our Approach to ED&I
How should companies develop proactive diversity and inclusion policies, mentorship programs, equitable recruitment and promotion practices, and a supportive workplace culture? A truly intersectional approach must center the lived experiences and individual needs of each employee and build this nuance into upstream policies. EDPR’s approach to ED&I follows the leadership of a diverse coalition of employees through our employee resource groups, known as SynERGy Groups, each of which has a dedicated budget. EDPR’s approach to centering employee voices is paired with the direct support of the C-suite: each of the six SynERGy Groups—for Black, LGBTQ+ (“Pride”), Latino (“Juntos”), AAPI, women, and veteran employees—is paired with an executive sponsor to ensure that every group has a meaningful voice in decision-making at the upper levels of the organization. In the realm of company policy, the PRIDE SynERGy Group for LGBTQ+ employees and allies has seen this come to fruition: informed by our expertise, the upcoming EDPR NA Employee Handbook and its treatment of parental leave ensures equitable coverage for families of all stripes. In the realm of mentorship programs, the Black SynERGy Group has led the way through partnership with Houston-based Black Girls Do Engineer (“BGDE”), mentoring young girls and women in STEM with one-on-one relationships, and even holding a company-wide EDPR career day to show the young people of BGDE the many sides of what their renewable energy futures can be. Our SynERGy Groups are constantly in conversation with each other, sharing ideas, jointly collaborating, building community, and together moving beyond the siloing of issues faced by individual groups to co-create holistic tools for equity and inclusion.
The framework of intersectionality illuminates how each employee’s experiences are informed by their multifaceted identities, how the renewable energy industry has fallen short, and how we can still achieve our full potential diversity. By centering the lives of employees, empowering us to vocalize our own individual needs, and following our lead as we articulate solutions, our industry can harness the collective power of our diverse perspectives to drive equitable change towards our shared vision of a clean energy future for all. Our team at EDPR continues to look forward to challenging and engaging our industry partners and counterparts to achieve the immense ED&I leadership potential we have on in the greater energy sector. We invite you all to join us on this evolutionary and impactful journey.
1Rohit Bhargava, Beyond Diversity: 12 Non-Obvious Ways To Build A More Inclusive World (Virginia: IdeaPress Publishing, 2021).
2Syracuse University Libraries, FYS 101: Intersectionality, accessed via https://researchguides.library.syr.edu/fys101/intersectionality.
3The Solar Foundation & the Solar Energy Industries Association, “U.S. Solar Industry Diversity Study 2019: New Resources on Diversity and Inclusion in the Solar Workforce,” accessed via https://www.seia.org/sites/default/files/2019-05/Solar-Industry-Diversity-Study-2019.pdf.
5World Economic Forum, “Systemic Racism: 5 ways intersectionality affects diversity and inclusion at work,” July 22, 2020, accessed viahttps://www.weforum.org/agenda/2020/07/diversity-inclusion-equality-intersectionality/.