Courtney P. Benjamin, PhD Candidate, Washington State University
Knowledge, power, identity. What do these words mean to STEM? As a STEM education researcher, I’d say a lot. More so, as a Black woman, a mother, and a feminist who studies critical STEM education, I’d say they mean everything. See what happened there? Providing more information about who I am and how I view myself and the world contextualized the question I led with, and what’s important to me in STEM contexts. My social location and identity contribute a way of knowing and reading the world from a unique vantage point. The nexus of my (varied) identities is one of innovation, creation, and dare I say, a location of truth because of who I am as a person. While there is an inkling of a debate about identity politics in science, I contend we must know and speak to who we are as researchers and give greater concern to the “who” of the students we work with in STEM contexts. As Ed Yong, science journalist and writer for The Atlantic was quoted on Twitter,“[T]he people who we are affect the science that we do.”
Who is this “you” that is doing the hard work in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics research? This question is important because “who” is doing this work, has implications for what questions you ask, whom you consider—and those you do not—and how you approach the most pressing questions in STEM today. “Who” is also at the heart of Intersectionality theory. Intersectionality theory is concerned with the mutually constitutive relations among multiple social identities. We can think of multiple identities as a process of recognition amongst a series of differences(Nealon & Giroux, 2012).These differences can be straight, gay, white, Black, and more, and these differences are cultural locations within which our identities lie. Using myself as an example, designing programs for “women in STEM” may fall in the void between my being Black *and* woman. In the words of Crenshaw (1990/2009), “when one discourse [of identity or difference] fails to acknowledge the significance of the other, the power relations that each attempt to challenge are strengthened” (p. 236).
Therefore, if we are to broaden participation for girls and women in STEM, we need to nuance our approach, to pay attention to the myriad connections of personhood and social life that affect us in these spaces. Intersectionality can help us achieve this. Intersectionality theory has become a central tenet of feminist thinking. Social scientists have suggested it is the most important contribution of feminist theory to our present understanding of gender. Intersectionality is so crucial to how we think about solutions for girls and women in STEM, that the NSF requires every ADVANCE proposal speak to how the concept will be applied in proposed studies. It is for these reasons that I discuss below three ways Intersectionality theory is critical in STEM education research, and how it can help us predict a future that is female intersectional.
1. It can disrupt the status quo
Intersectionality theory is rooted in Black critical feminist scholarship. It was coined in 1991 by UCLA lawyer + professor + activist Kimberlé Crenshaw, who argued that feminist and antiracist discourses of the time failed to consider intersectional identities, namely, leaving women of color’s experiences and voices marginalized and silenced. For example, feminist research was primarily conducted for and by white women, often resulting in an essentialized view of womanhood. Antiracist research regularly centered the Black male experience, thus experiences of women of color were neglected (Harrison, 2015). When it comes to STEM education research, are there areas that essentialize or universalize the voices of girls? Women? While certainly well-meaning, are there solutions that are promoted that tend to reflect a world view that cannot possibly speak for, in this case, a growing majority of youth? Intersectionality theory can decenter middle-class, educated, and white-male centered experiences and refocus on areas where inequality, dominance, and oppression may be reproduced. It provides a critical way for us to think about identity and its relationship to power in STEM contexts, and most importantly, how status quo can be disrupted in these contexts.
2. It can affirm the experiences of women and girls
Ever notice how many solutions to gender equity in STEM speak from a deficit perspective? Whether it’s in using the ubiquitous deficit model to explain women’s lack of representation in faculty ranks, or in speaking to “achievement gaps” between girls, boys, or students of color in K-12 math classrooms, deficit theories do damage. Deficit perspectives perpetuate the idea that girls and women lack some sort of “capital” or social power that their male counterparts inherently possess. As Sandra Acker (1980), long renowned for her work in feminist theory and organizational contexts, says of deficit theories, “the problem is seen only as explaining why the subordinate group fails to resemble the dominant group in some way.” The opportunity to approach STEM equity, as Patricia Hill Collins (2015) says, with “fresh eyes” is prudent. Intersectionality theory requires us to go deeper and nuance our approach to unveiling systems that affect not just girls or women in general, but students of color, people from differing SES, students with disabilities, people who identify as gay, trans, queer or nonbinary, and even boys and men in STEM. Intersectional analyses can help researchers identify in context categories of identity and cultural processes that support and affirm women and girls in STEM environments.
3. It can ensure job security (don’t quote me on this one!)
As researchers, we are incredibly adept at asking the hard questions, and are elated when even one of those hard questions can lead us to an answer of some sort. And in this realm, we know our livelihood is based on there never being any easy answer, no silver bullets, if you will. Here is where Intersectionality theory can ensure you job security. Inevitably, intersectional analyses will unveil more questions than answers. Intersectional frameworks rely on specific identity categories even as the framework itself attempts to blur the lines to indicate interlocking identities. And, the constant interaction (for instance, Asian + woman + lesbian) generalizes to and validates only the disarray of social life, and may perhaps render some programs, policies and procedures superficial. We live in a very binary, black/white, up/down, difference/similarity world; it truly is how most of us in the Western hemisphere have been taught to think about and make sense of things. Intersectionality theory provides a way to look at how our different identities intersect to make things a bit messy, and this does have real implications in efforts to broaden STEM participation.
Research indicates that diverse perspectives are essential to the trajectory of STEM and STEM education research. CADRE published a paper in 2018 that detailed the use of novel theoretical approaches to broadening participation in STEM that attends to this goal. Intersectionality was named as one framework that could assist researchers in examining the interconnected and overlapping systems that may hinder efforts to full STEM participation. And, a recent publication written by a former CADRE Postdoc and colleague uses Intersectional theory to analyze STEM identity development and engagement of Black women, highlighting the affirming and positive implications of gender and race in this context. Using Intersectionality theory to analyze the experiences of women and girls in STEM is thus an invitation to move beyond one’s own research comfort zone. It implores us as researchers to consider the history, context, and performance of our identities in relation to other people in order to disrupt the status quo in STEM. It’s an opportunity for us to collaborate with others who do not think like us, who have a totally different life experience and perspective, and incorporate varied approaches to affirming the experiences of women and girls in STEM. Finally, the application of Intersectionality theory to our work as STEM education researchers is virtually endless, inviting us to get (un)comfortable with the messy and the infinite questions, yet excited for what a socially just, intersectional STEM community looks like for our future.
Acker, J. R. (1980). Women and stratification: A review of recent literature. Contemporary sociology, 9(1), 25-35.
Collins, P. H. (2015). Science, critical race theory and colour-blindness. British Journal of Sociology, 66(1), 46-52.
Crenshaw, K. (2009). Mapping the margins: Intersectionality, Identity politics, and violence against women of color. In E. Taylor, D. Gillborn, and G. Billings-Tate (Eds.) Foundations of Critical Race Theory (pp. 213-247). New York, NY: Routledge. (Original work published 1990)
Harrison, L. (2015). Redefining intersectionality theory through the lens of African American young adolescent girls’ racialized experiences. Youth & Society, pp. 1-17.
Nealon, J., Nealon, J. T., & Giroux, S. S. (2012). The theory toolbox: Critical concepts for the humanities, arts, and social sciences. Rowman & Littlefield Publishers.
Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation.