Intro to intersectionality

Much of the discussion around diversity and inclusion in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) focuses on increasing representation of women. The Australian Department of Industry has an Advancing Women in Stem strategy, we have a Women in STEM Ambassador, and hundreds of programs aiming to encourage girls to study STEM subjects. 

The underrepresentation of women in the Australian STEM workforce is of considerable concern, and it’s great that this is such a live discussion. 

However, although this ‘broad brush’ approach can be useful in examining women’s participation in STEM, it’s important to recognise that other markers of ‘diversity’, such as cultural background, gender identity and sexuality, disability, and age, are also significant issues in Australia. Organisations will often have a set of policies and procedures (such as Reconciliation Action Plans, Disability Action Plans) to try to ensure active participation from underrepresented groups, and to comply with relevant legislation. 

Treating elements of diversity as separate ‘issues’ to be addressed atomises experiences of underrepresentation from each other, and does not do a good job of ensuring support for people who experience marginalisation from multiple angles. That is, treating ‘women’s participation’ as a wholly separate issue to ‘participation of people with disabilities’ does not recognise the compounded effects of being a woman with a disability in the workplace. 

This recognition of the effects of multiple marginalisation was first laid out by legal scholar Kimberlé Crenshaw in 1989, exploring the intersection of racism and sexism in legal frameworks.

Crenshaw’s article is the seminal academic work that articulates ‘Intersectionality’, a term which has filtered into common use in the diversity and equity space. Crenshaw delineates the flaws in “dominant conceptions of discrimination condition us to think about subordination as disadvantage occurring along a single categorical axis” and argues that “Black women are sometimes excluded from feminist theory and antiracist policy discourse because both are predicated on a discrete set of experiences that often does no accurately reflect the interaction of race and gender”. The critical part of Crenshaw’s argument is that “the intersectional experience is greater than the sum of racism and sexism” (1989, p140). 

As we all move through the ongoing turbulence of COVID-19, it is worth noting that women and people of colour are bearing the brunt of the economic downturn, with unemployment in those groups rising faster than for white men, according to research from the USA.  

Thinking about diversity and equity issues with an intersectional lens gives us a more sophisticated understanding of how structures, policies, and processes can throw up barriers to participation for people who inhabit multiple marginalised identities. But we also need to ensure that thinking through the intersections of marginalisation doesn’t result in an attempt to create a hierarchy of marginalisation or privilege. That is, it’s not necessary to try figure out if a disabled man experiences more discrimination than a gay woman - that way lies further division. 

Rather, intersectionality as a frame of analysis helps us formulate problems of equity that appreciate the complexity and diversity of lived experience of people in our community. For example, intersectionality might help us move our question from “how do we increase women’s participation in STEM?” to “what are the cultural, structural, and organisational barriers to diversifying the STEM workforce, and how do these impact different underrepresented groups in different contexts?” The answer to the first problem is contained in the second, but not at the expense of exploring other manifestations of marginalisation and disadvantage.

Intersectional thinking also allows for the possibility that we are all intersectional in both our privileges and our disadvantages, and that the significance of particular parts of our identities can change in different contexts - including the histories and systems of our workplaces. 

For some further reading, Dr Jessa Rogers-Metuamate explicates how intersectional marginalisation plays out in Australia’s higher education sector. This is just one example where focusing on moving the dial in terms of women’s representation can hide other embedded equity issues in our sector, and applied sociologist Dr Zuleyka Zevallos has developed a great introductory resource looking at intersectionality in higher education and research organisations. Take a look if you’re keen to learn more ways to think about diversity, equity, and inclusion in our community. 

 

Reference:

Crenshaw, K. (1989). “Demarginalizing the Intersection of Race and Sex: A Black Feminist Critique of Antidiscrimination Doctrine, Feminist Theory and Antiracist Politics” University of Chicago Legal Forum, 1:8

 

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