You may have seen or heard of ‘intersectionality’, particularly in conversations around feminism. This sociological term has gained popularity around the world in recent years, but what does it mean and why should we care about it?
In social science, intersectionality is the overlap between a person’s identities (1). It is often talked about in the context of race and gender identity, but intersectionality can also include class, sexual orientation, age, disability status, and many other individual characteristics. This overlap can influence how people view and interact with the world around them. For example, being a Black woman means that our life experiences are different compared to a Black man or a White woman.
"We…find it difficult to separate race from class from sex oppression because in our lives they are most often experienced simultaneously." - The Combahee River Collective Manifesto, A group of Black feminists in the 1970s (2)
An American civil rights advocate, Professor Kimberlé Crenshaw, is credited with creating the term ‘intersectionality’ in 1989. However, it was not a new concept. Early work on intersectionality focused on groups who experience multiple social inequalities and how the combination of these disadvantages affected them (3). One of the earliest recorded mentions of the concept of intersectionality goes as far back as the 1830s with Maria Stewart, an activist, who regularly gave speeches on the racial, economic, and gender-related disadvantages of being a Black woman during the height of the slave trade in the US (4). Professor Crenshaw re-introduced intersectionality as a three-dimensional framework, which she used to explain how Black women are disadvantaged on a structural, political and representational level (5). The concept of intersectionality began with Black women and, over time, the experiences of Black women have remained a core component of the sociological concept (6).
For almost 200 years, social activists (and later, researchers) have been trying to
highlight the problems with restricting people to a single identity. This is especially important when considering how people interact with social systems like law enforcement and healthcare (7). For example, many studies have unfortunately found that independent factors like socioeconomic status, gender expression and race/ethnicity can affect the quality of care that a person receives (8–10).
Studies that have looked at how the combination of these factors affect access to and the quality of care concluded that the overlap of these factors do likely have an enhanced negative impact on the quality of care and therefore, factors should not continue to be considered independently (11,12). No one is made up of a single identity.
As Black women in science, we all have multiple identities and are no strangers to how intersectionality impacts our lives (13). In the fields of science, technology, engineering, and maths (STEM), Black women scientists are hugely underrepresented, currently making up only 1.14% of all academic staff in the UK (14,15). For those of us that are in the field, many barriers exist that we might not always be aware of. In a recent paper, Jebsen et al. list a number of aspects within academia where women are at a disadvantage, including reduced access to research funding (16). In the paper, they also discuss the cumulative disadvantage for Black women in particular, who are often given more non-research tasks than their peers, and therefore, leaving them less time to dedicate to furthering their research careers (16,17).
Being aware of how intersectionality affects us is useful because it can help us identify areas that we might need to be more aware of to help us level the playing field. Unfortunately, many of the issues are systemic and hard for us to fix alone. Allyship from White people can help to push for change and increase our sense of belonging in spaces where we feel unwelcome (18). In fact, some institutional changes are also being implemented. In countries like the UK, policies like the Athena Swan Charter have been introduced to help reduce some of the inequalities women in science face (16). While these policies are a good step forward, they do not always live up to the promises that they make which indicates that there is still work to be done (19).
There is still a long way to go in tackling the compounded disadvantages that come with intersectionality. Hopefully, with increasing awareness, we will see some real changes in our lifetime. Until then, supporting each other as best we can in communities like the Black Women in Science Network can be a great way to stay sane.
Images made by Esther Ansah, using Procreate and elements from Undraw.
By Esther Ansah, Blog Writer
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2. Collective CR. The Combahee River Collective Statement. 1974.
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13. Ireland DT, Freeman KE, Winston-Proctor CE, DeLaine KD, McDonald Lowe S, Woodson KM. (Un)Hidden Figures: A Synthesis of Research Examining the Intersectional Experiences of Black Women and Girls in STEM Education. Rev Res Educ. 2018;42(1):226–54.
14. HESA. Staff at Higher Education Providers in the United Kingdom 2021/22. 2023.
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17. Stockfelt S. We the minority-of-minorities: a narrative inquiry of black female academics in the United Kingdom. Br J Sociol Educ. 2018;39(7):1012–29.
18. Johnson IR, Pietri ES. An ally you say? Endorsing White women as allies to encourage perceptions of allyship and organizational identity-safety among Black women. Gr Process Intergr Relations. 2020;25(2):453–73.
19. Graves A, Rowell A, Hunsicker E. An Impact Evaluation of the Athena SWAN Charter. 2019.