The Importance of Complexity in Attending to Intersectionality

At NCWIT, our mission is to increase the meaningful and influential participation of women in the field of computing. Lessons from previous gender equity efforts have demonstrated that attending to the experiences, needs, and conditions faced by women is complicated. Without explicit and careful attention to intersectionality, such efforts often default to a focus on straight, middle or upper class, white women — thus marginalizing the concerns of women of color, LGBTQIA people, working class women, and women with disabilities (to name just a few). Whether intentional or unintentional, we cannot allow this to be the “default.”
Much has been written about the various ways to avoid this narrowing, with researchers and practitioners describing and debating the pros and cons of different strategies. Because there are no easy answers and because the various strategies have different advantages and disadvantages, we believe that it is important for NCWIT to take multiple approaches in attending to intersectionality and to addressing the concerns of women from every community.
Take Multiple Approaches in Attending to Intersectionality
One approach involves highlighting very specific intersections, for example, race/ethnicity and gender (e.g., black girls, Latinas) or girls from underserved economic areas. Some of our national campaigns, recent roundtables, and activism focusing on Latinas, Native Americans, and African-American girls and women, fall into this category. “Segmented” approaches to addressing intersectionality offer several important advantages. Most notably, given limited time, resources, and bandwidth, they help narrow the focus to the interests, strengths and needs that members of these groups may share. Segmented approaches also can create important “safe spaces” for the women who identify in these ways. A safe space provides a place to share experiences, challenges, and successes with one another; and to rehearse strategies for enacting change in the public sphere.
However, because segmented approaches tend to focus on a relatively small number of intersections (e.g., race/ethnicity and gender), they have limitations. For example, some women’s groups may essentialize, or overgeneralize similarities among women (e.g., reinforce misconceptions that all black women share the same characteristics or concerns). Indeed, depending on the context, other identities — for example, class or sexual orientation — may be more salient for people. Thus, there may be situations where some women may share more similarities across race than they do within race. In addition, while segmented approaches create important alternate spaces, these spaces are still marked as “other,” or different, from the larger culture and everyday life, and can further marginalize. Ideally, we hope to infuse inclusion into the larger culture and everyday life, not only nurture it in separation.
Because of these limitations, more holistic approaches to intersectionality are also critical. Done carefully, holistic approaches can allow for more intersections to be acknowledged, and can make these intersections visible to “mainstream” culture and the larger public sphere. Some of NCWIT’s holistic intersectional approaches include weaving diverse identity dimensions into our materials, resources, websites, and physical spaces. We encourage educational programs, for example, to involve all students (not just underrepresented students) in culturally responsive technologies and in considering issues related to technology, society, and power. This “all students” or “all women” approach is tricky, as it can sometimes appear so diffuse that it seems to gloss over important differences. The key, then, is to acknowledge that inclusion is a process and to resurface the concept of intersectionality in everything we do.
Consider Intersectionality in All That We Do
One practical way that considerations of intersectionality can influence your outreach and reform efforts is by taking into account the multiple ways your specific audiences might identify. In this spirit, we urge all of our member organizations to consider who may feel explicitly included, and who may feel inadvertently excluded, in your outreach and organizational change efforts. That is, we encourage you to consider intersectionality in all the work you do.
First, clarify which social-identity categories of people you are directing your efforts towards. Second, even if you yourself identify with those groups, it is important to do some investigation into what sorts of topics and approaches might appeal to them.
Other practical considerations for your efforts include:

If you hold a summer camp, or after-school program for girls, how are you ensuring that your curriculum is culturally responsive? Have you taken steps to ensure that girls from low-income families can afford the fees; that they have transportation to the site; that they are able to practice, or show off, their computing skills once the program is done?
If your computer science department has been successful at recruiting more women students, then how diverse are they? Where can you do outreach to get your message to more underrepresented minorities? Have you explored whether your recruiting messages might be giving the wrong impression to certain groups? What, if anything, about the culture of your department may need adjustment?
If you notice that your company has diversity in its employee ranks but not in upper management or in more prestigious technical positions, what kinds of systemic barriers might be in place that unintentionally segregate roles? How can you apply research-based strategies to increase your organization’s diversity at all ranks?

These are questions we must all consider as change leaders. Healthy questioning of our assumptions, our language, and how we are designing and implementing our diversity efforts is critical to ensuring that the people who are making technology are representative of those impacted by it. 

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