Intersectionality in Academia

Gender equality in research and innovation still faces some enduring challenges globally. Indeed, women continue to be under-represented in leadership and decision-making positions in most sectors. Also, according to She Figures, women remain significantly under-represented in the fields of information and communication technologies and engineering which is problematic in a changing technological landscape. However, a lot is being done across Europe to address these issues and remarkable progress has been made in recent years. Indeed, the European Commission has funded a variety of projects and initiatives such as this very project, GEARING ROLES, to allow universities and research institutions to implement gender equality plans, undertake activities aimed and increasing gender equality, and highlight and raise awareness of this issue among faculty members, staff, students and society at large. Within this response, however, intersectionality does not always come through as clearly as it should. This term, which was first coined by Kimberlé Crenshaw, can be described as the “lens through which you can see where power comes and collides, where it interlocks and intersects.” In other words, it is a way of looking at a variety of intersecting social categorisations such as age, ability, race, class, and gender which may create disadvantage or lead to discrimination of an individual or a group. For instance, when considering the experience of minority women in STEM fields, an intersectional approach would dictate that these women are subject to the interplay of sexism and racism conceptualised as the ‘double bind.’ In other words, in a field that is historically dominated by white males, these women are doubly disadvantaged in their STEM careers due to their gender and their race. A survey conducted in a UK University in 2017, also highlighted the challenges faced by disabled academics who have to negotiate not only the effects of their “impairment,” but also institutional structures for securing the adjustments they need to be able to do their work. Some respondents in this survey also described instances of outright aggression and discriminatory behaviours and inadequate buildings and working arrangements for their needs.

In light of this, intersectionality must come to occupy a central stage within research and the very structure of research institutions to ensure real equality and prosperity within research. In order to incorporate an intersectional perspective, we need to completely reconstruct our universities which were often built on racist, misogynist, and colonial ideals. In the UK, a variety of university students have sought to do this by campaigning to ‘decolonialise’ their university, in other  words,  “challenging and remaking the current pedagogy of universities which is rooted in imperial and colonial ideas about knowledge and learning.” There have also been demands that universities change their curriculums to including diverse writers and greater postcolonial thought. Students at Oxford University also campaigned for the removal of the statue of the imperialist Cecil Rhodes.

Many institutions and initiatives have begun to take these considerations on board for instance by making their curriculums more inclusive or including a focus on intersectionality in calls for funding as evidence by The European Commission’s Horizon Europe Programme. Advance HE, in the UK, for instance, an organisation that supports universities’ leadership, teaching and equality strategies, will begin a project later this year working with around 10 universities to embed equality into their curriculums. The UK has also introduced Disabled Students’ Allowances which helped students with a disability to manage extra costs they may encounter as a direct result of their disabilities.

However, a report by the Guardian found that only a fifth of UK universities have committed to reforming their curriculum to confront the harmful legacy of colonialism and racist incidents continue to be ignored, showing that much more needs to be done in this space to achieve true equality.

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