Intersectionality is the recognition that people are made up of multiple social identities such as ethnicity, race, class, gender, sexual orientation, physical ability, immigration status, etc. and when compounded, it creates different dynamics and effects that are often overlooked.
Kimberle Crenshaw, an American law professor and activist, coined the term in 1989 to illustrate intersectional feminism as “a prism for seeing the way in which various forms of inequality often operate together and exacerbate each other.” For example, Black and White female faculty members will not face the same challenges, even if they are both identified as the underrepresented group of “women.” Understanding the concept of intersectionality is critical because the identity of “woman” is not a catchall category. It alone does not define each woman’s unique life experience.
So, what does this have to do with women in physics and astronomy? To make progress, we must understand the convergence of these social identities (ethnicity, race, sexual orientation, class, able-bodied, etc.) and how they play out in the recruitment, retention, promotion processes throughout classrooms, departments, academic institutions, national labs, etc.
We must ask ourselves: What are other underrepresented communities in the field? Why are the statistics so grim? What is the history that has brought us to these statistics? It is our responsibility as administrators, faculty members, researchers, postdocs, and grantmakers to be proactive in understanding the context in order to develop effective solutions.
But most importantly, intersectionality is not just about recognizing an individual’s intersectional background. It is also imperative to include such people at the table when defining solutions towards a more diverse, inclusive academy. Because, ultimately, solutions that only address the experiences of white, middle class, able-bodied, heterosexual women will be limited in vision and in diversity outcomes.