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Is intersectionality another buzzword?

31 October 2023

Ollie Folayan, co-founder of the Association of Black and Minority Ethnic Engineers, explains what intersectionality means and why it’s important.

Is intersectionality another buzzword?
While only recently discussed in the corporate world, intersectionality isn't a new concept. Image credit: Shutterstock

What is intersectionality and why should civil engineers care?

The dictionary definition of intersectionality refers to the interconnected nature of social categories, such as race, class, gender and other protected characteristics.

These connections can create overlapping systems of discrimination or disadvantage.

For example, a Black, lesbian woman from a lower socio-economic background could experience disadvantages because of one or a combination of all of those characteristics.

Intersectionality therefore challenges systems that treat types of oppression in isolation.

While only recently discussed in the corporate world in terms of diversity and inclusion, it’s not a new concept.

When did the term intersectionality emerge?

UCLA law professor, Kimberle Crenshaw, coined the term intersectionality in an essay in 1989.

Crenshaw used the concept to help explain the oppression of African American women.

She observed that there were some discrimination cases that couldn’t be explained in court as a simple combination of misogyny and racism.

They needed more sophisticated thinking.

Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.

Martin Luther King - letter from Birmingham, Alabama jail, 16 April 1963.

DeGraffenreid v. General Motors (1976)

In a case in 1976, Emma DeGraffenreid and four other Black female auto workers accused General Motors of using a seniority-based system of redundancies that discriminated against Black women.

The courts weighed the allegations of race and gender discrimination separately.

They decided that because the company employed African American male factory workers, this proved that General Motors was not discriminating on race.

It also said that the employment of white female office workers disproved gender discrimination.

The court declined to consider compound discrimination and dismissed the case.

Crenshaw argued that in cases such as this, the courts have tended to ignore Black women's unique experiences by treating them as only women or only Black.

It’s tempting to question the relevance of an issue like this outside the US, but through careful reflection, we can start to see why intersectionality is important to diversity and inclusion.

Why intersectionality matters

No group is monolith

Whether it be race, gender, or any other protected characteristic, viewing any group as a monolith narrows the scope of our efforts.

It risks neglecting the worst affected people in that group.

For example, a gender diversity initiative that centres on the experiences of white women may overlook the challenges that global ethnic majority women face.

Similarly, it’s important that we don’t lump together the experiences of various minoritised people, meaning groups of people that have been granted less power or representation than others.

This is why there’s been a reaction to the use of terms like BAME (Black, Asian and minority ethnic), for example.

It’s rarely just one thing

The worst cases of discrimination are often due to certain factors coming together, including the more obvious element.

When Shelia Jackson, a mother from Virginia in the US, signed up her young, Black son, Curtis Hayes, for an after-school tennis programme run by the Richmond Police Athletic League, she wanted Curtis, who also lives with autism, to “have a positive view of police officers”.

A few weeks later, however, Jackson arrived at the tennis courts at Virginia Commonwealth University to see Curtis on the ground and in handcuffs.

Staff informed Sheila that Curtis was becoming frustrated by his tennis serves and they asked him to practice to the side of everyone else.

According to Curtis, a female officer raised her voice at him, and he began to walk away.

Unaware of his autism, the officer saw this attempt to self-regulate as defiance, and she grabbed the 12-year-old.

Sheila explained to CBS 6, “When I got here there was an officer holding his head, there was an officer on his left leg, someone on his right leg, there was an officer on his right-side kneeling holding his shoulders down and then there was another officer standing up.”

Curtis was later diagnosed with a concussion.

Effective interventions only come from intersectional analysis

For organisations, all EDI initiatives fall under three categories:

  • they're either helping to attract talent into our sector;
  • retain the talent within the sector through healthy work cultures and psychological safety; or
  • ensuring career progression and boardroom diversity.

All three objectives must begin with an accurate assessment of the starting point – one that weighs up all contributing factors.

Non-intersectional data analysis may give the impression that we’re doing better than we are.

It may also mask significant disparities that only analysis of its combined component parts will uncover.

Professor Alan Manning at the London School of Economics carried out research into ethnicity pay gaps.

He found that, after adjusting for age, qualifications and family status, there’s “no evidence of pay gaps being smaller than they were 25 years ago” for Black, Pakistani, and Bangladeshi employees.

This wasn’t the case for Indian and Chinese employees who enjoyed a slightly smaller pay gap.

An assessment that lumped together all non-white employees’ pay wouldn’t have uncovered this distinction.

Intersectionality separates lobbyists from true advocates

Having worked in this space for almost two decades, I’ve come across two types of diversity actors: lobbyists and advocates.

On the outside, they look the same, but they have different goals.

The lobbyist is energetic, often quite resourceful, and can point to metrics that demonstrate the effectiveness of their work, all qualities you’d see in any true advocate.

The difference is that the lobbyist doesn’t mind injustice, they just want a seat at the table.

The advocate views their anti-racist or pro-gender activism within the broader context of justice, and intersectionality becomes a natural result of their aversion to social injustice generally.

Victims can also be perpetrators

It’s important to be aware that victims of discrimination can also be perpetrators.

Many leaders of the women’s rights movement in the US, like Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B Anthony, were also committed to abolishing slavery.

But these feminists were also prepared to adopt scientifically racist rhetoric when asked to support the 15th Amendment, with which Black men won the right to vote.

In her 1981 book, Women, Race and Class, Angela Davis pointed out that the women's liberation movement had been run by and for white middle-class women.

It excluded Black women, other women of colour and other social classes.

In her book, Ain’t I a woman, bell hooks* makes similar arguments about the complicity of Black men in furthering, at home, the oppression that Black men and women received from their white slave masters on the field.

An intersectional assessment holds a justice-tinted mirror to all.

*bell hooks’ name is always written in lower case. This was to focus on the ideas behind the work, rather than herself.

  • Ollie Folayan, co-founder at Association of Black and Minority Ethnic Engineers (AFBE-UK)