Intersectionality & Workplace Discrimination

The barriers and discrimination faced by non-traditional tradesworkers are complex, and finding solutions that truly empower all workers means using an intersectional lens to understand the people and environment around us.

“Intersectionality is an analytical framework for understanding how aspects of a person’s identity combine to create different modes of discrimination and privilege. It’s a lens to see where power collides; how it interlocks and intersects with systems of oppression.”

Kimberlé Crenshaw

Intersectionality is a word that gets a lot of attention without a lot of context, so it’s worth taking a look back on its legal history and continued relevance.

last hired, first fired

The term was coined by Kimberlé Crenshaw in her article Demarginalizing the Intersections of Race and Sex which analyzed the DeGraffenreid v General Motors (1976) court decision. In this case, the plaintiffs were Black women suing their employer (General Motors) for discriminatory “last hired, first fired” policies.

The plaintiffs argued that they as Black women were less likely to be hired, and therefore also the most vulnerable to being fired. 

The court ruled against the plaintiffs.

By finding that white women were hired regularly into administrative positions and Black men were employed on the factory floor, the court determined that the General Motors hiring practices were neither sexist or racist.

This ruling created a legal precedent that discrimination lawsuits could only address a single system of marginalization at a time, never combined aspects of discrimination that would require a legal “super-remedy”.

super remedy

A super remedy is the combination of legal remedies used to combat the harm caused when multiple systems of discrimination intersect.

We know the lived experiences of most workers involve multiple intersections of identity, and workplaces evolve to the ecosystem(s) of power they exist within. 

Each intersection of marginalized identities comes with a higher risk of discrimination, making it difficult to know which system of discrimination caused the harm. The legal system that creates and enforces discrimination practices needs an intersectional framework to conceptualize and respond to the complexity of overlapping systems of discrimination.

Our current institutions center the intersections of privilege, which means that truly radical solutions will center the intersections of vulnerability.

non-traditional tradesworkers

The skilled trades have historically been dominated by straight, cis, white men and workplace harassment in these environments often targets individuals who are most divergent from this norm.

Communities of color, queer and trans folks, and women working in these industries are often subject to both explicit harassment as well as less visible forms of discrimination and erasure.

The trades offer secure jobs, empowering skill-based work, and a path to financial stability — things that should be  accessible to all workers. 

The Reckoning Trade Project mission is to strengthen the support and advocacy network for the most marginalized workers in the trades, with the understanding that this will create a safer and more supportive work environment for everyone.

additional resources

Professor Crenshaw’s article launched the conversation around intersectionality in the 70’s, but she’s put in decades of contributions since. 

Watch her 2016 TedTalk below, The Urgency of Intersectionality.

You should also check out the Intersectionality Matters Podcast with Kimberlé Crenshaw presented by the African American Policy Forum.

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