Exploring intersectionality: what does it look like for IIED and our partners?

A recent learning lunch at IIED prompted Rosalind Goodrich to reflect on how we and our partners understand and address complex and interconnected inequalities in our research and beyond.

Rosalind Goodrich's picture
Insight by 
Rosalind Goodrich
Rosalind Goodrich is head of research communications at IIED
06 January 2021
Woman with jerrycans and two donkeys.

The intersection of gender with social characteristics that shape systems of oppression needs to be acknowledged by researchers. For example, IIED worked in Ethiopia to understand how climate resilience projects work towards gender equality (Photo: Michael Swan via FlickrCC BY-ND 2.0)

In April 2020, IIED adopted a new gender equality policy – one that challenges us to look at gender and how it interacts with other social characteristics such as age, disability, wealth and ethnicity to shape systems of privilege and oppression. In other words, to look at gender equality through a lens of intersectionality.

So far, so good – and a step up from our previous gender manifesto. But this new approach immediately threw up the question of how confident people in the institute are about what intersectionality means and how they should use it in their work.

IIED’s gender equality policy applies to how we operate both in the UK and wherever we are doing our research. It’s also relevant to how we design research. We want to make sure we become more aware and can take account of the intersectional issues at play in a situation and their relationship to gender equality.

On the research question, we realised we needed a short programme of discussions, supported by learning materials, to build staff knowledge. During these discussions we would hear from colleagues and from external specialists.

The first event took place recently – an informal lunchtime conversation where IIED researchers working on projects in Ethiopia, Tanzania and Zanzibar talked about the issues this work raised as much for relationships with partners as for research design.

In Ethiopia, for example, we have worked with the Irish Embassy to understand how climate resilience-oriented projects are achieving gender equality outcomes. This work used a realist synthesis approach, examining the mechanisms – rationales, reasonings, beliefs and so on at different levels – that can hinder and trigger outcomes.

Thinking through the issues – with partners too

The lunchtime discussion raised some significant issues that need further thought and working through. To what extent, for example, is it right for IIED to challenge oppressive behaviours that an intersectional approach might unearth? Is it an imposition too far, possibly causing cultural disruption as a result? Should we simply observe and use what we’ve seen to inform future research?

There was general agreement that we should do more to recognise these behaviours and issues, and that IIED could support partners in how they choose to address them. In some situations, there may be competing issues at play, and we must consider carefully how – or whether – countervailing responses resolve inequalities; it is too easy to make situations worse and put partners and other people at risk.

For instance, researchers recounted how unequal power dynamics between young women and older men played out before them in a workshop that was part of a project in Northern Tanzania exploring the gender and generational impacts of climate hazards.

A traditional marriage in the community at the time of the workshop led to heated discussions between different groups about rights and privileges, demonstrating how raw and personal these issues can be for the people and partners we work with.

Making sure that we have the skills to be consistent in recognising and reducing the impacts of intersectional characteristics on gender equality through integrating appropriate responses in our research design is a first step.

But that in itself highlights another question: which intersectional issues should we focus on? Are we considering age and gender too much when we focus on young people and women, to the detriment of seeing the impact of a wider range of characteristics? Is that focus driven too much by donors and not enough by the reality on the ground? Or is just that we must start somewhere?

Inevitably, during this discussion, more questions were raised than were answered. But we have started a healthy conversation and will keep it going, with further events being planned.

We are open to learning and to changing our approach so that we can realise our ambition of reducing inequalities and achieving transformational change.