Intersectionality in UK Higher Education: what’s that all about?

The term intersectionality is slowly finding its way in widening participation (WP), equality and diversity (E&D) practice in UK Higher Education. For example, Equality Challenge Unit (ECU) has included questions around intersectionality in the assessment of universities, departments and research institutes obtaining gender and race equality markers. What is intersectionality? And, do we already have a clear idea of what its potential success entails?

Last week, I attended an interview with journalist and activist Naomi Klein at the Southbank Centre in London, where she discussed the context of her recently published book No is Not Enough. She shared her tactics of resisting the current political climate, unequal wealth distribution, infringement of human rights and environmental damage. She also spoke of an ‘intersectional’ approach to solving the issues that humanity faces today, referring to a particular method of inclusivity – which may be useful to WP and E&D practice in UK Higher Education too.



Naomi Klein answering questions from the audience (Southbank Centre, July 2017). Follow this link to watch a short film made by her and The Intercept (YouTube) .

Legal theorist Kimberlé W. Crenshaw was one of the first academics to introduce the term ‘intersectionality’. Her 1989 article demonstrates that ‘black’ ‘women’ in the US are often invisible, because they fall outside both the ‘white’ and the ‘male’ dominant social and legal norms. Crenshaw calls for a praxis of intersectionality, which aims to bridge social justice theory and practice. As familiar to E&D practitioners in Higher Education, the moment ‘extra’ marginalised positions are recognised in legislation or policies is just the beginning of a long process of enacting their right to equal treatment.


Kimberlé Crenshaw giving a TED talk on the urgency of intersectionality. Follow this link to watch the talk on YouTube. Image source: TED Talks/YouTube.

You may wonder, do we really need the term ‘intersectionality’ to arrive at equality? Isn’t it just common sense to pay extra attention to differences between people when creating inclusive environments? An ‘intersectional’ understanding of inequality indeed already existed before the term was introduced. For example, feminists of colour in the 1960s and 1970s in US facilitated dialogue and collaboration between many different identity movements (see, for example, Bilge and Collins, 2016).

Nevertheless, ‘intersectionality’ is very useful in making understandable that being a ‘black’ ‘woman’ in pre-dominantly ‘white’, ‘male’ environments is more than simply the sum of being ‘black’ and a ‘woman’. It can also demonstrate that additional vulnerabilities in marginalised positions (such as an LGB sexual orientation, disability, working class background, transgender identity and/or intersex disposition) can create even more societal barriers to individuals, which are far from ‘common knowledge’.

For successful WP and E&D practice, ‘intersectionality’ can function as a shortcut for understanding that we should expect barriers yet unknown to us, as none of us works with a full view of diversity or has knowledge of all ‘intersectionally’ lived experiences.


Angela Davis at Southbank Centre: ‘… [cannot] those who have had to struggle to be recognised… become the sign of what we should strive for?’ Follow this link for the interview on YouTube. Image source: Southbank Centre/YouTube.

How do we continue from here? Should successful intersectional E&D practice address as many protected characteristics as possible? Should it bring as much diversity as possible in one room? Should it consist of making sure that all ‘intersectionally’ lived experiences feed into decision-making processes? Should it facilitate meaningful partnerships between individuals who would have otherwise not met? Or, is it all of the above? What should be prioritised now, and how do we know what works (best)?

There is a good chance we have not yet begun understanding what intersectionality truly entails for social justice practice. This is something that author and activist Angela Davis hinted at in an interview at the Southbank Centre, just a few months before Klein was there.

Klein, Crenshaw and Davis would agree on one thing, however, and that is the importance of ensuring that the most vulnerable of our society are at the heart of our E&D practice and activism. Therefore, an intersectional approach entails difficult conversations, disagreement and conflict solving between marginalised, semi-marginalised, dominant and semi-dominant stakeholders — perhaps more than currently take place in UK Higher Education.


One of my attempts to visualise intersectionality, a cartoon that is part my doctoral research. Patricia Cornflake is my alter ego. With thanks to Erik for the idea of several elephants in the room.

Key to intersectionality is embracing the knowledge that everybody has blind spots and there can always be elephants in the room, without even E&D experts noticing them. This is the reason why intersectionality could be so effective: it keeps us thinking and searching together. Universities that adopt an intersectional perspective of diversity acknowledge the importance of a structural approach to equality and inclusivity, and should support staff and students accordingly.

2 thoughts on “Intersectionality in UK Higher Education: what’s that all about?

  1. Pingback: How do we escape the replication of inequality in diversity work? – A blog on research, Higher Education, art and diversity

  2. Pingback: At what point does accumulated privilege stop the pain? – Social change through arts, research, activism, and policy making

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