Saying that everyone is equal is unhelpful and blinkered. By acknowledging power dynamics we can help to build better services by making sure that the right people are heard and valued.
I was in a service assessment and fighting back tears. After 2 hours, the assessment had reached the design section. I was the only designer from my team present. According to assessment protocol, any questions in this section would be answered by the service owner or me. But that wasn’t happening. The design assessor kept locking eyes with the user researcher and product owner and directing questions at them.
Why wasn’t I allowed to speak?
Was it because:
- I was sitting well to the left of the assessor, which as a right handed person might have made it harder for him to make eye contact?
- I’d run the demo so looked more like the tech person?
- the user researcher and product manager had already got to speak a lot and were perceived as the experts?
- I was a woman (as was the service owner) whereas the design assessor, user researcher and product manager were men?
- I was not posh and relatively young (as was also the case for the service manager?)
I managed to hold back my tears of frustration. The service owner tried to give me a chance to speak but wasn’t listened to either.
After the session the service owner and I shared our disbelief at what had happened. However, the user researcher hadn’t noticed. When I pointed it out : “oh yeah, that was weird”.
I now understand that that feeling of being marginalised due to compounding reasons – reasons that others completely missed – is the lived experience captured by intersectionality.
Unravelling power dynamics through intersectionality
Intersectionality is an analytic framework that gives us a canvas to talk about how our backgrounds give us more or less privilege.
In her excellent book Introducing Intersectionality, Mary Romero defines intersectionality as:
“a sociological concept for unraveling the complexities of systems of power … [focusing] on the intersection of … various forms of oppression as they actually exist in our daily lives. ”Romero (2013), p35
The phrase is generally believed to have been coined by critical race theorist and lawyer Kimberlé Crenshaw who first used it in an article in 1989. She used intersectionality to highlight how black women filing legal discrimination cases fell between the cracks of sexim or racism. Their cases weren’t just about racism, as not all black people were discriminated against. They also weren’t just just about sexism, as not all women were discriminated against. Instead, the black women experienced both forms of discrimination at the same time.
Crenshaw used the word ‘intersectionality’ to evoke collision and injury:
Discrimination, like traffic through an intersection, may flow in one direction, and it may flow in another. If an accident happens in an intersection, it can be caused by cars traveling from any number of directions and, sometimes, from all of them. Similarly, if a Black woman is harmed because she is in the intersection, her injury could result from sex discrimination or race discrimination.Crenshaw (1989), p149
In this way, intersectionality is different from inclusion and diversity:
Celebrating difference for the sake of inclusion does not dismantle the everyday practices of privilege or oppression. Intersectionality is not concerned with “diversity” or “multiculturalism” but with power relationships, specifically the ways in which difference embeds domination and oppression”.Romero (2013), p35
There are many examples available in books and online about how this plays out in the world. These lanes of discrimination can include:
- Gender or sex
- Job role
- Job status
- Mental and physical health
- Communication style
- Family commitments and support
In a service team, aside from my service assessment experience, this could translate examples such as:
- A young looking service manager with a regional accent who is taken more seriously when she dresses formally
- A softly spoken content designer who is also a solo parent, and notices that more social and outgoing designers progress faster
- A tester (QA) who has dark skin and wears a hijab, who has her competency challenged more than other testers
Things to ask yourself and your service team about power dynamics
Intersectionality is about making power dynamics visible so that they can be acknowledged. To do this, I’ve created an alpha two sets of questions based on my reading and my own experiences in government. The first set is about unravelling power dynamics you experience so that you can understand in what ways you are privileged or . The second is how you as a team can talk about these themes collectively and consider what to do next.
I have split these into skills, the organisation, and individuals. This is similar to the diversity wheel that talks about internal, external, and organisational dimensions. However I try and allow for discussions about power individually and as a team.
How a team can do this will depend on the comfort of the team with talking about things.
If there’s any concern that there may be power imbalances
I’d suggest that the team do the two parts individually and anonymously. Then an impartial person can review and replay the results for discussion. The impartial person could be a delivery manager, practice lead or someone else not directly related to the group.
If the team does have good psychological safety
If the team is confident that they can talk about power dynamics, then they can:
- do the personal questionnaire on their own
- Share and discuss their results as a team
- then do the team section together
If you’re not sure
This is where a ‘safety check’ with the team may help – asking before ‘are you comfortable doing this as a team’ and letting people use post-its to say yes or no. If a single person says no, then do it anonymously.
Each section has two areas:
- The self-reflection questionnaire: use this to unpack your lived experience
- Team prompts: ideas of questions to unpack intersectionality, based on what I’ve seen in service teams
|Self-reflection questionnaire||Team prompts|
|My skills are recognised as a specialism||Do we value soft skills as much as hard skills and craft as much as strategy?|
|My role is recognised in the government service standard||Do we understand the value of roles not featured in the service manual?|
|I believe that my community of practice shows what good looks like||Do we know what good looks like for each skill set?|
|I can turn down work handed to me that is not my role||Do we know what work team members shouldn’t or don’t like to do?|
|Self-reflection questionnaire||Team prompts|
|The grade system is there but it does not get in the way of me getting what I need ||Do we understand how the government grade structure clashes with agile?|
|When a colleague’s work isn’t good enough and hurts mine, I feel comfortable to tell them privately||Do we enable people to have tough conversations to do good work?|
|I know that I will be supported if a different specialism’s performance hurts my work||Do communities of practice reward and punish behaviour appropriately?|
|I feel comfortable to talk to my manager when I’m having problems||Do we believe that our team members have the line management support that they need?|
|I know that other people’s work will not be given to me||Do we have explicit processes to assign and limit all work?|
|I feel comfortable owning up to my mistakes without fear of retribution||Do we have a culture of learning from our mistakes and sharing our insights from this learning?|
|Self-reflection questionnaire||Team prompts|
|People make space for my opinions and do not discount them or talk over me||Do we notice when our team members are discriminated against and counter it?|
|If I am under duress, I do not have to moderate my reactions more than my colleagues||Do we allow everyone to express stress emotions such anger and sadness if needed?|
|I can wear what I want and people believe I can do my job||Do we understand how what stereotypes our team members have to fight against?|
|I feel that I am protected from organisational politics||Which people’s experiences are worst? How will improving their experiences improve everyones?|
Summing up the areas:
- Self reflection questionnaire: If you got mostly yes- congratulations, you’re winning at power dynamics at work! But what about your colleagues? If you got some or more nos – you probably already knew this, but the question is, do your colleagues who got mostly yeses know?
- Team prompts: Have we been surprised about what we’ve learned? What can we do to address any of these power dynamics?
This is only a starting point. While some changes may be far bigger than a person or a team, having a language to be able to notice these power imbalances is a starting point to be able to make changes.
Microaction: practice allyship
For anyone with less power than you, help them be heard and not discriminated against. You can do this by:
- Making sure that person is given a chance to speak
- Making people understand the importance of their role
- Being mindful of the grade structure and when it may be necessary to use it
- Pushing for communities of practice to be transparent about both helping their members but also holding them to account
- Cultivating your knowledge of the lived experience of colleagues who aren’t like you
If people have other questions or actions that they do, let me know below or on Twitter. If anyone is interested in workshopping this in government, also get in contact as I’m keen to turn these into materials that people can use.
- What’s Intersectionality? Let These Scholars Explain the Theory and Its History – this TIME article is a quick start to how it emerged as a way to extend feminism to account for race
- Introducing Intersectionality (Short Introductions) by Mary Romeo – I found this a good start to understanding the concepts and the layers of intersectionality. (Available on Amazon)
- Demarginalizing the Intersection of Race and Sex: A Black Feminist Critique of Antidiscrimination Doctrine, Feminist Theory and Antiracist Politics, Kimberle Crenshaw. For any research nerds, this is the article seen to introduce the concept of intersectionality. (Available for free download.)