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Why Intersectionality is Critical for UNRISD's Work

28 Jun 2021

  • Authors: Carolyn H. Williams, Francisco Cos-Montiel

Why Intersectionality is Critical for UNRISD's Work
UNRISD has launched its new Institutional Strategy focused on inequalities, and the Institute intends to apply an intersectional approach across all of its research programmes. Read on to find out why intersectionality is so important to UNRISD’s mission.

The concept of intersectionality has emerged from feminist scholarship and activism, after decades of debate about privilege, inequality and discrimination among women and in women’s movements and feminist theory.

Kimberlé Crenshaw, the American law professor who coined the term in 1989, explained intersectional feminism as, "a prism for seeing the way in which various forms of inequality often operate together and exacerbate each other". “All inequality is not created equal”, Crenshaw said. An intersectional approach shows the way in which people’s social identities can overlap, creating compounding experiences of discrimination. “We tend to talk about race inequality as separate from inequality based on gender, class, sexuality or immigrant status. What is often missing is how some people are subject to all of these, and the experience is not just the sum of its parts”, Crenshaw said.

Intersectional feminism centres the voices of those experiencing overlapping, concurrent forms of oppression in order to understand the depths of the inequalities and the relationships among them in any given context.

An intersectional approach stems from historic approaches to human rights founded on the theory that all human rights are indivisible and interdependent. This means that one set of rights cannot be considered any more or less important than the others, and cannot be enjoyed fully without the others (OHCHR). For example, women’s rights cannot be fully enjoyed without black rights, disability rights, LGBTQ rights and so on.

Therefore, an intersectional analysis enables us to explore the workings of power relating to every form of discrimination. We cannot pick and choose which we think are important and dismiss those we don’t want to address or that remain hidden from sight. The idea is to open up questions to enable people to talk about any topic without discrimination or judgement.

Why is intersectionality so important to UNRISD’s mission?

Understanding that identity categories are not homogeneous

Discussions of intersectionality, discrimination and rights inevitably lead to the use of social identity categories—for example: women; persons with disabilities; Christian or Muslim or Jewish people; lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans or intersex people; African American, Black, Asian or minority ethnic people; people of colour; Dalits; children; the aged; poor or working class people; people living with HIV…and many others. An intersectional approach enables us to recognize that each category is very diverse (heterogeneous) and intrinsically interconnected with all other categories. So gender equality, and women's and girls’ rights, can only be achieved if they are achieved for all women and girls around the globe, which will never be possible if other forms of discrimination—both direct and unconscious—continue to operate—for example: racism, ethnocentricity, homophobia, heternormativity, classism, ablism, ageism, Islamophobia, anti-Semitism, or any other form.

So when we talk about gender equality and women’s and girls’ rights, we must explain which women and girls we are talking about—and how many forms of discrimination affect which women and girls can and do enjoy greater equality and justice. Just as when we talk about Black Lives Matter, we must explain "which black lives matter", and why ending racism will never be enough for full equality and inclusion for all black people in all their diversity.

A central advantage of an intersectional analysis, then, is that we deconstruct identities and examine the challenges of equality, diversity and inclusion within each social category and sub-category, and not just between them. Not all women are the same, not all lesbians, bisexual, queer or pansexual women are the same, not all Dalit women are the same, not all girls are the same, and so on. In the case of a category such as "Black people" or "people of colour", for example, an intersectional approach enables us to examine how racism operates within the group—one classic example is how Haitians are discriminated against in the Dominican Republic, due to their greater proximity to African culture, darker skin colour and so on. Or how Asian parents in the UK and around the world may not want their children marrying Black African or Caribbean people… Ending all racism and ethnocentricity among white people is crucial but we need to look further, too.

Deconstructing identities also allows us to overcome misleading binary (and hierarchical) categorizations that we in the West fall back on as a foundation for "understanding" society: women/men; gay/straight, Black/white, disabled/able-bodied, young/old, etc. These produce simplistic notions of power and how to tackle discrimination—for women we need to focus on men as the problem, for Black people we need to focus on white people, and so on. Instead we need to recognize that patriarchal thought and actions are not only to be found in men; in fact, many men are working hard to end patriarchy, while some women perpetuate the very worst of gender inequalities and injustice.

Categories are fluid and humans change

Thinking beyond simplistic binaries also helps us to understand that human culture is often very fluid and that our experience of how society treats us can change according to where we are. For example, people of European origin from Lima’s middle or upper classes may be identified as "white" by indigenous or Andean people in Peru, but when they arrive in the UK they are categorized as "alien" and an ethnic minority. One’s experience of ethnic and racial inequality is contingent and changes according to where one is in the world. This may be a choice or not, and many people choose to move to places where they are seen differently and respected more. Where we are located influences how we are identified by other people and cultures, and therefore how we experience discrimination and exclusion, whether the change be negative or positive.

Moreover, people change over time. Women who identify as lesbian may have been in a heterosexual relationship before, and have had children, or not. A teenager identifying as bisexual or lesbian may decide in later life to identify as heterosexual. Human sexuality and gender identity are not always fixed, and so identity categories need to be understood to contain an infinite variety of life experiences. "LGBTQ" women could be divorced or separated from men, they could be mothers, grandmothers and step-mothers as part of "blended" families with a mix of sexualities. People may change their religion, they may become disabled or able-bodied, they may change how they identify racially, ethnically or in terms of their social class, they may become poor or homeless, or they may leave poverty and become financially safe or wealthy. Change may be due to personal choice or to circumstances beyond our control.

Finally, culture is a powerful vector of social attitudes and beliefs, and like humans, culture is in a constant process of change and flux. We have advancements, and we have regressions and backlashes. What is normal in relation to women and girls (in different locations) is not the same now as it was 100 or even 10 years ago.

Using categories or labels produces "normative" thought that produces discrimination

It is all too easy in our work to focus on one category/identity, such as "women" or "girls", but the more we do this the greater the likelihood that we slip into stereotypes, normative thought, and assumptions. This happens when different types of women are stereotyped—for example, "poor Third World women" are often portrayed by international organizations as hard working and self-sacrificing; they are all mothers, putting their children first; if they have a husband or male partner, the latter treats them badly; they are closer to nature and the environment; they are heterosexual. How does an intersectional analysis open up our understanding of identities and normative thought in relation to women in the global South?

One example comes from research that Carolyn WIlliams carried out among women of rural Andean origin who had migrated to Lima’s low-income settlements (Conos). Studying the experience of women’s sexual and reproductive rights programmes promoted by Peruvian feminist NGOs and funded by international development agencies, Carolyn employed an intersectional analysis to identify and explore unintended layers of exclusion and discrimination for certain women involved in these programmes.

The women in the Conos were asked if there were any forms of inequality, discrimination and exclusion they experienced or witnessed in their neighbourhoods that were not discussed with the feminist NGOs. In response, they noted that the only issue that was never mentioned was that of same-sex sexuality and relationships.

After spending time opening up this topic for discussion, it became clear that the problem was not one of "homophobia" among the feminist NGO advisors, since these same advisors were often very active in campaigning for LGBT rights in other locations, outside the Conos. However, it was assumed that for women who were of Andean, peasant farmer, low-income and rural origins, very often mothers with male partners or ex-partners, living in the Conos where there were no public LGBT campaigns, marches, or social venues such as clubs, bars, etc., the sexual and reproductive rights programme did not need to address women’s experiences of same-sex sexuality and relationships in their neighbourhoods and local women’s organizations. The unexamined assumption was that the women from the Conos were all heterosexual because they did not publicly identify as lesbian or bisexual, they weren’t organized in lesbian groups, they didn’t campaign or march against homophobia, they were mothers, often married or separated from a male partner, indigenous, from poor rural areas, working in community kitchens and school glass of milk programmes.

Assumptions about these women based on their social class, ethnicity, parental and marital status, and their focus on community rather than on LGBT issues, all led the feminist advisors to exclude discussions of same-sex sexuality in the sexual and reproductive rights programmes, which in turn led the women to remain silent on this omission. This silence in turn reinforced the mistaken heteronormative assumptions about these women and girls in the Conos. The rich stories of their experiences and their agency beyond heterosexual norms remained hidden until they were asked directly to share them, which they did in great detail and enthusiasm.

Reflexivity and intersectionality

Another important benefit of an intersectional analysis is that it obliges everybody to practice reflexivity. As part of any group or category claiming equality or rights, we need to examine our own intersecting identities and how those relate to those around us in the same struggle. As a women’s rights activist, for example, it is not enough for me to ask men to reflect on the way society and culture provide them with privileges and opportunities. As a specific woman, I have to ask myself the same in relation to other women from around the globe. Similarly, as a "queer" woman, I cannot simply claim victimhood because of those two characteristics, since as a woman I enjoy many privileges compared to other women just as I do as a queer woman compared to other queer women (due to race, class, nationality and so on).

An intersectional approach, and Leaving No One Behind

With an intersectional approach we can analyse how power operates in our own thoughts and actions, theories and beliefs, as well as how power operates through other people, social and cultural structures, laws, policies, etc. We can gain a much greater understanding of the complexities and constantly changing nature of discrimination and inequality, as well as of human agency and empowerment. This gives us a much greater chance of creating policies and laws that actually reflect real lives, and the needs and aspirations of even the most marginalized, invisible and silent subjects.

If we work on changing ourselves as well as others, then we stand a far higher chance of creating lasting social change and development, equality and inclusion—from groups of two people to global social movements, from family and community groups through to international NGOs, UN agencies and governments.

About the authors
  • Carolyn H. Williams is a Founding Partner of PDC (Professional Diversity Consultants) and a Diversity, Equality and Inclusion Consultant.
  • Francisco Cos-Montiel is a Senior Research Coordinator at UNRISD, where he leads the Gender Justice and Development programme.

Further reading
Sexuality, rights and development: Peruvian feminist connections, by Carolyn Williams (2009). PhD thesis, The London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE).

Photo by Michael Dziedzic on Unsplash



This article reflects the views of the author(s) and does not necessarily represent those of the United Nations Research Institute for Social Development.