Kimberlé Crenshaw is an American civil rights advocate and leading scholar of critical race theory. She is a full professor at the UCLA School of Law and Columbia Law School, where she specializes in race and gender issues.
Kimberlé Crenshaw: coined a phrase to describe an injustice © Eyevine

After a year of poisonous and socially divisive political campaigns in the EU referendum in the UK and the US presidential election, there is heightened awareness of differences of race, gender, religion, sexuality and social class in our societies. Less is made of the way these identities overlap and are interconnected.

The discriminations that can stem from those identities — such as sexism and racism — can combine to create multiple, self-reinforcing layers of disadvantage for those affected. A Muslim woman wearing a hijab, for example, could face sexism, racism and Islamophobia. This is known as “intersectionality”.

A mouthful of a term that is only now becoming more widely debated, intersectionality has long been in use in academic, feminist and activist discourse. The concept was defined in an academic paper more than 20 years ago by the law professor and civil rights activist Kimberlé Crenshaw, now of UCLA and Columbia University. In it, she said her intention was “to deal with the fact that many of our social justice problems like racism and sexism are often overlapping, creating multiple levels of social injustice”.

In a recent TED talk, Prof Crenshaw describes how she coined the term after coming across the case of an African-American woman who was turned down for an office job at a car manufacturing plant and then made a claim for both race and gender discrimination.

This was denied by the judge, on the basis that having two grounds for complaint meant “she would have had preferential treatment” over claimants complaining only about sexual or race discrimination. This factory did hire both women and African-Americans. But, crucially, all the African-Americans were men working on the production line, while only white women did office work.

Rather than recognising the par­ticular difficulty facing African-American women, the case was tossed out of court. “Where there’s no name for a problem, you can’t see the problem, and you can’t solve it,” Prof Crenshaw says.

The problem of multiple discriminations persists. “Even today in many countries, anti-discrimination laws look at gender and race/ethnicity separately,” says Jawad Syed, a professor of organisational behaviour and dean of the Suleman Dawood School of Business at Lahore University of Management Sciences, whose team recently studied the experience of Pakistani women in British workplaces. “As a result, when black or other women of colour experience intersectional discrimination, the law in many jurisdictions is simply absent to protect them,” says Prof Syed.

In the UK, the Equality Act of 2010 has a provision that acknowledges cases of “dual discrimination” can be brought simultaneously — but no more than two. But the government decided not to bring this provision into force on the grounds that it wanted to reduce the cost to business.

In addition to such legal roadblocks, individual incidents of racism or homophobia, for example, can be hard to prove. Prof Syed points out that one reason why intersectionality is relatively unknown is that there is, so far, little individual case law to show how it operates.

Intersectionality is probably not explicitly on the agenda for most employers, but HR professionals stress that good practice should always take account of people’s differences and individual needs. “We are hard-wired to make judgments about groups of people,” says Dianah Worman, adviser on diversity at the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development and co-director of Inclusive Talent, a consultancy.

“Back in the 1990s we at the CIPD developed a position of stressing the need for people in workplaces to be recognised as individuals — ultimately, the vision we had was ahead of the ‘equal opportunities’ agenda of the time. Diversity celebrates difference as well as the commonalities that bind us,” she says.

But, as Ms Worman points out, the threats to social cohesion caused by the current political climate in the UK and US urgently reinforce the need for more inclusion — and more awareness of the different problems facing others whose identities differ from our own.

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