In this post for International Women’s Day (IWD) 2021, Sabrina Paiwand argues that inequality can only be tackled effectively when we consider the various intersections of discrimination.
At the 8th March rally last year, I felt a sense of belonging to a mass of people for the last time in a long while. A movement that started in Argentina quickly spread over the continent and eventually throughout the world. Thousands of women, united under the hashtag Ni Una Menos (not one less), took to the streets to fight against gender-based violence, especially femicides and fight for legal abortions. Although this year has been particularly challenging for the feminist movement, there have been accomplishments that we should celebrate: Abortion was legalised in Argentina, an increasing number of countries agreed to remove “luxury” taxes from period products, and in Scotland, period products will be given out for free from November 2021 (Period Products (Free Provision) (Scotland) Bill, 2019). These resulted from decades of continuous protesting by women and their fellow campaigners from around the world.
The pandemic has made evident the consequences of complacency to tackle inequalities entrenched within our society. Although COVID-19 does not discriminate, the pandemic has certainly hit the marginalised the hardest. Homelessness, poverty and care work, gender and sexuality-based violence, exclusion of disabled women and racialised misogyny have gained attention in the public and political debate. Now that we are forced to confront the injustice in our societies (as the virus spreads across class boundaries), social justice movements are gaining momentum.
However, inequalities are organised in a complex web. Intersectionality theory (Crenshaw, 1991) accounts for the complex and non-linear dynamics of different dimensions of oppression. Reflecting on all the -isms can be dizzying. Nonetheless, focusing on one whilst disregarding its interaction with others runs a risk of pushing for justice in one domain at the cost of pulling back the efforts in another. Looking at, for example, the gender pay gap, without considering other dimensions such as disability or race will end up reproducing social injustice for many women.
Understanding how we come to hold certain stereotypes or build norms in society can help identify our blind spots and lower the risk of unintentional reproduction of inequality. Social psychology offers a useful set of tools that highlight the conceptualisation of our self and others in society. Humans tend to assign categories to individuals. These categories are labelled with group-specific stereotypes that may be explicitly known about and disapproved of but still carried forward unintentionally as implicit biases.
Researchers explain how biases stem from our status in society (Sidanius & Pratto, 1999), which is contingent upon the groups we belong to or have been ascribed to. More importantly, they outline the asymmetrical power hierarchies between such groups and the intra- and inter-personal level mechanisms sustaining these hierarchies.
Norms and Salience of Category
Humans have an inherent tendency to build their and others social identity around social categories such as race, gender, class, nationality, identity-giving belonging like sports clubs (Social Identity Approach, Tajfel & Turner, 1979; Turner et al., 1987). Each of us holds a different set of club cards; some of these we choose, like being an activist, and others we don’t. We don’t have to walk around with all of our membership passes all the time. Whether I am an academic or not might be very important when I apply for jobs in research but less so when I buy my veggies in the supermarket. Some of these club cards are hidden away in our wallet, whilst others are stuck to our foreheads. The latter being the memberships we cannot cancel, such as race, gender or visible disabilities. How salient these group memberships are partly depends on the set norms of a society. While heterosexual, White abled men usually don’t have to think too much about their group memberships, as they are set within the norm, others are frequently reminded of their social belonging.
Intersectionality theory (Crenshaw, 1991) accounts for the diverse social realities that individuals face depending on the mix of cards they hold. An abled cis-women of colour will face different stereotypes than a disabled white cis-woman. Therefore, there is much to gain from looking at the whole set of cards women hold and the psychological, social and economic implications of these on their lives rather than analysing the respective consequences for the different dimensions such as class, race, gender, or sexuality separately. Looking at individuals’ social identity as a whole can help us identify the underlying norms, such as thinking about women as cis-gendered, White and able.
We tend to talk about race inequality as separate from inequality based on gender, class, sexuality or immigrant status. What’s often missing is how some people are subject to all of these, and the experience is not just the sum of its parts.
Privilege and why it matters
The social group memberships we hold are organised in a social power hierarchy (Social Dominance Theory, Sidanius & Pratto, 1999). Depending on our social identity, we belong to some categories associated with a high-power status, whereas other group memberships deny us access to certain spheres. Acknowledging our privileges is critical to include the marginalised in our effort for social justice.
By identifying similarities and differences between experienced social realities, we could overcome the idea of separate movements and account for all women in the fight against patriarchy (Cole, 2009).
Power dynamics are complex, and we all find ourselves in different positions. While we have misogyny, racialised discrimination, transphobia, ableism and poverty to deal with, we cannot afford to try and tackle the patriarchal social order by only accounting for one of these dimensions. As Audre Lorde put it: “I am not free while any woman is unfree, even when her shackles are very different from mine.”
- The views expressed in the post are of the authors and not of the Department of Psychological and Behavioural Science or London School of Economics and Political Science
- This post was written as part of a series for this blog for International Women’s Day 2021. More about IWD can be found at https://www.internationalwomensday.com/
Cole, E. R. (2009). Intersectionality and research in psychology. American Psychologist, 64(3), 170–180. https://doi.org/10.1037/a0014564
Crenshaw, K. (1991). Mapping the Margins: Intersectionality, Identity Politics, and Violence against Women of Color. Stanford Law Review, 43.
Period Products (Free Provision) (Scotland) Bill, 04/2019. https://www.parliament.scot/parliamentarybusiness/CurrentCommittees/112914.aspx
Sidanius, J., & Pratto, F. (1999). Social dominance: An intergroup theory of social hierarchy and oppression. Cambridge University Press.
Tajfel, H., & Turner, J. C. (1979). An integrative theory of intergroup conflict. In W. G. Austin & S. Worchel (Eds.), The social psychology of intergroup relations (pp. 33–47). Brooks/Cole.
Turner, J. C., Hogg, M. A., Oakes, P. J., Reicher, S. D., & Wetherell, M. S. (1987). Rediscovering the social group: A self-categorization theory. Basil Blackwell.