/ 8 December 2022

At the intersection: How recognising multiple identities can improve science

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A technician wearing a full body protection suit works inside a fume cabinet in a biosafety level 3 Covid-19 research laboratory at the African Health Research Institute (AHRI) in Durban. (Waldo Swiegers/Bloomberg via Getty Images)

In May 1976, Emma DeGraffenreid, an African American woman, unsuccessfully sued the General Motors assembly division in St Louis where she had — also unsuccessfully — applied for a job. 

The basis of the claim was that the company discriminated against black women on the basis of both race and gender: black men were being hired to work on the production side, while white women were being hired to do administrative work, but neither of those sections was hiring a black woman. 

Accustomed to dealing with either race- or gender-based discrimination claims, the court, and the law it upheld baulked at the fundamental notion the case presented: the need to recognise “new classes of protected minorities” that sat at the intersection of race and gender, and the fact that such a compound identity was linked to a systemic social justice deficit.

For Kimberlé Crenshaw, then acting professor of law at the University of California’s Los Angeles Law School, the legal cracks exposed by the judgment were striking. 

She referenced the case in a landmark paper published in The University of Chicago Legal Forum in 1989 in which she drew on black feminist and critical legal theory (the progenitor of critical race theory or CRT) to develop the concept of “intersectionality” to describe how multiple and overlapping social identities relate to structures of oppression.  

Explaining the genesis of the concept in a TED Talk in 2016, Crenshaw, today a leading authority in civil rights, feminist legal theory, race, racism and the law, said the DeGraffenreid case highlighted a “framing” problem. The frame or lens used by the court to see race and gender discrimination had been “partial and distorted”, she contended. 

Coming up with intersectionality was partly an attempt to give a name to a previously unnamed problem. 

“We all know where there’s no name for a problem, you can’t see it and when you can’t see a problem you pretty much can’t solve it,” Crenshaw told her TED audience.

And later: “What do you call being impacted by multiple forces and then being abandoned to fend for yourself? Intersectionality seemed to do it for me.”

An idea whose time has arrived

While the concept of intersectionality has been around for more than 30 years, its application has been limited, even by academic standards. But changes appear to be afoot — although not always for all the right reasons. 

In the US, critical race theory as a critique of systemic racism has surged to prominence in the past few years partly as a response to black anger, but also as a target of right-wing politicians seeking to ban the teaching of CRT in the US education system at all levels, including universities. 

Intersectionality, a branch of CRT, while not directly in the firing line, is also coming into its own, moving beyond US borders and into the rest of the world, including Europe and Africa — with particular application in academia and research where the framework is gaining traction as a tool to support relevant and equitable science.

In Europe, the EU’s prestigious funding programme for research and innovation known as Horizon Europe has embraced intersectionality in its bid to integrate gender into research and innovation content and assist researchers and innovators with “methodological tools for sex, gender and intersectional analysis”. 

Horizon Europe has also included intersectionality in its latest guidance on gender equality plans. The guidance suggests that organisations should consider going beyond data disaggregated only by sex and/or gender and explore differences based on other individual or group features such as “people with a migrant or minority background, people with disabilities, people with low socio-economic status or at risk of poverty, members of the LGBTIQ community” — in essence: multiple, intersecting identities. 

Intersectionality in Africa

In Africa, the Human Sciences Research Council (HSRC) based in South Africa has recognised the value of an intersectional approach in the work of African science granting councils as a tool to support relevant, equitable and just science on the continent.

Launched in 2015, the Science Granting Councils Initiative (SGCI) in sub-Saharan-Africa is a multi-funder initiative that aims to strengthen the capacities of science granting councils in sub-Saharan Africa to support research and evidence-based policies that contribute to economic and social development. 

Sixteen councils representing Botswana, Burkina Faso, Côte d’Ivoire, Ethiopia, Ghana, Kenya, Malawi, Mozambique, Namibia, Nigeria, Rwanda, Senegal, Tanzania, Uganda, Zambia and Zimbabwe participate in the SGCI.

As part of that initiative, the HSRC has partnered with Gender at Work and the Council for the Development of Social Science Research in Africa on a gender and inclusivity project that is helping to encourage greater gender inclusivity in the science, technology and innovation sector. 

The project explicitly supports the mainstreaming of an intersectional transformative approach in the development, implementation and monitoring of gender policy, programmes and research in the functions of the science granting councils.

As central role players in national systems of innovation, science granting councils are recognised as key players in addressing gender inequality in national science systems.

World Science Forum

To highlight this work and the role of intersectionality, the HSRC and UK-based NGO Portia have organised a panel discussion on the topic at the World Science Forum being held in Cape Town from 5 to 9 December.

The panel discussion will be moderated by Elizabeth Pollitzer, the director of Portia, which works to improve gender equality in the science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) field and to promote the inclusion of the gender dimension in STEM. Other panellists include Heidi van Rooyen and Ingrid Lynch from the HSRC, who are leading the SGCI gender and inclusivity project, Dorothy Ngila, from the South African National Research Foundation, Isabella Schmidt from UN Women, Thomas Thayer from Elsevier publishers and Lilian Hunt from Wellcome Trust.

In a nod to Crenshaw, who recognised the challenge posed by an “invisible” and “unnamed” problem, the HSRC panel is titled: “Different lens, better outcomes? Intersectionality as a critical component of gender transformative research” and it sets out to discuss the potential of an intersectional approach to provide the theoretical and methodological tools to make inequalities visible — in order to address them.

“One of the important qualities about intersectionality is that it expands the focus on gender, recognising overlapping inequalities related to other forms of diversity, such as age, race, class, (dis)ability and sexuality and others that create and reinforce marginalisation,” Pollitzer said.

Research report

The panel also aims to provide practical examples of how researchers and grantmakers have adopted this framework to advance science in the service of social justice and reveals the findings of a recent mixed-methods research project that attempts to establish the extent to which, and the manner in which, an intersectional framework is currently integrated into African grant-making, human capital development and research cycles. 

Titled “Intersectionality in research, grant-making and human capital development: Considerations for public funding agencies in advancing equality, diversity and inclusion”, the report finds that most of the authors using intersectionality theory are located in institutions in North America (60%, notably in the US and Canada), followed by Eastern and Central Europe (16%) and Northern Europe (7%). Significantly, authors located in Africa are among the least represented in the data set (2%).

It highlights the dominance in both African and global scholarship of four social identities: gender, race, socioeconomic status and age. The least researched social identity for both is disability. According to the research, funding support corresponds with these identities.

While a review that formed part of the study identified several mechanisms employed by science-granting councils to increase the participation of women, it found that gender was treated mainly as binary (women and men), with other intersecting identities that contribute to the marginalisation of certain individuals and communities receiving less consideration. 

A key premise of the panel discussion, and one that fits in well with the “Science for Social Justice” theme of the World Science Forum 2022, is the idea that addressing gender disparities in science is not only a question of rights and justice, but helps to produce more inclusive teams in organisations, higher quality research and greater relevance and impact of research and innovation. 

And there’s research to prove it: A paper published earlier this year in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America shows that the more gender-balanced science research teams are, the more likely they are to produce novel and higher-impact scientific research.

That is a scientific fact that no one can afford to ignore.

Sharon Dell is a freelance journalist and editor with extensive experience in the field of higher education and academic research. 

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Mail & Guardian.