Using intersectionality to understand structural inequality in Scotland: evidence synthesis

An evidence synthesis of literature on the concept of intersectionality. Looks at what the concept means, and how it can be applied to policymaking and analysis, as well as providing spotlight examples.

3. What is meant by the concept of 'intersectionality'?

The term 'intersectionality' is not yet in everyday usage, but awareness is growing in academic and policymaking contexts. It is essential that the term is clearly defined before it is applied to Scottish policymaking, and the implications for research and data analysis are understood.

The term 'intersectionality' has its roots in Black feminist activism, and was originally coined by American critical legal race scholar Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw in 1989. Crenshaw used the term intersectionality to refer to the double discrimination of racism and sexism faced by Black women, critiquing the "single-axis framework that is dominant in antidiscrimination law.. feminist theory and anti-racist politics" for its focus on the experiences of the most privileged members of subordinate groups.[2] Specifically, Crenshaw highlighted legal cases wherein women were required to choose between bringing a claim of racism or sexism and could not say that they had been discriminated against due to the combined effects of race and sex.[3]

Crenshaw provided the following definition of intersectionality:

"Intersectionality is a metaphor for understanding the ways that multiple forms of inequality or disadvantage sometimes compound themselves and create obstacles that often are not understood among conventional ways of thinking."[4]

However, while Crenshaw was the first to use the term intersectionality, the concept did not represent a new way of thinking. Black feminist literature preceding Crenshaw's use of the term highlights examples of inequality affecting Black women as a result of sexism and racism. For example, the Combahee River Collective, a Black lesbian socialist feminist organisation, published "A Black Feminist Statement," in 1977 which is often cited as one of the earliest expressions of intersectionality.[5]

In 1990 Marilyn Loden and Judy Rosener[6] developed a framework for thinking about the different dimensions of diversity within individuals and institutions, known as the diversity wheel. This is a useful tool for thinking about how different characteristics intersect with systems and structures to shape a person's experience.

The below diagram is derived from Loudon and Rosener's framework and depicts a series of concentric circles. The primary dimensions of diversity, personal characteristics such as age, ethnicity and gender, are shown in the centre. Socially and culturally a person is also influenced by environmental, social and cultural factors and experiences, learnings from family, friendships, community, nationality, belief system. Within organisations, a person is influenced by the group or area in which we work, and the structures or processes that they operate within, which may include systemic barriers and bias.

Figure 1: Diversity Wheel demonstrating how personal characteristics intersect with systems and structures to shape a person's experience.
3 circles. Inner circle represents how people have different personal characteristics. Second circle surrounding personal circle represents how people differ socially and culturally and the outer circle highlights how people can differ within organisations.
There are examples in each circle.

While there were early theoretical developments following its first use in 1989[7],[8], the past decade has seen a rapid increase in the usage and applications of the term 'intersectionality' across a varying range of academic disciplines.[9] Awareness of the concept is also growing within the public and third sectors in Scotland and wider UK where it has the potential to inform the development and delivery of policies and services.

For example, the Equality and Human Rights Commission[10] have advocated for the concept of intersectionality by developing their own definition which allows them to apply the concept practically to equality and human rights monitoring:

"Intersectionality is an analytical tool[11] that we use for the purpose of equality and human rights monitoring to show the distinct forms of harm, abuse, discrimination and disadvantage experienced by people when multiple categories of social identity interact with each other."[12]

In part due to this rapid increase in the application of intersectionality across a number of disciplines, there exists many different definitions of intersectionality in the literature, and academics have highlighted a lack of understanding of the central tenets of intersectionality.[13] Since its original usage, the term 'intersectionality' has also been expanded to include intersections between a range of 'social categories' in addition to race and gender, such as disability, sexual orientation, occupation and socio-economic disadvantage, and wider life experiences.

For the purposes of this report, we refer the reader to attempts to identify common themes or assumptions underpinning usage of 'intersectionality'.[14],[15],[16],[17] To summarise, we propose that the foundational elements of intersectionality can be understood as:

  • A recognition that people are shaped by their simultaneous membership of multiple interconnected social categories.
  • The interaction between multiple social categories occurs within a context of connected systems and structures of power (e.g. laws, policies, governments). A recognition of inequality of power is key to intersectionality.
  • Structural inequalities, reflected as relative disadvantage and privilege, are the outcomes of the interaction between social categories, power relations and contexts. As a result, an individual's experiences of inequality can be chronic or transitory, creating unique lived experiences.

The relationship between these three key tenets is presented in Figure 2 below. In particular, it is important to note that it is the interaction or "intersection" of two or more characteristics with power dynamics within a given context that gives rise to inequality, not just the presence of intersecting characteristics on their own.

Figure 2: Diagrammatic representation of the relationship between the key tenets of intersectionality.
Diagrammatic representation of the relationship between the three key tenets of intersectionality as described above.

In addition to understanding the central tenets of intersectionality, the reader may also find it helpful to consider what intersectionality is not. A recent report commissioned by the Poverty and Inequality Commission[18] reviewed available literature on the concept of intersectionality and succinctly highlighted a number of inaccuracies in understanding of the concept of intersectionality. For ease of reference, we summarise these inaccuracies here:

  • Intersectionality is not a synonym for diversity – there is no such thing as an 'intersectional' group of people, the more appropriate term for those who experience multiple and compounding inequalities would be to state they are from "intersectionally marginalised communities" and to be explicit about which intersections we are referring to e.g.; South Asian Women experiencing racism and sexism.
  • Intersectionality is primarily a tool for understanding invisible power relations and how they shape inequality, not identity. Intersectionality looks at "interlocking" systems of oppression and how these play out in individual's lives.
  • Intersectionality is not about adding up different kinds of inequality, and does not look to simply add up the sum of different oppressions (e.g. gender + race + disability). Intersectionality instead aims to shed light on how multiple dimensions and systems of inequality interact with one another and create distinct experiences and outcomes.
  • Intersectionality is not about pitting different people or groups against each other to assess who is most marginalised or disadvantaged. Instead, intersectionality aims to understand how different people's experiences are shaped where multiple forms of oppression or disadvantage interact.
  • Intersectionality is not looking to construct a hierarchy of inequality, where some forms of oppression (e.g. racism, sexism, ableism) are seen as more important than others.[19]

What intersectionality means in practice is best illustrated by drawing on the multitude of examples provided in the literature. In her original writings on the topic, Crenshaw gave the following example:

"Black women sometimes experience discrimination in ways similar to white women's experiences; sometimes they share very similar experiences with Black men. Yet often they experience double discrimination—the combined effects of practices which discriminate on the basis of race, and on the basis of sex. And sometimes, they experience discrimination as Black women—not the sum of race and sex discrimination, but as Black women."[20]

More recently, Ashlee Christoffersen, academic at the University of Edinburgh, provided the following example:

"A person is not, for example, a woman on one hand and disabled on the other; rather she is the combination of these at the same time, that is, a disabled woman. In this example her identity as a woman is shaped by her identity as disabled, and vice versa as the elements of identity are not lived or experienced separately."[21]

Examples of how the concept of intersectionality have been used to understand structural inequality in Scottish and UK contexts are provided in Section 5 of this report.

Whilst the term 'intersectionality' originated in Black feminist theory, it is now often used to refer to the interactions between the nine protected characteristics defined in the Equality Act 2010, plus wider characteristics that shape lived experiences of discrimination, inequality and privilege such as socio-economic disadvantage, occupation and care-experience.[22] The broader usage to refer to all nine protected characteristics aligns with the requirement of the Public Sector Equality Duty that Scottish public bodies to have due regard to the need to eliminate unlawful discrimination, harassment and victimisation, and to advance equality of opportunity, for those with protected characteristics. It is acknowledged, however, that recent years has seen criticism that the concept of intersectionality tends to be used by policymakers in an unspecified way across the protected characteristics, representing a departure from the original principles of intersectionality as being focussed on race and gender.[23],[24]

Recent research, carried out by Ashlee Christoffersen, considered how intersectionality is conceptualised and operationalised among policymakers and in the third sector in Scotland and England.[25] The research comprised case studies of three local networks of equality organisations with documented commitments to intersectionality; employment interviews; focus groups; participant observation and analysis of documents published between 2016 and 2018.

Five competing concepts of intersectionality were identified as being used in third sector equality organisations and by policymakers, each with different implications for intersectionality marginalised groups and intersectional justice. These are presented in Table 1 below.

Table 1: Concepts of intersectionality used in third sector equality organisations and policy in Scotland and England[26]

Concept: Generic


Generic intersectionality is characterised by no, or very little, focus on any equality strand or strands in particular: the same work is delivered to benefit 'all'. Addressing issues that affect 'everybody' (i.e. not only or even primarily marginalised equality groups).

Strengths (+) and Weaknesses (-)

- No attention to power and marginality.

- Work on issues that affect the most disadvantaged are seen as not being intersectional.

Concept: Pan equality


Addressing issues that affect all/most marginalised equality groups.

Strengths (+) and Weaknesses (-)

+ Avoids deciding in advance which issues affect which social groups.

+ Enables more structural (vs. individual) understandings of intersectionality.

- Disregards difference and prevents work on issues which are not 'common'.

Concept: Multi-strand


Addressing equality strands in parallel, separately but at the same time.

Strengths (+) and Weaknesses (-)

- Additive (instead of being viewed as always shaping one another, inequalities are still viewed separately and added and subtracted from one another).

- Intersectionality treated the same as diversity.

- Makes intersectional marginalisation invisible.

Concept: Diversity within


Addressing intersections within an equality strand, e.g. differences among women. One strand/inequality viewed as more important than others.

Strengths (+) and Weaknesses (-)

- Additive.

- Marginalised people are viewed as just oppressed and 'intersectionalities' thought of as 'additional barriers'.

- Unable to incorporate the idea that inequality structures are always shaping each other, producing not only marginalisation, but also privilege.

Concept: Intersections of strands


Work of/with specific groups sharing intersecting identities, e.g. minority ethnic women, disabled women, etc. No particular strand is primary or more in focus than the other(s).

Strengths (+) and Weaknesses (-)

+ Intersectionally marginalised people viewed as being able to act for themselves.

- Intersectionality often individualised (to the exclusion of thinking about inequality structures).

The research concluded that:

  • Within policymaking and third sector contexts in Scotland, intersectionality tends to be used in an unspecified way across the nine protected characteristics in the Equality Act 2010.
  • Scottish and English policy documents used many different definitions of intersectionality, and the use of the term was largely individualised, descriptive, additive and superficial.

The work makes a number of recommendations for policy and policymakers, including:

  • Policymakers should be specific about what they mean by intersectionality.
  • Fund organisations representing people who share intersecting identities.
  • Single strand characteristic organisations, such as organisations representing those with a single protected characteristic, should be held to account for facilitating meaningful participation and self-representation of intersectionality marginalised groups.
  • Organisations should build greater unity and coalition when working around common issues, while highlighting and prioritising intersectionality marginalised experiences and leadership.[27]



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