Simmons College, Boston, USA, 23-24 March 2015
by Liz Cooke
Convened by Oxfam America, Oxfam Novib, Oxfam Intermon and The Center for Gender in Organizatons, Simmons College, Boston, this symposium brought together representatives from across the Oxfam confederation and members of The Center for Gender in Organizatons to examine Intersectionality as a concept, and to think about what it means for working on gender equality and women’s rights in Oxfam programmes across the world.
In essence, Intersectionality refers to the fact that people possess more than one identity at a time. For those of us working on women’s rights and gender equality in development, this means recognising that not only a person’s biological sex, but their ethnicity, class, religion, sexual orientation, disability, and more determine their lives. Patriarchy notwithstanding, a poor woman belonging to a minority ethnic or religious group in any given country will experience life very differently from a better-off woman belonging to the majority population. Disadvantage and advantage attach to different identities and intersect in different ways in different contexts. However, when an individual possesses a number of ‘disadvantaged’ identities, these intersecting inequalities can result in economic and social marginalisation and deprivation that can last for generations.
Of course, there are commonalities of experience around which people have always organised, but taking an intersectional approach in development work means that programme design will not inadvertently ignore some of the most disadvantaged in a community, will more accurately recognise the realities of people’s lives, and ultimately deliver results far more effectively.
It is perhaps not surprising that Oxfam America has taken a lead within Oxfam as a whole in looking at the concept of Intersectionality. Now a broad area of study in feminism and beyond, it has its beginnings in the US, in the context of black American women’s struggles for equality. The term was coined by law professor Kimberlé Crenshaw, whose paper Demarginalizing the Intersection of Race and Sex: A Black Feminist Critique of Antidiscrimination Doctrine, Feminist Theory and Antiracist Politics was published in 1989 (1). In it, Professor Crenshaw highlighted the inadequacy of existing legislation to address discrimination suffered by African American women in the workplace, anti-discrimination law looking at sex and race separately, and ignoring the specific experience of this group of people.
The two-day Boston Symposium combined enormously informative, thoughtful and stimulating presentations from keynote speakers Dr Laurie Nsiah-Jefferson from the Heller School for Social Policy and Management, Brandeis University; Lakshmi Ramarajan from the Organizational Behavior Unit, Harvard Business School; and Stephanie J. Cleary from the Management and Organization Department, Boston Carroll School of Management, with presentation and discussion of five papers from Oxfam staff from across the Oxfam confederation, co-written in two cases with partner organisations.
The Oxfam papers provided examples of the kind of intersectional gender justice work being undertaken in Oxfam. The question and answer sessions following each presentation allowed not only the close questioning of the authors, but provided a forum for the wider sharing of experiences and learning from colleagues who are all working towards the same, shared goal, but who are not necessarily in regular contact with regard to all aspects of their work. Group reflection allowed consideration of how much, in the light of the move from the Women in Development (WID) to Gender and Development (GAD) approaches within the field of development, along with the application (or otherwise) of gender analysis frameworks and feminist research methodology, was already being done with regard to taking an intersectional approach in gender work within the confederation. Concerns were also raised over how to ‘sell’ the importance of Intersectionality when in some cases it was difficult enough to convince people of the need for even sex-disaggregated data, never mind the application of a gender analysis. A related worry was that, for all of us working on women’s rights and gender justice, the adoption of an intersectional approach might lead to work specifically addressing gender inequality being seen as less crucial.
This gives just a flavour of what proved to be a stimulating, intense and somewhat exhausting two days! The Symposium provided a welcome space for important learning and discussion on gender, Intersectionality and development work. With financial pressures and demands for concrete outputs an increasing consideration, such opportunities for thinking, reflection and being challenged are becoming less frequent across the development sector, but are nevertheless invaluable for getting programming right. INGOs owe it to the people they work with on the ground to give as much consideration as possible to the concepts and thinking that inform what they do.
1 ‘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 140:139-167 (1989)
Liz Cooke is G&D’s Assistant Editor
A version of this report appeared in Gender & Development 23(2):380-382