Introduction to Intersectional Feminism

Intersectionality is a framework, and a legal and policy tool, used to analyse and understand different levels of inequality and oppression. It aims to demonstrate how different aspects of one’s identity may interact to shape and exacerbate their experience of discrimination. This could include, but is not limited to, gender, race, ethnicity, religion, socio-economic status, disability, sexuality or gender expression. Intersectional feminism, then, pays attention to the great diversity in experiences of gender discrimination and how these are uniquely influenced and possibly worsened by other forms of discrimination. In doing so, intersectional feminism creates space for the experiences of women who have been excluded from traditional feminist theory that centred on the narratives of white, middle-class, able-bodied, cis women.


The term ‘intersectionality’ was coined by scholar and civil rights activist Kimberlé Crenshaw in 1989, although activists had long been fighting to have the complexity of their discrimination and oppression recognised. Crenshaw used the 1976 case of Degraffenreid v General Motors as an example of the need for intersectionality. In the case, five Black women said they had faced double discrimination as a result of both their race and gender identity but the legal system refused to recognise this. In response, Crenshaw noted that;


“Courts seem to think that race discrimination was what happened to all Black people across gender and sex discrimination was what happened to all women, and if that is your framework, of course, what happens to Black women and other women of colour is going to be difficult to see.” [1]


Although the term was originally used to encompass gender and racial discrimination, it has since been expanded to incorporate multiple forms of discrimination. For example the experiences of disabled women, trans women, Muslim women, or women of a low socioeconomic background. By recognising the complexity of systems of oppression, intersectionality creates depth, nuance and greater accuracy to our understanding of inequality and therefore improves the effectiveness of our analysis and response. It ensures that a diversity of voices and perspectives are heard and that women who face overlapping forms of oppression are not excluded from important discussions and action.


Intersectional approach to data reporting


When reporting on gender-related issues, an intersectional lens is essential. For example, on average, a woman makes 77 cents to a man's dollar [2]. This statistic has been widely used to evidence gender gaps, however it is not an accurate figure for minority races and ethnicities. Black women earn 63 cents to a white man's dollar, and Hispanic women earn just 58 cents [3]. Similarly, in the UK, white women constitute just 8 percent of FTSE 100 CEOs and there are no women of colour [4]. 42 percent of women of colour reported being passed over for a promotion despite good feedback, compared to 27 percent of white women, and 75 percent of women of colour report experiencing racism at work, an issue that white women will not face [5]. Across the EU, 91 percent of women of colour are overqualified in their jobs, compared to 48 percent of white women [6].


The COVID-19 crisis both revealed and exacerbated these inequalities. In the US, Black women are overrepresented in essential and service jobs which means they were more likely to be exposed to COVID-19 and its effects. Plus, many of the jobs in which Black women are overrepresented are also less likely to offer paid time off and benefits [7]. The danger, therefore, of adopting a singular category of 'women' and their experience of work is that other issues such as racial discrimination and bias are overlooked. This means that policies looking to address issues are unlikely to have equal impacts and will have a greater benefit for white women than women of colour. An intersectional framework allows us to analyse how experiences differ between women and understand where greater attention is needed to address wage gaps, unconscious discrimination and bias, and opportunity gaps.


Other examples of an intersectional approach include the experiences of LGBTQ+ women across the globe, where in many regions LGBTQ+ people are not protected at a legal level. In Malaysia, consensual same-sex acts are still illegal, the implications of which spread beyond the boundary of LGBTQ+ rights and issues. For example, the Domestic Violence Act offers women redress for and protection from violence only within heterosexual marriage, leaving LGBTQ+ women and those in queer relationships unprotected at a state level [8]. In Indonesia, same-sex sexual activity is legal in most provinces, however it is still highly taboo. Reports from a LGBTQ+ youth group in the country state that "violence against women is marginalised in general, violence against LBT is further underrecognised, and violence against young LBT is invisible" [9]. In regions where both violence against women and LGBTQ+ rights are highly taboo as separate issues, LGBTQ+ women are left with little to no protection due to compounding factors of both their gender and sexuality.


A final example of the need for an intersectional framework is revealed in data relating to the experience of disabled versus non-disabled women. Women with disabilities are 10 times more likely to experience physical or sexual assault compared to women without disabilities [10] and, in the UK, disabled women are more than twice as likely to experience domestic abuse than non-disabled women [11]. This is corroborated by research from the IWDA in Cambodia that revealed that women with disabilities are more likely to face violence from immediate family members, and more likely to experience controlling behaviour from partners than women without disabilities [12]. In the workplace, people with disabilities face barriers generally when entering and progressing in the labour force. This is due to discrimination and bias as well as physical barriers where workplaces have not considered those with additional needs. However, women with disabilities face additional bias based on their gender and, as a result, globally men with disabilities are almost twice as likely to have jobs than women with disabilities [13].


How can an intersectional framework be used in workplace policy-making?


Although there may be similarities between women’s experiences in the workplace, in order to effectively address workplace discrimination and bias businesses must consider the intersecting factors that shape employees’ experience so that efforts to create a safe and inclusive working environment are effective.


The first step for businesses is to incorporate an intersectional framework into data collection, monitoring and analysis concerning their workplace. This can be both formally, such as in wage gap reporting, and informally, for example through conversations with employees about their experience in the workplace. A diversity of voices, perspectives and experiences are crucial when exploring ways to build better workplaces, and these perspectives can be built into policy making and diversity and inclusion efforts. Similarly, when analysing diversity in teams, it is not enough to focus solely on a gender balance but also to incorporate factors such as race, ethnicity, and socio-economic status.


As businesses are taking greater steps towards improving the efficiency of policies and training designed to make workplaces safer and more inclusive, an intersectional lens is crucial to ensure that voices and experiences are not left behind. To find out more about Thrive’s services and how we can help, email us at hello@thrivefuture.org.