By Ellen Lewis and Anne Stephens
What is intersectionality? How can it be used systemically and responsibly?
When you google the term over 66,400,000 results are returned. It is a term used by government and businesses, as well as change agents. But is it helpful and are there ways that we should be thinking about intersectionality and its inclusion in our everyday lives?
After describing intersectionality, we introduce a framework for systemic intersectionality that brings together issues that arise within three social dimensions: gender equality, environments and marginalised voices. We refer to this as the GEMs framework.
What is Intersectionality?
Intersectionality is a term first coined by Kimberlé Crenshaw in 1989. It is a prevalent way to understand the effect of more than one type of discrimination.
The Oxford English Dictionary defines intersectionality as “the interconnected nature of social categorizations such as race, class, and gender, regarded as creating overlapping and interdependent systems of discrimination or disadvantage; a theoretical approach based on such a premise.” Note the word “categorizations” in italics, which is our emphasis. We’ll come back to that later.
Crenshaw started with the intersection of race and gender to broaden the scope of feminism beyond the experiences of white, middle class, and binary women to include the different experiences of women of colour, poor, non-binary and other marginalised groups. She wasn’t the first to make that link, but she was the first to call out the intersectional characteristics of race and gender. Her thinking resonated with many.
Today we see the concept extended to literally dozens of intersecting social factors, such as age, ability, religion and so on that lead to a variety of marginalising impacts on individuals or whole populations.
We see intersectionality as an important way to account for the complexity of people’s lives. Common sense will tell most people that sexism is not the only thing affecting women’s lives, for there are many contributing factors that generate discrimination in anyone’s life trajectory. Migrant, refugee and Indigenous women and girls may all experience sexism very differently from white, middle class and able-bodied cis-gender women.
Intersectionality and the GEMs (Gender, Environment and Marginalised Voices) framework
There’s just one thing about the conventional models of intersectionality that we find troubling: predefined categorisations.
We get it. It is nearly impossible to think about groups of people without putting people into some category and forming assumptions about their life.
We all use mental models in an instant upon seeing someone, often thinking something like ‘They must not know how we do things here.’ But the practice becomes damaging or dangerous when labels are imposed on ‘others’ particularly in the context of research. By imposing these preconceived definitions, we essentially are trying to make people or groups fit or conform to our beliefs and worldviews.
Categorisation can dictate how marginalisation is viewed and by whom. It is likely to come from the perspectives of people other than those at the heart of the situation.
What if we could rethink how the categories are defined in the first place? What if they are not predefined? What if our approach was to generate the intersecting pieces from ground-up discussions with people who experience its effects?
We introduce the ‘GEMs’ framework for complex systemic intersectional analysis. It doesn’t lead with categories, but just three broad fields: Gender equality, Environments and Marginalised voices. We work primarily with these three ‘lenses’ for we have found them conspicuous in most social challenges faced by cultures today. With the inclusion of ‘environments’ we bring a new but important intersecting set of concepts to the intersectional analysis.
Let’s look at each dimension.
- Gender equality: This covers the range of social and structural circumstances that lead to discrimination and barriers due to gender identity. It is inclusive of women and men, transgendered, intersex, lesbian, gay, bisexual, queer, and questioning. It is gender identity as the individual defines it. Think of it as a flexible continuum of identities.
- Environments: This dimension is broad. It covers human-made and natural landscapes and ecological systems. It includes species that are voiceless. The analysis requires witnesses, experts and people who know the country, land, resource, species or place. Again, it is how the people on the ground define it. The ‘environments’ dimension in practice brings greater understanding of the context in which something is being studied. Environments considers the past and contemporary use of a place which brings in considerations from history and politics, and contestations over future use. Examples include a working horse, a river diversion, a post-conflict country.
- Marginalised voices: This dimension is deliberately vague so as not to predefine what we think are the acute and persistent discriminations that cause disadvantage or neglect. The marginalised voices may call out the racism, ageism and ableism that affects their lives. For others, more nuanced discriminations arise leading to marginalisation of, for example, non-humans such as languages, ideas, cultural landmarks or sacred sites.
The GEMs framework blossoms when actively deconstructed by stakeholders which helps structure problems, evaluate complex situations and advocate for the rights of people as well as environmental systems and species. It encompasses and goes beyond intersectionality.
We want to hear from and collaborate with people with diverse identities and experiences. We recognise the need for some boundary containment on the use of the GEMs framework beyond consideration of ‘everything out there’ to help shape conversations and this is why we are primarily working with the three broad GEMs dimensions defined above.
A collaborative path forward
We caution that conversations about what is contained within each GEMs dimension, and how they intersect with other dimensions, may challenge many social norms and trigger sensitivities and traumatic experiences. We suggest the way researchers facilitate conversations and structure research instruments needs to be done mindfully, collectively, respectfully and strive to cause no additional harm.
We are working with our teams to learn how to suspend our judgements or agendas and avoid ‘othering’, as we do research and evaluation in the field. We’re learning about strategies, trialling questionnaires, adapting GEMS for surveys and working up a set of guidance tools to help synthesise a GEMs intersectionality analysis from raw data.
Although the GEMs framework has been used globally, primarily in evaluation of global development projects, there is still a lot to learn about how the three dimensions support or detract from transformational change.
Do you have a different way of dealing with intersectionality? What if we could rethink how the intersectional categories are defined in the first place? What do we need to know about the inherent power dynamics embedded in ‘othering’ others? Could you see yourself applying the GEMs framework analytically to your own work? What support would you need to do this? What might you do differently, or not?
To find out more:
Stephens, A., Lewis, E. and Reddy, S. (2018). The Inclusive Systemic Evaluation (ISE) Approach for Gender Equality, Environments, and Voices from the Margins (GEMs): A Guide for Evaluators for the SDG Era, Evaluation Guidance Series, Independent Evaluation Service (IES) of the Independent Evaluation and Audit Services of UN Women (IEAS): New York, United States of America. (Online – open access): https://www.unwomen.org/en/digital-library/publications/2018/9/ise4gems-a-new-approach-for-the-sdg-era
Crenshaw, K. (1989). Demarginalizing the Intersection of Race and Sex: A Black Feminist Critique of Antidiscrimination Doctrine, Feminist Theory, and Antiracist Politics. The University of Chicago Legal Forum, 1: 139-167.
Biography: Ellen Lewis PhD is an organization development consultant and systems thinker, as well as co-founder and co-director of Ethos of Engagement Consulting (EoE). She is based in Portugal. She advises and designs with systems thinking for organisational change, leads EoE’s training and professional development as well as teaching, and conducting research and evaluation projects.
Biography: Anne Stephens PhD is a sociologist, as well as co-founder and co-director of Ethos of Engagement Consulting (EoE). She is based in Australia. She is the Vice President of the Australian Evaluation Society and leads human-rights and gender responsive evaluations, as well as supporting in-country teams. She is a lecturer, writer and researcher and Adjunct of the Cairns Institute at James Cook University in Cairns, Australia.