A responsible approach to intersectionality

By Ellen Lewis and Anne Stephens

1. Ellen Lewis (biography)
2. Anne Stephens (biography)

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.

4 thoughts on “A responsible approach to intersectionality”

  1. Thank you for developing this blog post to open up a broader discussion on intersectionality and the application of the GEMs framework. There is a lot to discuss, unpack and continue to learn and reflect on about how and why we categorize individuals and what are the repercussions of this continued practice. At the same time, playing devil’s advocate, one also sees individuals seeking categorization as a way to become visible, recognized and to ensure that specific needs are addressed. I think there is a lot more work to be done to find a way to balance these considerations and hopefully the GEMs framework will support this learning.

  2. I have personally interacted with the GEMs framework when Ellen was executing an end term for a climate change-based project in one of the rural semi arid areas in Kenya in 2019. It is a useful mechanism to dissect intersectionalities that affect the holistic growth of women who are oppressed by retrogressive cultural practices.

    I would highly recommend the application of the approach in all fields of project/program designing, executing, monitoring and evaluating of community interventions, and any practitioner with a mind of effectively ending any form of marginalization in whichever aspect of every society would benefit from engaging the Ethos of Engagement team in the same.

    Becky Kalume ,

    Learning Enthusiast,
    Nairobi, Kenya

  3. Some years ago a colleague and collaborator sent me a present. It was a book long long out of print but a utter gem. ‘Thinking with Concepts’ was written by John Wilson. He was a history teacher at a hyper-elite boys school during the 1960s and became concerned that the boys would become men who, because of the English class system, would run the country in years. Yet they had very little idea how to think in abstract terms. There is a phrase in the book that has really resounded with me. ‘Words do not have definitions only uses’. The statement isn’t about some kind of uber behaviourist idea, but suggests that words are the product of centuries of development and amendment. Each time the word gets to be pushed and shoved by the world it finds itself used in. The words we chose to use in the intersectional space are not ends in themselves but are means to ends. And we may jointly use them for but for different ends. Witness the debates over trans issues. I think it is important to see that Ann and Ellen are using these words to create spaces for deliberation, not for categorisation. Ellen and Ann have chosen three intriguing spaces. That choice sometimes puzzles me since the words they use exist in different conceptual dimensions (gender can be considered a social category, environment a physical entity and equity a state of affairs). Perhaps that difference is the clever part of what they are seeking to achieve. Commonly when we choose different framings by which to explore things, we often choose framings that exist in the same conceptual space. Exploring what insights are generated by bringing into deliberation three different conceptual spaces really is a bit of a mind-bender and I’d be fascinated to see what comes out the other end.

  4. Thank you Ellen and Anne for crafting a blog on such an expansive – and sensitive – subject. Trying to escape the limitations imposed by standardised, predefined categorisations is a worthy cause of high ambition. I have often thought that the very ‘labels’ of such categorisations risk being uni-dimensional and serve to perpetuate the divisions they are trying to explore and heal. These labels do not in any way represent the complexity of what it is to be human. You have stepped aside to think differently, using the three broad fields as lenses that become an opportunity for more authentic discussions and patterns of thought, suspending judgement, becoming sensitive and receptive to new ideas, rather than sticking with ingrained habits and routines. I think this breakthrough approach could be beneficial in some way to research design, especially as it goes beyond intersectionality, helping to take into account broader factors than is usual, listen to different voices and, at the same time, perhaps to question ‘what counts as knowledge?’ Your further work on trialling questionnaires, guidance tools etc. sounds excellent, being something that is much needed. Do you think that your three dimensions could also be used quite informally in an open-ended way, to spark new ideas and ‘sweep in’ what should have relevance in strategic planning and the endeavour of transformational change?


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