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Social life, work life, personal identities and other lenses researchers and economists use to understand the world around us are complex and fascinating topics to dig into.
But the data and definitions we rely on often divide identities into categories such as sex, gender, age, race, ethnicity, socio-economic status, sexuality, ability, religion, migration status and geography—categories that can hide complex inequities and privileges.
We know that labour market information (LMI) in Canada can be better and more inclusive. At LMIC, we believe that incorporating an intersectional perspective into our research allows for a more inclusive, comprehensive analysis of the diverse experiences of people with multiple and intersecting identities.
We’re not the only organization concerned with this: there is a growing commitment among governments, policy-makers and researchers in Canada and elsewhere to better understand the multifactorial, multi-level complexities of the human experience. In 2021, many of Canada’s cabinet ministers, including the Minister of Labour, received mandate letters that framed the importance of an intersectional lens to the development of research agendas and public policy.
But what is intersectionality, and how can we apply it to improve labour market information and labour market research?
What is intersectionality?
Intersectionality offers a framework1 for examining intersecting systems of oppression. It was developed to describe analytic approaches that consider the meanings and consequences of multiple categories of social group membership and the ways in which systems of inequality (based on gender, race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, gender identity, ability, class and other forms of discrimination) “intersect” to create unique dynamics and effects (Runyan, 2018).
Theories of intersectionality suggest that a person’s many overlapping social identities can define their social status and influence their impressions and behaviours.2
According to Collins (2015), “… race, class, gender, sexuality, ethnicity, nation, ability, and age operate not as unitary, mutually exclusive entities, but rather as reciprocally constructing phenomena.” In other words, social statuses, positions and other distinctions are multi-dimensional. An individual’s experiences of privilege or oppression, discrimination and opportunity are the result of the combination of these statuses and positions (Savaş et al., 2021).
Conceptually, intersectionality emerged from several moments in Black feminism as well as from Latina, post-colonial, queer and Indigenous scholars. Early works of Black feminists—such as Sojourner Truth (1851) and the Combahee River Collective (1977) (a group of Black feminists who described the impact of sexism and racism)—set the stage for Kimberlé Crenshaw, the American feminist and critical legal race scholar who coined the term intersectionality in 1989.
How intersectionality helps us understand complex social experiences
Three common assumptions underpin intersectionality as a concept (Richman & Zucker, 2019):
- All people are characterized by multiple, intertwined social categories.
- Each of these categories carries inequality or power.
- These categories apply to an individual person, but are also characteristics of the social context in which that person lives, so may be fluid.
For example, theories of intersectionality hold that (Collins, 1999):
- Experiences of gender are always influenced by all aspects of an individual’s social position.
- Gender cannot really be defined without other points of reference.
- Through the intersection of categories, a person can experience both dominance and oppression simultaneously.
Savaş et al. (2021) provide the following example to illustrate how intersectionality understands that experiences of social categories (in this, case gender) are always influenced by all other aspects of an individual’s social position (like race and class)—just as experiences of race and class are constituted in part through each other and through gender:
… the definition of masculinity for white middle-class men (e.g., as decisive, competent, and protective) is different from that of black middle-class men (e.g., as strong and dangerous) or white working-class men (e.g., as hard-working and angry). In this example, masculinity is constituted through race and class.
In this example, race is gendered and gender is racialized: race and gender fuse to create unique experiences and opportunities for all groups.
This example illustrates not only how individuals are characterized by numerous inextricably and indivisibly linked and mutually constructing social categories, but also how single-axis thinking (e.g., analyzing gender alone or analyzing race alone) cannot adequately describe lived experience, particularly for people who embody multiple minority statuses.
As Elisabeth Spelman (1988) famously argued, people cannot discern the “woman part” from the “African-American part” or the “middle-class part.”
How intersectionality can improve labour market information
In the context of labour market information research, an intersectional lens can improve both the quality and relevance of LMI by providing a more nuanced understanding of the experiences of different groups in the labour market.
While intersectionality has long been considered a primary theoretical and methodological tool for qualitative research, intersectional approaches can enhance the value and validity of quantitative research(Else-Quest & Hyde, 2016).3
Although intersectional analysis is currently underutilized by LMI researchers, it can improve how we identify disparities, help us understand barriers, highlight diverse labour market experiences and outcomes, and perhaps even lead to targeted interventions. For example:
Intersectional analysis can help researchers identify disparities that may be hidden when looking at a single factor alone.
For example, looking at gender alone may show that women are paid less than men, but an intersectional analysis shows that the pay gap is even wider for women of color or women with disabilities.
Intersectional analysis can help researchers understand the unique barriers that different groups face in accessing employment opportunities.
For example, a person's gender identity or sexual orientation may affect their ability to find work in certain industries or regions.
Intersectional analysis can help researchers highlight the diverse experiences of different groups in the labour market.
For example, looking at the experiences of women as a homogenous group may overlook the experiences of women who are also racial minorities, immigrants or members of the LGBTQI2S+ community. An intersectional lens can bring attention to important differences within population groups that are often portrayed as relatively homogenous, such as women, men, newcomers, Indigenous people, and visible minorities.
An intersectional perspective can uncover the limitations and exclusionary nature of traditional methods of policy development.
An intersectional perspective recognizes that, to address complex inequities, a one-size-fits-all approach does not work. Intersectional analysis can help researchers develop targeted interventions that address the specific challenges faced by different groups in the labour market. For example, an intervention designed to address the pay gap for women may need to be tailored differently for women of different races or abilities.
The way forward
Incorporating an intersectional perspective into labour market research can enrich our understanding by allowing for a more nuanced, inclusive and comprehensive analysis of the diverse experiences of workers with multiple and intersecting identities.
Traditional labour market research has tended to practice single-axis thinking—analyzing or exploring only one social identity at a time—and has, as a result, overlooked the ways in which intersecting social identities shape individuals’ experiences in the labour market.
LMIC’s mission is to empower Canadians to make informed decisions by enabling access to quality, relevant, comprehensive data and insights across the pan-Canadian labour market information ecosystem. Identifying aspects of stigma, prejudice, discrimination and inequitable labour market outcomes for particular groups is just one way in which LMIC can improve the accessibility of labour market information across Canada.
Adopting an intersectional perspective will help us, as researchers, to identify and examine complex intersections and better understand how they affect access to employment, job quality and career advancement. It will also move LMIC closer to its goal of providing labour market information and insights that respect the diverse perspectives and needs of all people in Canada.
For these reasons and many others, LMIC is committed to conducting intersectional research.
1 Across disciplines, scholars remain divided as to whether intersectionality constitutes a research/analytic approach, a framework, a theory or hypothesis, or some combination of these (Else-Quest & Hyde, 2016).
2 It is important to note that there is no definitive definition of intersectionality, and although definitions share a focus on the complex and interconnected nature of social identities and experiences—and on attributes such as gender, race, class and the power conferred by social categories—they also differ in nontrivial ways. For a review of some common definitions and understandings of intersexuality, see Else-Quest & Hyde (2016).
3 While there are very few standard practices for intersectional statistical analysis, multiple methods have been proposed, including conventional methods, such as regression models or cross-tabulation analyses stratifying measures of central tendency by intersectional groups (Bauer et al., 2021).
Bauer, G. R., Churchill, S. M., Mahendran, M., Walwyn, C., Lizotte, D., & Villa-Rueda, A. A. (2021). Intersectionality in quantitative research: A systematic review of its emergence and applications of theory and methods. SSM-population health, 14, 100798.
Browne, I., & Misra, J. (2003). The intersection of gender and race in the labor market. Annual review of sociology, 29(1), 487–513.
Collins, P. H. (1999). Moving beyond gender: Intersectionality and scientific knowledge. Revisioning Gender, ed. M. F. Ferree. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage, 261–84.
Else-Quest, N. M., & Hyde, J. S. (2016). Intersectionality in quantitative psychological research: I. Theoretical and epistemological issues. Psychology of Women Quarterly, 40(2), 155–170.
Richman, L. S., & Zucker, A. N. (2019). Quantifying intersectionality: An important advancement for health inequality research. Social Science & Medicine, 226, 246–248.
Savaş, Ö., Greenwood, R. M., Blankenship, B. T., Stewart, A. J., & Deaux, K. (2021). All immigrants are not alike: Intersectionality matters in views of immigrant groups. Journal of Social and Political Psychology, 9(1), 86–104.
Spelman, E. (1990). Inessential Woman: Problems of Exclusion in Feminist Thought. Beacon Press.
Dr. Suzanne Spiteri is a sociologist with several years of experience in both qualitative and mixed-methods data analysis. She leads labour-related projects that explore labour market tightness and the labour market outcomes of under-represented groups.