Intersectionality for Evaluation Professionals

by Sophie Nicholas

In this blog post, we hope to provide some food-for-thought on how to incorporate intersectionality more as a research or evaluation professional in the non profit sector. But before we dive into how to do intersectionality better, it’s important to know and understand what intersectionality is- and isn’t.

What is intersectionality?

Some think of intersectionality as a methodology for research; a theoretical lens; or a way of thinking about the world.

One explanation of intersectionality comes from ‘Disentagling Critical Disability Studies’ author Goodley, where intersectionality is described not simply as bringing together identity markers like disability, race, sex, age, economic position, but considering how different identities ‘support or unsettle the constitution of the other”.

Let’s take a common social bias: that disabled women are asexual or un-feminine. Arguably, this bias reaffirms the existence of rigid and sexist ideas of femininity and the female body as women who aren’t disabled are seen as an archetype for the female body (sexism). This bias simultaneously denies disabled women their freedom to be feminine, and to express themselves sexually in ways they value (ableism). And, this is just one of many examples of how intersectional identities experience distinct and multi-layered forms of discrimination and bias.

Crenshaw gives her seminal analogy of intersectionality, stemming from the black Feminist movement, asking readers to imagine traffic at an intersection. She explains how discrimination is like traffic, and gives the example of a black woman harmed both for being black and/or female. Her injuries due to discrimination (or traffic in Crenshaw’s analogy), could be as a result of discrimination based on sex, on race, or both.

In evaluation and research, what an intersectional approach tends to have in common, no matter how defined, is at least some of the following considerations:

1. Considering bias- within society, as an individual, as part of a group 

(In what ways might I be biassed as a researcher with X background/identity/language/opinions?)

2. Questioning how social identities and structures interact and change each other 

(Has X person experienced this programme activity the same as X person? Have they experienced the same barriers?)

3. Challenging dominant forms of thought as natural truths 

(Does X language or X approach actually benefit everyone? Why is this belief held?)

4. Questioning power dynamics and structural inequities

(How might my evaluation processes be reinforcing unfair power dynamics or structural inequities? E.g. my survey is in English in a context where English is not the first language)

5. Embracing complex narratives and being open to multi-faceted experiences

(How can I share my findings in a thematic way whilst making sure I illustrate unique opinions of underrepresented individuals?)

What it’s not

Hopefully you have a clearer understanding of what intersectionality is and what it can mean for people – but it’s also important to be clear on what intersectionality isn’t to avoid harm coming to any stakeholders during your evaluation work.

First, taking an intersectional approach shouldn’t be boiled down to labelling, or creating an environment of competition over aspects of identity. This kind of discourse is best to be avoided to prevent a competitive narrative and to prevent feelings of shame, guilt, and/or exclusion from whoever it is you’re conducting research or evaluation with.

Second, taking an intersectional lens in your work shouldn’t be a tick-box exercise. If in doubt about whether you are implementing it in a meaningful way, don’t go it alone. Read up on, and even consult with intersectional feminists, actvists, writers, and thinkers, and learn how to sincerely and meaningfully implement this lens into your evaluation process.

What is means to consider intersectionality in evaluation

To consider contextual intersections deeply, and actually adapt research or evaluative processes to make sure your target demographic/s/communities are represented, heard and meaningfully involved- is to be intersectional. So, in the beginnings of any evaluative process, making sure a diversity of identities is at the table is crucial in your methodology and planning.

One of the most important steps in evaluation in this sense is to conduct a context review where you’re working, taking the time to include ‘intersectionality’ as well as a mix of identity markers e.g. gender, ethnicity, age etc. in your reading search as keywords, and making sure you have a holistic, contextualised, and multi-layered picture of the project or programme you’re evaluating. 

Second, ask local communities, those with lived experience of the issue or theme you are exploring, and/or feminist, activist, grassroots and local experts to guide you with gaps you might be missing in your methodology or appraoch, in questioning your own assumptions, and ideally, to lead and/or facilitate aspects of the research.

The best-case scenario for an intersectional evaluator would be to learn from, share with, and make accessible to the best of your ability, the evaluative process with diverse groups and those with lived experience of the issue or theme you aim to explore. Plus, if possible in your timeframe and budget, having members of this group at the table, leading in the process of design, collection, analysis, and dissemination. In short, taking a foundational approach by building on people’s lived experience from the very beginning.

In terms of qualitative research, this might involve focus groups, sessions and meetings with lived experience stakeholders, interviews e.g.- but with questions that allow for intersectional exploration which means asking specifically and sensitively about the experiences of those from different identity groups.

However you go about collecting data, to be intersectional, one approach is for data to be disaggregated by relevant identity markers (depending on the context and stakeholders you are working with). Let’s take surveys. If you send out a survey asking for opinions and experiences of a programme’s impact without disaggregating data, you may be unable to tell of any intersecting discrimination or stories that sit at these intersections as a result of focusing on singular aspects of identity. You might risk missing, ignoring, or devaluing people’s experiences. 

After all, intersectionality is committing to making sure those who are most marginalised are front and centre.

It’s for everyone!

Intersectionality is for everyone – not only your stakeholders. Evaluators, researchers, NGOs and other organisations also have a lot to gain. Adopting an intersectional lens is like opening doors into lots of worlds; worlds that allow for a more holistic, richer and more nuanced evaluation of impact. Alongside your board members, funders, partners, and staff, it also holds you accountable to your genuine stakeholders.

An intersectional lens can help lived-experienced stakeholders and their supporting organisations flourish, providing a breath of fresh air to theoretical and methodological framing. Ultimately, it can better your evaluation work, making sure the positive outcomes and impacts you hope to achieve are truly beneficial to all. 

Want more information?

Check out these resources on intersectionality and research

Intersectional Approaches to Research

Intersectional Approach to Data

Intersectionality: A Tool for Gender and Economic Justice

bell hooks: Feminism is for everybody

Towards gender transformative change

Be sure to read our blog: Top tips for getting the most out of that evaluation report

Rights Evaluation Studio provides a range of services including project design, strategy, monitoring, evaluation and impact assessment. Please get in touch if you would like to discuss how we can help you to review, update or develop monitoring and evaluation systems that work for your organisation.

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