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  • Writer's pictureDr. Kate Webster

Why My TEDx Talk Needs An Intersectional Lens: "Quiet Power" 8 Years Later

Eight years ago, in March of 2015, I had the incredible opportunity to present a TEDx Talk at the Illinois Institute of Technology titled “Quiet Power – The Key to Speaking Up.” When I recently revisited the video on YouTube, I was amazed and awed that it had received over 28,000 views! I had no idea that my message of accessing your “Quiet Power” to change the way you communicate and speak up for yourself would resonate with so many people.

Then I watched the talk for the first time in several years, and my heart sank. Not because of any judgmental thoughts of how I looked, sounded, or appeared on the stage, but because of two core universals I claimed back then about using assertive communication skills to speak up for yourself. Although using your voice to speak up for yourself can be a universal skill, I naively failed to consider that women who don’t look like me – a White, cisgender, able-bodied female – may not have the same privilege to use them.

In the talk, I set the stage with my first “universal” about struggling to speak up by claiming, “Some of you have perhaps also struggled to find your voice because this is a universal issue, especially when faced with difficult people and interactions.” Then, midway through the talk, I pose my second “universal” as a solution to this struggle: “When we believe in ourselves and connect our mind and body, all of us can use our quiet power in all areas of our lives to speak up for ourselves….”

My intent at that time was to empower individuals – especially women who struggle to speak up for themselves – to look within, connect mind and body, and find their voice. This came from a career spent teaching gender studies and social justice issues in higher education and developing and providing empowerment-based self-defense programs to groups in Chicago. The focus was on educating and providing practical applications to be and feel more empowered.

However, today, as a diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) practitioner, I can see the big miss around these universals. My lens at that time was through my White, cisgender, able-bodied, well-educated, and privileged position in society. While parts of my message might have been universal, it focused on what women need to change without considering the systemic inequities – both structural and institutional – that some women, more than others, face in the workplace and in society in general.

My message lacked an awareness of the impact these systemic inequities and biases have on organizational culture. Further, there was no mention of changes organizations must make to create inclusive and welcoming workplace environments where all women, regardless of their backgrounds and identities, can feel more respected, valued, and heard, and, therefore, more willing to speak up.

By deepening and expanding my awareness of issues of power, privilege, and a core concept of DEI work called intersectionality, today I understand that not all women experience systems in society and workplace policies and practices in the same manner. The concept of intersectionality, a term coined in 1989 by race and civil rights scholar Kimberlé Crenshaw to explain how race, gender, sexual orientation, class, and other attributes intersect, was eye opening. In particular, the ways identities overlap to create interdependent systems of discrimination or disadvantage and can have a cumulative negative impact on women in the workplace.

For example, when I speak up in the workplace, I can be pretty sure that I won’t be assumed to be talking for all White people or considered “a credit to my race,” as I most likely will be in the presence of a majority of White colleagues. Among these colleagues, I can feel relatively safe in knowing that my voice will be accepted and heard in the way I intended. However, as a DEI practitioner, I have heard over and over how women from backgrounds and identities different than mine don’t have these feelings of safety. They must be mindful on a daily basis of what they say, how and when they say it, and who is in front of them when they say it, lest they be stereotyped and categorized as “an angry Black woman,” “a loud Latina,” or “a demure and too soft-spoken Asian woman.”

As leaders and allies, it remains our responsibility to understand the overlap between race and gender for women in the workplace, alongside additional intersecting identities. How, in your workplace, do these overlapping identities hold some women back, go unnoticed, or render some invisible, while advancing others?

There is a big “Yes and” here. Yes, there are ways women can position themselves to believe in themselves and not take no for an answer. And there are ways systems, policies, and practices must change to look for, expect, and be more accepting of the breadth and depth of women’s varied identities, backgrounds, and forms of speaking up to create more inclusive environments.

As succinctly stated in Ruchika Tulshyan’s insightful 2022 book, “Inclusion on Purpose: An Intersectional Approach to Creating a Culture of Belonging at Work, “Without an intersectional approach, changes to support women’s advancement are incomplete at best, and at worst, inadvertently create cultures where women of color are deeply discriminated against—often while white women ascend.”

Yes, my heart sank when I rewatched my talk, AND I now see this as an opportunity to grow and learn more about the way I and others can show up to center the lived experiences of those at the margins of the dominant culture.

Over the next few months, I will continue to revisit my original Quiet Power TEDx Talk and look forward to sharing strategies I had offered through a more inclusive and intersectional lens.

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