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Black & Woman – Interpreting Intersectionality

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?


a venn diagram with 'Black' on the left and 'Woman' on the right. An illustration of a Black woman is in the middle where the circles overlap
Intersectionality - the overlap between identities

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).

A spider diagram with a drawing of a Black woman in the middle. The words surrounding her read race and ethnicity, gender identity, (dis)ability, sexual orientation, socio-economic status and age.
Individual characteristics that make up our identities

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



Bibliography

1. Crenshaw K. Demarginalizing the intersection of race and sex: A black feminist critique of antidiscrimination doctrine, feminist theory, and antiracist politics. Univ Chic Leg Forum. 1989;1989(1):39–52.

2. Collective CR. The Combahee River Collective Statement. 1974.


3. Cole ER. Intersectionality and Research in Psychology. Am Psychol. 2009;64(3):170–80.


4. Hancock AM. Intersectionality’s will toward social transformation. New Polit Sci. 2015;37(4):620–7.


5. Crenshaw KW. Mapping the margins: Intersectionality, identity politics, and violence against women of color. Stanford Law Rev. 1991;43(6):1241–99.


6. Haynes C, Joseph NM, Patton LD, Stewart S, Allen EL. Toward an Understanding of Intersectionality Methodology: A 30-Year Literature Synthesis of Black Women’s Experiences in Higher Education. Rev Educ Res. 2020;90(6):751–87.


7. Samuels GM, Ross-Sheriff F. Identity, Oppression, and Power: Feminisms and Intersectionality Theory. J Women Soc Work. 2008;23(1):5–9.


8. Williams DR. Racial/ethnic variations in women’s health: the social embeddedness of health. Am J Public Health. 2002;92(4):588–97.


9. Homan P. Structural Sexism and Health in the United States: A New Perspective on Health Inequality and the Gender System. Am Sociol Rev. 2019;84(3):486–516.


10. Small L, Beltran RM, Cordero L, Lau C, Shanur S, Miyashita Ochoa A. The invisibility of Black and Latina women in sexual health care: shifting from biological individualism to intersectionality. Cult Health Sex. 2022.


11. Turan JM, Elafros MA, Logie CH, Banik S, Turan B, Crockett KB, et al. Challenges and opportunities in examining and addressing intersectional stigma and health. BMC Med. 2019;17(1):1–15.


12. Laster WN, Tashelle Wright P. Structural Gendered Racism Revealed in Pandemic Times - Intersectional Approaches to Understanding Race and Gender Health Inequities in COVID-19. Gend Soc. 2021;35(2):168–79.


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.

15. Ong M, Wright C, Espinosa LL, Orfield G. Inside the double bind: A Synthesis of empirical research on undergraduate and graduate women of color in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. Harv Educ Rev. 2011;81(2):172–208.


16. Jebsen JM, Nicoll Baines K, Oliver RA, Jayasinghe I. Dismantling barriers faced by women in STEM. Nat Chem. 2022;14(11):1203–6.


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.


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