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Everyday intersectionality

By Pru Goward - posted Wednesday, 15 May 2002


It is a daunting word – "intersectionality." Although it doesn't sound like a word anyone would use every day, it describes an everyday experience for many Australians. By intersectionality, we refer to the connection between aspects of identity, and by "intersectional discrimination", the different types of discrimination or disadvantage that compound on each other and are inseparable.

An intersectional approach asserts that speaking about race in isolation from other aspects of identity results in concrete disadvantage. One example that is all too common in my line of work is the sexualisation of women from various ethnic groups in the workplace. For example, sexual harassment affects particular groups of women quite differently, in a way that is about their race as much as it is about their gender.

Intersectionality is not an arithmetic equation – you don't just add up the consequences of race, for example, and the consequences of gender. Intersectional discrimination means people are discriminated against in qualitatively different ways as a consequence of the combination of their individual characteristics.

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As Sex Discrimination Commissioner at the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission I am particularly interested in the way that gender compounds on other forms of discrimination: not only race, but age, disability, sexuality and a myriad of other ways that people have found to discriminate against each other.

We know from our experience of working in discrimination, and from the stories that make it through the institutional maze, that women from non-English speaking backgrounds experience hostile attitudes in many workplaces.

However, we also know that many incidents of intersectional disadvantage are never the subject of a complaint, and are never redressed. There are many institutional barriers to recognizing discrimination where it occurs. But also, many of us are just starting to understand that intersectional discrimination is the right place to start in terms of understanding the subtlety of discrimination as it occurs in practice.

For example, too often when we talk about issues of racism we are talking about men's issues. It is not done deliberately, but it has the effect of making women's issues peripheral. Australia is one of the most ethnically diverse nations in the world. Women make up over half of Australia's population. Without looking at how women, particularly different groups of women, experience racism, we are unable to understand or properly work to eliminate racism within our society.

This was acknowledged by Mary Robinson, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights in a speech made earlier this year:

A gender analysis of racial discrimination recognizes that racial discrimination does not affect men and women equally, or in the same way. To promote and protect the rights of all persons to be free from racial discrimination, it is necessary to ensure the rights of women when they are similarly situated to men and when they are not. There are circumstances in which women suffer racial discrimination of a different kind or to a different degree than men, or in which discrimination primarily affects women.

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Of course, gender is not the only characteristic that intersects with race, and a range of experiences make our understanding of racism more complex.

We know from our experiences of working in discrimination and human rights, that one way to combat discrimination is to "bring the outside in": to listen to people whose voices are peripheral and to find ways of including them and bringing them to the centre of discussion.

We know too that despite laws and programs to combat different types of discriminations, direct, indirect and institutional forms of discrimination persist. Formal equality as expressed in laws and policies do not deliver substantive equality in most instances. We need to ensure real equality by devising strategies and programs that take account of the differences that women and men experience and respond accordingly.

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This is an edited version of Pru Goward’s speech to the "Beyond Racism" conference held at the Sydney Opera House, March 12-13 2002. The original transcript can be found here.



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About the Author

Pru Goward is Australia’s Federal Sex Discrimination Commissioner.

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