There’s more to gender equality than gender

What is intersectionality and why does it matter? UQ Workplace Diversity and Inclusion Senior Manager Jordan Tredinnick explains.

On International Women’s Day, we often spend time reflecting on the women in our lives and their contribution to society. At The University of Queensland, we share stories of the amazing women in our community, inviting people to join us in celebrating their work and achievements.

But often our concept of achieving gender equality paints a certain kind of picture – we tend to imagine women who fit a particular stereotype, and leave out anyone who doesn’t fit that idea.

For example, conjure up an image right now of a ‘rockstar’ woman scientist. Is she a young woman wearing a lab coat and safety goggles juggling test tubes? A distinguished professor leading a team? Is she also balancing family responsibilities? Does she have a disability? Is she a woman of colour? Is she cis or trans gender? While some of these aspects may have been part of the image you created, it is unlikely that your image considered the range of factors that can exist in addition to a woman’s gender and job.

To achieve gender equality, it is important to consider factors that go beyond a one-dimensional approach to gender. We need to understand the way that our social structures and systems uniquely influence the opportunities, challenges and barriers that people experience.

This is intersectionality and it is essential to gender equality.

What does intersectionality mean?

Intersectionality is a theory developed by academic and civil rights advocate Kimberlé Crenshaw in 1989, but this was a lived reality for many people long before it became a word. Intersectionality is defined, by the dictionary of Google, as the “interconnected nature of social categorisations such as race, class, and gender as they apply to a given individual or group, regarded as creating overlapping and interdependent systems of discrimination or disadvantage”. In other words, as Crenshaw puts it in her magnificent 2016 TED Talk, it is like “injustice squared”, or a collision of multiple forms of discrimination that occur simultaneously based on the social context.

The definition was born from Crenshaw’s analysis of discrimination law, but the principle of intersectionality extends much further than the law. Intersectionality provides us with an improved way of understanding people’s experiences in society, and the way that our social structures impact these experiences and create unique barriers and challenges. Understanding the impact of these different constructs and contexts enables us to work to systematically remove or mitigate any barriers and challenges that people may experience.

Why is this important?

Gender equity is a wicked problem, requiring complex solutions.

Addressing gender by only focusing on the ‘gender’ aspects of women’s lived experience significantly limits both our understanding of the problem and our ability to implement positive and holistic solutions; and may in fact unintentionally create further exclusion and discrimination. Intersectionality provides us with the languages and lenses to see beyond ‘just gender’ and understand how other social attributes (for example, race, culture, age, sexuality, disability, etc.) might impact women’s experiences. Through intersectionality we can deeper understand the barriers and challenges faced by women, and develop comprehensive, considered and holistic solutions to the problem of gender equality.

For example, let’s consider women in science, technology, engineering, mathematics and medicine (STEMM) disciplines. Women make up the majority of STEMM students and early career researchers in most disciplines, but are underrepresented in ever decreasing numbers at more senior stages – this is often referred to as the ‘leaky pipeline’, where most women either do not progress to higher levels of seniority, or leave. In suggesting solutions to ‘fix’ this, a few key themes always arise. These include better shared caring responsibilities between men and women, so that having a family doesn’t as significantly impact a woman’s career progression; having special fellowships for women returning from parental leave to minimise the impact the career break might have had; and programs designed to help women develop leadership skills and strong professional networks and mentor relationships.

If we apply an intersectional perspective to these commonly proposed solutions to gender equity in STEMM, how do we explain why women without children are not significantly more successful than women with children? Or why there are so few Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women at professorial level in STEMM disciplines in Australia? Or why there are so few women with visible disabilities who are recognised in STEMM careers? Or why women with cultural or linguistically diverse backgrounds are underrepresented in academic leadership positions? Or why trans women are often excluded from gender equity programs, and only considered within LGBTIAQ+ initiatives?

In my opinion, it is because there is much more to gender equality than just gender.

If we can’t see a problem in its entirety, or have the language to properly describe a problem, then we can’t fix the problem. Intersectionality provides us with a mechanism to not only see the problem and talk about the problem, but also to potentially fix the problem. To continue with our STEMM theme, nothing happens inside a vacuum: we need to consider gender equality in the wider social context, outside of people’s experiences of gender, to truly achieve equality.

What can you do?

By understanding intersectionality and how it impacts peoples’ lives, we can start to make real, sustainable and positive change.

Here are three things that you can do right now to apply the principles of intersectionality and be a part of this change.

1. Recognise and value difference.

It is important that we seek to value and recognise our differences, rather than trying to remove or limit our differences. By blanketing all women’s experiences based on one aspect of their identity, we take away from their unique experiences as people. Seek to learn from people who have different experiences to you, look for opportunities to raise awareness about intersectionality and avoid reducing people to one aspect of their identity.

2. Understand your privilege.

Even though you may experience obstacles and challenges, it is important to understand your privilege and what impact this privilege has on others. Think about the language that you use, the people that surround you and the way that others might interpret different signs and symbols. Consider how you can change your behaviour to be actively inclusive. Be aware of your own biases and how they might impact the decisions that you make about recruitment, promotion, remuneration and recognition or reward.

3. Apply a diversity and inclusion lens to everything that you do.

Educate yourself about different cultures, genders, disabilities and sexualities, and look for how different people may be impacted by different social structures, rules and systems. Challenge yourself to think outside of the separate ‘boxes’ of gender, race, sexuality and disability that we place people in. Think of people as people and not of separate identities. Look to change systems and structures not people.

Learn more about workplace diversity and inclusion at UQ here.