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.

4. What does it mean to take an intersectional approach to policymaking?

As a concept, intersectionality has been interpreted in the literature as a theory, methodology, paradigm, lens, tool and framework.[28],[29], [30], [31] This report does not seek to distinguish between these interpretations, but rather to introduce the key aspects of what it means to take an intersectional approach to understand structural inequality within a policymaking context.

According to Crenshaw, the focus of an intersectional approach is to highlight the need to account for multiple grounds of identity when considering how the social world is constructed.[32] For the purposes of this report, the 'intersectional approach' can be best understood as a way of identifying, understanding and tackling structural inequality in a given context that accounts for the lived experience of people with intersecting identities. For example, intersectionality helps us to understand how people experience services, such as education and healthcare, differently as a result of their identity and unequal power dynamics. Understanding these differences facilitates the development of more effective policy that tackles structural disadvantage experienced by marginalised groups.

A key feature of an intersectional approach is that it does not give a higher status to any one inequality or experience of discrimination.[33] Hankivsky and colleagues argue that "intersectionality encourages critical reflection that allows researchers and decision makers to move beyond the singular categories that are typically favoured in equity driven analyses (e.g., sex and gender in sex and gender based analysis) … to consider the complex relationships and interactions between social locations."[34]

Adopting an intersectional approach also calls for policymakers and analysts to "analyse their own power dynamics as much as the world they wish to change".[35] Thus, an intersectional approach is not just about considering the experiences of those at the intersection of multiple characteristics but about policymakers and analysts assessing their own experiences and how this impacts on their ability to develop, deliver and evaluate policies in an equitable way.

In addition, taking an intersectional approach requires that evidence be put into context, including the historical and contemporary structures of inequality in wider society, and within local contexts.[36] Local contexts could include, for example, education, employment, and healthcare settings. It is crucial to examine the dynamic interaction between individuals and institutional actors (e.g. central government, local government, public bodies) as this provides a more comprehensive examination of policy success and failure.

There have been a number of formalised approaches that have encouraged consideration of intersectionality within the policymaking process. A detailed overview of some of these approaches can be found in a paper produced by Olena Hankivsky, Professor of Public Policy, in 2012.[37] A summary of these approaches as well as additional approaches are provided in Table 2 below.

Table 2: International examples of intersectional approaches


Gender Based Analysis+ (GBA+)[38]


In 2011, the Canadian Government expanded their Gender Based Analysis policy analysis tool to GBA+ which adds other characteristics to the original women-focussed agenda, including race, ethnicity, religion, age and disability. This allows for consideration of how intersections between these characteristics influences experience of government policies. The GBA+ approach superseded the earlier Sex and Gender Based Analysis (SGBA).


Some critics consider the 'addition' of other minorities to the original women-focused agenda to be antithetical to the concept of intersectionality, which does not centre any one group.


Health Impact Assessment Tools (HIAs)[39]


The World Health Organization defined HIAs as "a combination of procedures, methods and tools by which a policy, program or project may be judged as to its potential effects on the health of a population" (1999, p. 4). The aim is to examine positive or negative effects of policies aimed at reducing health inequities across different population groups. HIAs, and variants of, have been used in a number of countries, including the UK, New Zealand, Australia, Canada and throughout the EU.


HIAs have been criticised for their lack of attention to policies beyond those that affect the internal operations of nation states.


Wellbeing approaches based on participation[40]


New Zealand has been developing approaches based on understanding how people in minority communities experience the world.


These are predominantly based on one characteristic but do discuss some intersectionalities and are particularly powerful in terms of identifying power relations and values.

Hankivsky and colleagues developed Intersectionality Based Policy Analysis (IBPA).[41] IBPA aims to improve current tools for evaluating the equality implications of policies. IBPA comprises a set of guiding principles and a checklist of twelve questions that policymakers should seek to answer when developing or implementing policy. The questions include five 'descriptive' questions designed to generate critical background on a policy in question and six 'transformative' questions intended to assist with the identification of alternative policy responses and solutions specifically aimed at social and structural change that reduce inequities and promote social justice. These twelve questions are presented in the box below.


1. What knowledge, values, and experiences do you bring to this area of policy analysis?

2. What is the policy 'problem' under consideration?

3. How have representations of the 'problem' come about? This prompts policymakers to consider how a history of intersecting oppressive systems, such as sexism and racism, operate through policies to produce layers of inequity across a spectrum of people with diverse identities.

4. How are groups differentially affected by this representation of the 'problem'?

5. What are the current policy responses to the 'problem'?


6. What inequities actually exist in relation to the 'problem'?

7. Where and how can interventions be made to improve the problem?

8. What are feasible short, medium and long-term solutions?

9. How will proposed policy responses reduce inequities?

10. How will implementation and uptake be assured?

11. How will you know if inequities have been reduced?

12. How has the process of engaging in an intersectionality-based policy analysis transformed:

- Your thinking about relations and structures of power and inequity?

- The ways in which you and others engage in the work of policy development, implementation and evaluation?

- Broader conceptualisations, relations and effects of power asymmetry in the everyday world?

4.1. Applications of intersectionality within Scottish policymaking

Recent years have seen criticisms from equality stakeholders that little progress has been made with a separate single characteristic approach to policymaking in Scotland, and there have been increased calls for intersectional policymaking.[42],[43]

In 2020, the Poverty and Inequality Commission (PIC)[44] commissioned the Institute of Public Policy Research (IPPR) Scotland to carry out interviews with policymakers working to reduce inequality in Scotland. The interviews focussed on the participant's understanding of intersectionality, how different experiences of inequality in Scotland are understood and the changes required to better recognise and respond to inequality.

Based on these interviews and existing research, the PIC report explores major cross-cutting policy agendas aimed at reducing poverty and inequality in Scotland to determine the extent to which they adopt an intersectional approach to analysing problems or developing solutions. Opportunities to take intersectional approaches to developing policy solutions, and to monitoring and evaluating outcomes are highlighted. The key findings from this research are summarised in Table 3 below.

Table 3: IPPR Scotland assessment of Scottish Government policy agendas aimed at reducing poverty and inequality in Scotland and recommendations for an intersectional approach

Policy agenda

Child poverty[45]

IPPR assessment in PIC report

The Child Poverty (Scotland) Act places an obligation on the Scottish Government to meet four legally binding targets to reduce absolute and relative child poverty by 2030. The Tackling Child Poverty Delivery Plan, published in 2018, sets out actions against three key drivers of poverty[46] and six 'priority families'[47] at increased risk of poverty.

IPPR recommendations for intersectional approach

  • Cross-cutting areas, such as parental employment and transport, could take an intersectional approach to developing policy solutions and monitoring/evaluating outcomes.
  • An intersectional analysis of overlaps between priority family groups and other characteristics.
  • Collecting and analysing intersectional data on key indicators should be central to policy monitoring and evaluation.

Policy agenda

Fair work[48]

IPPR assessment in PIC report

The past four years has seen the establishment of Scotland's Fair Work Commission, investment in the expansion of available subsidised hours in early learning and childcare, action on gender pay gaps, and new services devolved to Scotland to support people back into work. There has been progress, most notably through the 2019 Gender Pay Gap Action Plan.

IPPR recommendations for intersectional approach

  • There is a risk that intersecting inequalities are reserved for the Action Plan, where an intersectional approach is needed across policymaking.
  • While progress has been made on labour market participation across all ethnic groups, substantial inequalities exist between men and women within ethnic groups. There are substantial pay gaps along the lines of ethnicity, gender and nationality.
  • There is a need for an intersectional approach to promoting good work by exploring the links between precarious work, mental health and ethnicity experienced by young workers.

Policy agenda


IPPR assessment in PIC report

Housing costs remain a key factor driving poverty in Scotland. The Joseph Rowntree Foundation's Poverty in Scotland 2020 report[50] underlines the importance of reducing housing costs in solving poverty in Scotland, and the role housing costs play is clear in comparing rates of relative poverty pre- and post-housing costs. It's also clear that intersecting inequalities affect access to affordable housing in Scotland.

IPPR recommendations for intersectional approach

  • There is a need to apply an intersectional approach to understanding major drivers of poverty – including affordable housing – by understanding the role of multiple and often interacting systems of oppression.
  • Further research exploring the particular challenges facing people in Scotland experiencing multiple barriers to accessing appropriate and affordable housing is necessary, alongside a sustained focus on lowering barriers for people from minority ethnic backgrounds, disabled people, and larger families.

Policy agenda

Economic policy[51]

IPPR assessment in PIC report

The adoption of inclusive growth as a pillar of Scotland's revised Economic Strategy in 2015, and more recently the focus on a Wellbeing Economy has put a sharper focus on economic inequality in the Scottish Government's approach to economic policymaking. Narrowing inequality has become a clear, cross-cutting objective for economic policymakers in Scotland. However, interventions and measures too often took a single-axis approach to understanding and tackling inequalities, risking an ineffective tick-box approach.

IPPR recommendations for intersectional approach

  • A localised approach to developing policy solutions is welcome, we are yet to see robust evidence of solutions designed to meet the needs of particular marginalised groups, in their local contexts, tried and tested in action.
  • Policymakers should broaden their view beyond geographic concentration of disadvantage to also focus on communities who are disadvantaged "because of who they are, where they're from, or the colour of their skin".[52]

Policy agenda

Cross-cutting agendas - gender equality[53]

IPPR assessment in PIC report

In recent years, the Scottish Government has put a clear focus on gender equality across a range of policy areas: from the Women's Health Action Plan, to the Equally Safe Strategy, to the Gender Pay Gap Action Plan. This is seen as substantial progress, but there is also concern that this has led policymakers in some areas to think gendered inequality is now well understood. This is particularly the case in the context of economic and social policy, where it was felt policymaking often failed to connect the dots between unequal outcomes and gendered barriers to participation or progression in paid work.

IPPR recommendations for intersectional approach

  • Gender mainstreaming and the collection, analysis and publication of intersectional, sex-disaggregated gender-sensitive data were identified as central to supporting a deeper understanding of inequality across Scotland.
  • A model for gender mainstreaming efforts could be expanded and improved to support intersectional analysis of inequality in opportunity and outcomes for different groups of people across Scotland.
  • The work from the National Advisory Council on Women and Girls should be used by the Scottish Government to understand the varied realities of life in Scotland for low-income women, disabled women, minority ethnic women, LGBT women, and migrant women.

Policy agenda

Cross cutting agendas – race equality[54]

IPPR assessment in PIC report

The Scottish Government's 2016 Race Equality Framework for Scotland was seen as an example of co-production between government and expert equalities organisations, but there was a view that the plan failed to touch on poverty in adequate detail.

IPPR recommendations for intersectional approach

  • Making progress towards an intersectional approach to policymaking in Scotland will clearly depend on building competence on how race and racialisation shape disadvantage in Scotland.
  • A single strategy is not enough, and work is required to embed intersectional gender and race competency across government areas and functions, and to create effective accountability mechanisms across the Scottish Government.

The report concluded that:

  • There is currently a lack of intersectional data on outcomes, which is slowing progress on understanding and tackling inequality in Scotland.
  • Current policymaking processes rarely take an intersectional approach to analysing problems or developing solutions.
  • There is a lack of coherence across policymaking and a lack of competence in how structural inequality shapes experiences and outcomes.
  • A "one size fits all" approach to narrowing inequality leaves people behind, especially where multiple inequalities intersect. Policymakers need to better understand who existing policy interventions and policy service provision models serve well and less well.
  • Policymaking processes in Scotland reinforce siloed approaches to tackling inequality. Policymaking processes should include a wider range of voices and experts across Scotland.
  • There are no shortcuts. Addressing structural inequalities will take dedicated and sustained work across the Scottish Government, particularly on the issue of systemic racism.[55]



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