The Value of Intersectionality

Presenter: Amy Slaton

Our framing of discrimination in engineering fields for this project, along with the potential remedies we discuss, build on many ways of thinking about identity that have emerged over recent decades; such as, the value of identity politics approaches that highlight the collective concerns of marginalized communities. Taken uncritically, the goals of STEM “diversity” and “inclusion” do not necessarily serve as the most transformative among such approaches. While well intentioned, these two aims can pivot on essentialized notions of difference (“Here is a black person,” “Here is a veteran,” etc.) that hide complex and layered personal experiences. They can encourage stereotyping and assimilation as we attempt to “know” and then “welcome” those we encounter. We thus turn in this project to the analytical approach called “intersectionality” to counter some of these regrettable effects.

Intersectionality arose from scholarship in black feminist legal studies through the 1980s and has since found a home across many humanities and social-scientific fields. It is an analytical disposition that welcomes complexity (suggesting, for example, that black women may have different experiences than white women in a particular setting); reflexivity (encouraging us to ask questions about our questions); and indeterminacy (suggesting that, say, social privilege and penalty can co-exist in a single individual; or that identities may change over time and place). We believe that this provocative but open-ended and creative way of thinking about identity sets the stage for new understanding of stubborn discriminatory patterns in engineering education.