Intersectionality is the key to unlocking inclusion in London’s higher education community

This blog has been contributed by Dr Arun Verma, Head of Diversity & Inclusion at the University of London.

Universities across the board are continuously seeking new knowledge and opportunities to help build meaningfully inclusive institutions for our staff and students. Those from underrepresented groups can often experience a variety of overlapping inequalities in many parts of a university system even when they are embedded in large and diverse cities like London. The capital has a long reputation for embracing multiculturalism, being a global city, and finding ways to celebrate diversity and difference. London higher education institutions in the capital typically find themselves also having an incredibly diverse and global reach beyond the scope of London’s borders. However, intersecting barriers and inequalities for people who are part of our university communities are evident and persistent in both the interpersonal and structural levels.

There are many initiatives to tackle inequalities across higher education, with a variety of advisory groups, committees, and taskforces set up to address specific inequalities and marginalisation experienced within universities. These groups have covered everything from tackling sexual misconduct and racial harassment through to providing guidance on supporting neurodiversity in university settings. I have been privileged to be a member of some of these committees and have felt a boldness and bravery for such initiatives by organisations and members of such groups. It is promising to see and hear organisations that continue to be led by their impact and pulling on sector-wide levers to initiate change for meaningful inclusion in higher education. I have also felt empowered being amongst senior leaders in these committees and groups who are championing equity and social justice at the heart of such activities.

However, our approaches to inclusion can often continue to operate on the notion that inequalities are separate from one another. That people only experience one inequality at a time which can lead to our policies, programmes, and practices becoming narrow in their scope. Even though we might find ourselves throwing the word ‘intersectionality’ into the room to inform brave initiatives, we can often inadvertently end up ticking a box rather than interrogating the space where inequalities overlap. The term intersectionality is used to highlight that we as individuals are not just one thing, and we have a multitude of characteristics and identities that shape our experiences and how we navigate spaces and places in the world. Not being intersectional can mean that we continue to find ourselves applying a singular equalities lens to tackling an issue in isolation. This isolated approach to inclusion can perpetuate equality siloes and does not reflect the reality of our communities in London who comprise an infinite mosaic of people, communities, and places made up of intersecting legacies, systems, identities, characteristics, inequalities, privileges, and positions. Our London higher education communities are intersectional, meaning that we need to find novel ways to incorporate intersectionality into our work toward inclusion to ensure that those experiencing simultaneous oppressions are not falling through the cracks of our system.

If we go back t its roots, Black women scholars in the USA presented the idea of ‘intersectionality’ from research on the lived experiences and unique discrimination Black women faced in a particular system. Through the research of scholars including Kimberle Crenshaw and Shirly Anne Tate, they identified how Black women would fall through gaps in the system because the channels and policies to resolve issues were designed only for those that experienced either gender or racial inequality, but not at the point where the two inequalities meet. It is here where these inequalities (i.e. gender, race, and class) meet which is the point of interest described as ‘intersectionality’.

In higher education institutions, we continue to find intersecting inequalities for students and staff, from gaps in experience to gaps in awarding, retention, and success. What we know is that the mere existence of a university in a highly global and diverse city like London does not eradicate the intersecting inequalities present within our higher education communities. Although London higher education institutions are finding innovative ways to harness community and civic engagement in teaching and research impact to be more inclusive, without an intersectional lens we may not be engaging those who experience multiple disadvantages.

Utilising an intersectionality lens in our work towards being inclusive London higher education institutions invites us to engage in productively disruptive conversations about what makes London higher education worth being included in. When we bring intersectionality to the front, it means that:

  • we centre the voices and stories of communities who experience multiple inequalities and find innovative approaches to gathering and presenting evidence of those who are marginalised to key decision-makers,
  • to ensure that our strategies and operational practices and policies are cognisant of wider political, social, and cultural narratives that can help or hinder our work towards actualising equal opportunities, embracing equity and inclusion,
  • and that our practices are working to actively engage intersectional communities in places in which universities play a transformative role in.

Whilst intersectionality is a metaphor and theory to most, I consider intersectionality an invitation to reimagine the responsibility and social purpose of inclusion and social justice in the role of higher education in London and beyond.