If you mix yellow and blue, you get green. When people see green, they don’t see separate parts of yellow and blue – they just see green. Similarly, when people meet a woman they do not see her gender as separate to her other identities. For example, when people meet a Black woman, they don't see her as a woman separately from seeing her as a Black person, they see her as a Black woman. The same is true for White women – their experience of their gender is inherently tied to their race too (i.e., it’s a green experience as well).
The metaphor of mixing paints is a good way to understand the way in which the many aspects of our identity affect the treatment we as women receive, in the workplace and beyond. This idea is known as intersectionality (a term first coined by Kimberle Crenshaw). In this month's newsletter we unpack intersectionality, focusing particularly on how race and gender intersect.
What is Intersectionality?
In order to unpack intersectionality, we first have to define identity. Identity is the meaning we attach to ourselves. An important part of that meaning is derived from our memberships in social groups, for example “woman”, “Black”, “British”, “neurodivergent.” People recognize that while we might share one identity (like gender), we can be different on others (like race). Everyone has multiple sources of identity that they attach to themselves, and that others attach to them.
Intersectionality refers to the pattern of advantage and disadvantage, as well as opportunity and discrimination, that an individuals’ configuration of social identities confers on them, given how those identities are seen in society. For example, it is well documented that women experience disadvantage as leaders, because stereotypes about leadership resonate with stereotypes with men. However, Black women and white women fare differently as leaders. One the one hand, because Black women are stereotyped as assertive, they face less backlash than white women when they act decisively as leaders. On the other hand, because Black women are stereotyped as less warm (and as a result liked less) than White women, they may struggle more to get into leadership positions, and when finally there they tend to be blamed more when the organisations and teams they run are unsuccessful.
Why Does Intersectionality Matter?
We have already covered gender stereotypes in a previous newsletter. We highlighted that all gender stereotypes are either judgements about warmth or judgements about competence. We noted that women tend to be stereotyped as warm, but not competent. This is true for women as a general category, but is especially characteristic of stereotypes about White women. Women of other races are stereotyped slightly differently. In most western societies, Asian women are also stereotyped as submissive and quiet, Black women are also stereotyped as strong (or aggressive), and Latina women are also stereotyped as fiery and emotional.
The upshot is that the specific gender biases you face in your career depend on the intersection of identities you represent. Check out our video explainer below for an example of what this looks and feels like, live in a workplace context.
Regardless of whether the intersection of your race and gender confers more or less disadvantage relative to the other women in your workplace, there are actions you can take.
1. Acquire a bias filter. We are often encouraged to take feedback in order to reflect and grow, and this is certainly an essential skill. But as we discuss in the video, you should be wary of trying to change and grow according to biased standards which create catch 22s.
2. Be an ally. All women face bias, but there is no doubt that white women face less bias than women who are members of racial or ethnic minorities. If you are a white woman, be an ally. This means voicing your support for women who experience the disadvantages of intersectionality, validating their experiences and taking active steps to make the workplace more inclusive.
3. Educate others. Share what you know about how intersectionality can create unique hurdles and barriers for women of colour. As we have written about before, your network is your most powerful tool for social justice. Use it.
Get in Touch
Our favorite part of teaching is the end of class, when students come to chat with us about the content, share examples from their own lives, ask questions about what they are struggling with, and challenge our thinking. We invite you to do the same – let us know what you think of this newsletter, what you are still struggling with, and what questions we can answer in our upcoming content.
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