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What is intersectionality and how it affects international assignments and recruitment decisions

by | Nov 12, 2022

Intersectionality means considering everything that can marginalise an employee from sex and gender to race and class. Dr Sue Shortland explains why employers need to consider it when making international assignment and recruitment decisions.

Over the past several decades there has been a focus both within practitioner and academic research on increasing women’s participation in international assignments and much has been published on this topic. More recently, however, attention has focused on widening diversity within expatriation more generally.

The main focus has been on the participation of LGBT expatriates with both practitioner and academic research exploring this issue. Other aspects of diversity, however, have received scant attention – there is very little published to provide guidance for global mobility professionals on the deployment of, for example, racial and ethnic minority expatriates, disabled expatriates, and different religious groups.

Diversity celebrates difference and the business case presents a strong argument for incorporating different individual characteristics within the expatriate profile.

Managing diversity is not a straightforward task though – it requires understanding of different perspectives and the potential to manage conflicts resulting from these.
Nonetheless, recognition of the positive benefits that flow from a diverse international workforce is considered to be a valuable objective within the talent management agenda.


The global mobility industry has begun to focus more strongly on increasing diversity since the pandemic. This may have resulted from the ability of minority groups to participate in virtual assignments during the pandemic period whereas previously they may have been precluded from undertaking international mobility due to their personal circumstances. As such, we are now seeing more working groups taking place and research being published into international assignment diversity.

Of course, it is important to remember that diversity concerns a statistical base. Through this organisations are able to record and monitor the profiles of their mobile populations. Diversity though is not enough in itself – inclusion is required if individuals are to be listened to and their contributions valued.

One of the key problems in terms of researching and delivering interventions to promote diversity concerns its very nature. Diversity concerns difference and, as such, with everybody being different how can diversity statistics reflect the combination of attributes held by each individual? Here lies the importance of considering intersectionality.

Intersectionality theory is helpful to us in that it highlights the effects of the interplay of various aspects of a person’s identity and how these result in social outcomes.”


Intersectionality theory dates back to the late 1980s and the work of Kimberlé Crenshaw. Working in a legal academic context, Crenshaw’s work draws attention to the experiences of women of colour in the US workplace. Equal opportunities legislation provided a framework for interventions to avoid discrimination on grounds of sex and also on grounds of race but, as Crenshaw argues, the legislation responded to one or other of these characteristics, women of colour were marginalised as a result. In essence, the intersectionality of race and sex resulted in the subordination of black women in the workplace.

Intersectionality theory is helpful to us in that it highlights the effects of the interplay of various aspects of a person’s identity and how these result in social outcomes. The many aspects of an individual’s identity combine to produce a set of circumstances greater than the sum of their parts. Thus, when we consider the diversity of an expatriate population, by looking solely at gender or race or sexual orientation, we effectively ignore the effect of the combination of these factors.

Hence, intersectionality theory predicts that gay black women, for example, will experience outcomes in the workplace and the societies to which they are assigned differently from individuals with other combinations of identity characteristics. Thus, although equality legislation addresses protected characteristics and HR and global mobility professionals must be mindful to ensure that they do not breach these legal directives, to ensure full benefit from diversity and inclusion, they need to be mindful of the consequences of the intersection of these different protected characteristics.

Intersectionality theory emphasises disadvantage at the individual level as well as within organisations and societies more generally. The flipside of this is that it also emphasises power and privilege for those in the upper echelons of organisations and societies. Here it is useful to consider the value of upper echelon theory in predicting outcomes for diversity within employee groups such as within international assignee populations.


Upper echelon theory predicts that those holding positions at the top of corporate hierarchies are powerful individuals who work with others who also hold power. Together they produce organisational outcomes that reflect their own orientation. Hence, corporate elites make decisions that potentially promulgate a similar ethos meaning that resourcing decisions can simply`reflect the status quo. The argument is that individuals holding power within organisations replicate themselves and so powerful groups within organisations remain similarly constituted; this can act against moves towards increasing diversity and inclusion, and potentially even`lead to discrimination.

It is still the case today that the top levels within organisations are predominantly male; women still hold only a minority of board roles. It can also be argued that elite groups such as expatriates remain predominantly staffed by non-diverse populations and the status quo remains due to a lack of widening of selection criteria to enable minority groups to enter this international arena.

For HR and global mobility professionals, effort must be paid to considering how people are selected for international roles and also how the developmental opportunities that flow from them are communicated such that those holding non-traditional assignee identities might be attracted to them.

The argument is that individuals
holding power within organisations replicate themselves and so powerful groups within organisations remain similarly constituted”


Upper echelon theory suggests that attention needs to be paid to those holding the positions of power as they make the decisions to let others into top roles.

Intersectionality theory guides us to consider every person as an individual with their own unique identity. Thus, decision-making on selection for assignments should be based on an individual’s own personal identity rather than an assumed collective group identity.

To ensure that diversity and inclusion objectives become a fully functional reality, the nature of decision making about each individual requires attention with practical steps taken to ensure that true effort is made to fully address how decision-makers holding power within organisations can operate to best fulfill talent objectives.

Hutchings, K., Michailova, S., & Wilkinson, A. A Concise Guide to Key Theories for Human Resource Management Research, Cheltenham: Edward Elgar. Forthcoming