On April 6th, an exciting event took place at the Hertie School of Governance in Berlin, the third edition of the “Cracking the Ceiling Conference”. This annual conference seeks to instigate debate and reflection on the relationship between gender and world transformations, having focused previously in topics such as Labour in the Global Economy (2017) and Digitalisation (2018). This year’s topic was “Policy Making in the Era of Intersectionality”. The agenda featured a keynote speech, a panel discussion, and three simultaneous workshops. The event started with a presentation of the Gender Equality and Sexuality Club of the Hertie School of Governance, whose engaged members were also responsible for organizing the event. Three Brandt School students coincidentally encountered each other at the conference, reflecting the high interest this topic arises among students, and have subsequently co-written this article.
The opening speech was held by Dr. Emilia Roig, founder of the Center for Intersectional Justice. Dr. Roig started her speech by noting how, ten years ago, while studying at the Hertie School, this conversation would have probably not even been possible and commended the existence of this type of initiative. She also introduced the concept of intersectionality as an analytical tool to understand discrimination beyond the binary concept of gender proposed by the mainstream feminist approach. This proposes to examine the interrelation between gender and other factors, such as class, race, and disability, as layers of discrimination that convey certain social implications. Furthermore, the intersectional approach proposes to focus not only on individual discrimination, but also acknowledges that discrimination is embedded in systems of oppression: patriarchy, classism, racism, ageism, and ableism, among others.
Therefore, to effectively fight discrimination, four dimensions need to be addressed: individual, institutional, structural, and historical. She highlighted how actual policy frameworks, including those in Europe, often refer only to individual discrimination by penalizing individual attacks and similar measures, while attempts to address structural, historical, and institutional discrimination are not conceived. This is because structural discrimination often implies structural privilege. Therefore, fighting discrimination goes beyond giving everyone the same opportunities in an unequal system (affirmative action), to further stopping that system of privilege. Differentiating between formal equality and the intersectional framework, Dr. Roig brilliantly closed her speech by stating that, before cracking the ceiling, we need to start fighting the sticky floors.
After the opening session, Dr. Roig, Dr. Petra Ahrens (from Femina Politica), Iris Rajanayagam (from Xart Splitta), and Vicky Truong (from We Are Not Same Same) joined a panel moderated by Prof. Başak Cali (from the Hertie School). First, the panel tried to understand what intersectionality is today. Additionally, addressing the points raised by Dr. Roig in her opening speech, the panel identified that intersectionality is more than a theoretical concept. It is also within us, in the mix of our different identities and as a part of our story.
They discussed how the term has become a “buzzword”, often being over-simplified and losing its political origins from the black women’s movement in the United States. In several cases, diversity has been considered a fundamental element in institutions, but the initial system that created those inequalities is not questioned. The example was raised, when a traditional male-dominated institution adopts a quota policy, it can end up with a balanced percentage of women members, while no meaningful measures are taken in order to address the structural reasons behind this gap. By taking into account the different links between systems of oppression, intersectionality is a powerful tool to avoid designing policies that only transfer previous inequalities to more marginalized groups. Such solutions improve the life of a specific population, but do not solve the root problem.
A common conclusion was that, despite being a hard and sometimes abstract concept to pinpoint, the framework finds clarity in the policymaking process as an opposition to the social and economic inequalities that often originate from the gendered division of work. In order to promote an equality intersectional policy, it is fundamental to consult your target public, work towards the empowerment of individuals, and, ideally, have a long-term funding.
In the afternoon, three parallel workshops were held: ‘Economic Justice and Intersectionality’, ‘Intersectionality at the Workplace’, and ‘Gender and Religion’.
In the workshop ‘Intersectionality at the Workplace’, led by WePerspective, participants were asked to draw an iceberg. On the small tip of the iceberg, we listed the traits that most people may perceive of us on the surface, while the remaining 70% were made up of who we really are. This exercise for self-reflection was followed by a presentation introducing the history and statistics of intersectionality in the world of employment. Studies have shown that, nowadays, people can still be discriminated in the recruitment process and at work; competence and credibility can be perceived differently based on their gender, nationality, age, etc. Even the language in job advertisements often contains underlying discriminations.
Participants then worked in groups to brainstorm concrete policies toward better hiring processes and meeting culture, and presented their results during an elevator pitch.
Attendees felt very inspired and motivated following the engaging conference and lively workshops. The WBS students who participated have even discussed the possibility of founding a Gender Club at the Brandt School. Interested readers may contact the authors if they would be interested in joining!