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Untangling inequalities: why power and intersectionality are essential concepts

January 12, 2018
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Guest post from Fenella Porter, Oxfam’s Gender Policy Advisorfenella-porter-profile-picture3-w300

In the small and rather quirky Chapel of the House of St. Barnabas in Soho, a group of UK civil society representatives gathered together to have a conversation about inequality. After having been in many discussions recently which have struggled to extend the understanding of inequality beyond wealth, what was interesting in this forum was that wealth inequality was understood more as an underlying context. We were talking about inequalities (and there were many of them) in the context of austerity and increasing wealth inequalities in our society.

Essentially we were talking about intersectionality, which is a long word; and power, which is a big idea. If we are to understand inequality in the context of increasing wealth inequalities, then using an intersectional lens helps to explain how people experience inequality according to different – intersecting – aspects of their identity. No one, for example, is just poor, or just working class, or just a woman or just a disabled person. There is also no hierarchy of inequality, where some forms of inequality ‘trump’ others. Each person experiences a combination of inequalities differently, and these will shape how each person responds in different situations.

CSFs conversations logoWhilst the focus was on austerity in the UK, there are important lessons for thinking about the intersection of different inequalities in every country and region. When we consider for example how important it is to campaign for publicly funded mental health services for young people, many in the room might consider this to be unproblematic. But using an intersectional analysis makes clear that peoples’ experiences of mental health services have been very different, for different communities. Black and Minority Ethnic (BAME) communities in the UK, for example, have experienced mental health services as sites of discrimination and crisis. Migrant communities also have a different experience of public institutions such as health services, with immigration status a crucial factor in peoples’ health-seeking behaviour. The gendered nature of access to public institutions such as health services is also hugely important, as women’s access will depend not just on the presence of these services, but also on the quality of care they get, and the ‘informal’ power that might be exerted by being asked to communicate in an unfamiliar language, for example. In campaigning for public funds, in order not to increase the sense of discrimination some have felt in these ‘public institutions’, those of us advocating for continued public funding must also understand the experience of different communities and actively bring them into the conversation about what a publicly funded health service looks like and feels like for different communities.

And this brings us to the notion of power in civil society. The Civil Society Futures conversation recognised that civil intersectionalitysociety itself is not a level playing field. Different communities and their organisations can exert and maintain power in their relationships with others, based on established ideas of privilege. Oxfam, for example, occupies a position of considerable power in the landscape of civil society, as a large, relatively well-funded organisation, with very high ‘brand value’. This power does not just manifest itself in financial terms. It is also a question of how knowledge and ‘expertise’ is attributed and claimed.  There is real knowledge and understanding generated by small, community-based organisations, or perhaps organisations representing communities shaped by multiple inequalities, but this knowledge can often be overlooked or smothered in a relationship with larger organisations. It is crucial that we all understand that working in civil society partnership involves recognising and addressing the unequal power relationships between different civil society organisations, as well as in communities, and the broader context in which they are struggling to bring about change.

This is an aspect of the development landscape that concerns many smaller women’s rights organisations, for whom the funding landscape is becoming increasingly narrowly defined, and dependent on consortia relationships with much larger organisations who often do not have the same focus on how women might experience inequality differently. And so complexities like the different experiences of public institutions are rarely at the centre of the work of larger, more powerful, organisations. We do not (yet) actively seek that focus and that knowledge.

intersectionality lordequoteCivil society in the UK, and in other contexts, will in the future need to create a much better understanding of people, communities and the organisations which represent them – and how this understanding can help to change the way we work, and the way we represent the interests of poor and vulnerable communities. It will be particularly important to sharpen the focus on intersectionality when understanding how different aspects of inequality might shape the experience of public institutions, and civil society space. This conversation needs to continue to be central to our work as civil society organisations of whatever size and whatever power. It will be interesting to see what emerges.



  1. Intersectionality scares me. The fundamental power difference is between the rich and the poor. Defining ‘the rich’ is vague, but if we say the top 10% in terms of wealth, the other 90% should be able to unite to offset the power of their wealth with our power in numbers – especially when we each get a vote in our own country.

    Intersectionality may be important at the detailed level – boys and children from a poor background do worse at state schools etc but the educational, health and other services that almost all of us use fundamentally need more money from taxes on the wealthy and global corporations. A slightly different focus on how the current level of money is spent will let us all down. If there is not enough money in health services then no-one will get adequate care. Globally the range of inequality is far bigger and unity is even more essential.

    Intersectionality takes the group of 90% of non-rich people and splits it into ever smaller groups. The first to be alienated from the campaign (in the UK) will probably be white men, then not-poor women or well educated men of colour. Finally, instead of the political discourse being fundamentally a discussion of how to take wealth and power from the elite to the advantage of all, the political space is full of spats about who is most disadvantaged, or complaints that a millionaire female tennis player doesn’t have as much prize money as a millionaire male tennis player.

    The main problem isn’t a lack of fairness in dividing up the pie, the problem is that the public pie isn’t big enough.

  2. Just wondering … what is the focus of the conversation? a state of permanent equalities and in what? are they natural or earned? Is it pragmatic/realistic goal? Isn’t it better to discuss “intersectionality” in the desired equalities –as the goal of humankind & make clear what it means? I agree with Pete’s observation — any pie to which the public is entitled to is never & will never be big enough to accommodate all. Hence the need to define/ disaggregate this desired “equalities” in “intersectional” terms as described. Today in some developing/3rd world societies, “equality” as understood from the western ideology is a birthright, God-given, inherent to humanity, enjoyed without consideration nor qualification. Consequently, those with greater opportunities/ potentials/means (righteous or not), get ahead & constitute the elite (the 10% at the top of the socio-economic pyramid) while the remaining 90% wallow in inequalities in varying intersectionalities (as described). This paradigm make for mutually exclusive relationships that continue to nurture the inequalities. Most elements of the 90% are the laid-back, passive, dependent “mendicants” waiting to be handed their natural rights to basic needs etc,, while others are fighting out within & among themselves like crabs (apologies to the delicious crustaceans) in a pail, pulling down to the bottom anyone who tries to clamber up and out & be free. And instead of a democracy founded on responsibilities of the citizenry (as productive citizens who contribute to a socio-eco-political order for an enabling environment & playing field that promote human rights & the dignity of every individual), a society that reward opportunism by anyone — breeding other kinds of intersectional inequalities that prey among its kind. It makes 2 or more to create inequalities and it is not one side at fault all of the time.

  3. I think the 2 first comments are slightly missing the point, the top 10% and the other 90% who get the crumbs is a useful analogy for a snappy campaign slogan but it doesn’t represent what is actually going on. I really like Fenela’s point on Oxfam holding significant power and the need to ensure that power enables the voice of those most marginalized. For Oxfam an intersectional kens is critical as without one the organisation will inadvertently be advocating on behalf of the top 60% of the bottom 90%, the other voices simply will not be heard. Efforts will assume they are representing the voices of all but won’t even recognize that the very nature of organizations like Oxfam are exclusive in themselves. The intersecting discrimination and oppression experienced by many marginalized communities mean they are shut out of the conversation. It’s less about in fighting that dilutes a unified message and more about the potential hypocrisy of those who advocate on others behalf’s without recognizing that their privilege is blinding them to the realities of others. So if u are the most marginalized u should be fired up, if u are lucky enough to advocating on their behalf, don’t get offended just listen, reflect and make space

    1. I thought this was a forum to share one’s own thoughts and not for judgment on which thought is right or wrong. Apologies, my mistake. Just thinking out loud & not speaking for anyone. There are enough civil society organizations (NGOs especially) out there & everywhere speaking in behalf of whoever. Thanks for the opportunity to reply Mr Geoff

  4. I use concept maps to visualize the same idea communicated in the graphic on this article.

    This shows that in any place, there are many different challenges/barriers that people with fewer resources struggle to overcome. I wonder how many communities have their own maps to visualize this for their community. Further, how many have a database that includes people representing each node on the spokes of the wheel? Or, how many are having success in bringing people representing each spoke into on-going conversation –on-line, or face-2-face, about problems and solutions that enable all of these issues to be addressed in each place where they are present?

    I agree that the pie is not large enough, and that through collective effort it might increase, but it will never be large enough. Thus, the collective needs to find ways to use resources more effectively.

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