Dr. Kimberlé Crenshaw coined the phrase “intersectionality” nearly three decades ago, despite it only recently entering mainstream conversation. Crenshaw delivered the keynote speech Oct. 2 at DiversityInc’s Women of Color and Their Allies event, explaining the term intersectionality and its application to women of color in the workplace.
She coined the phrase in the ’90s to explain and address challenges Black women face as part of two disenfranchised demographics — both race and gender — simultaneously. During her keynote, Crenshaw described intersectionality as a frame to expand understanding of systemic bias and discrimination. She said how a problem is framed dictates how to best go about solving it.
The term intersectionality, she said, was a metaphor to help people understand one can exist between two forms of oppression. For example, a Black woman can exist at the intersection of racial and gender discrimination and cannot attribute oppression against her as solely on the basis of her race or sex.
“What should we call this problem when first you’re impacted by two somewhat distinct exclusionary forces, and second, the ‘ambulance,’ the fix, the remedy, isn’t prepared to deal with the complexity of what hits you?”
She gave an anecdote from her time at Harvard Law School: in trying to get more women and people of color tenured as professors at the institution, the diverse student body demanded more representation. The university created a women’s committee and a minority committee. However, the women of color, simultaneously fitting into both categories, slipped through the cracks and felt represented in neither.
“It emerged that the assumption was that women of color rested within the purview of the other committee,” Crenshaw said. “My question was how was it that this so obvious problem escaped the attention of everyone? That a committee dealing with race but not gender, or a committee dealing with gender and not race, was clearly inadequate in realizing the institutional commitment to race and gender diversity?”
In studying law to try to understand this phenomenon, Crenshaw came across the case, Emma DeGraffenreid v. G.M., in which DeGraffenreid sued for both race and gender discrimination for being denied a job. All of the African Americans the company hired were men, and all of the women were white.
The court ruling allowed DeGraffenreid to claim both forms of discrimination would offer her “two swings at the bat,” and, therefore, preferential treatment.
“If the judge had actually looked at the ways that these two patterns of hiring, these two practices, came together, he would’ve seen that Black women were falling through the cracks,” Crenshaw said. “They were facing not just race discrimination and not just gender discrimination. They were facing double discrimination. Discrimination within discrimination.”
Crenshaw explained the “but for” phenomenon. If white, straight, cisgender, heterosexual men have the most power, many have the ability to say they, too, could have such power, “but for” a single trait. For example, a white woman could say she could have the position “but for” her gender, and a Black man could say he’d have the position “but for” his race. Others who have intersectionally-oppressed identities have more than one single aspect that disadvantages them. DeGraffenreid lost her case because the judge said she could not make a single claim of discrimination.
“But some people, those who are not just one ‘but for’ away from white men, they can’t use this particular approach,” Crenshaw said. “Black women were not in the same position as Black men and white women to make the ‘but for’ command.”
Crenshaw pointed out the issue with women of color’s lack of representation in the C-suite as a unique problem. She cited a recent McKinsey & Company study that showed women of color are underrepresented on each level in corporate pipelines. The study suggests part of this dilemma is caused by the fact that women of color are the least likely to receive support from those above them.
With white men being most commonly situated in positions of power, it is difficult for women of color to seek them out as mentors. Without a schema for these men to use as a guideline to interact with women of color, women of color appear unfamiliar and thus struggle to make connections with powerful higher-ups.
“Whether true or not, the very perception of greater difference may be underscored by the fact that there are fewer analogies, fewer zones of the familiar that women of color can use to navigate workplace differences with powerful mentors.”
Crenshaw said understanding the complexity and reality of intersectionality is the key to addressing discrimination against women of color.
“When looking at any interventions, when you know there’s still a problem, it’s important to ask how this problem might affect some people differently than others,” Crenshaw said. “That’s what intersectionality asks us to do.”
Related Story: HBR Study Finds Workplace ‘Inclusion’ is Not Enough to Help Women of Color Feel Supported