November 12, 2020

By: Aline Coutinho, Harshini Ramesh, John McNally, Madeleine McGillivray, & Mohsina Atiq


As Canada reckons with ongoing waves of COVID-19 and economies endure a climb until a vaccine is found, discussions about building back better post-COVID continue. The need and potential for an economic recovery to be both green and inclusive has been well-detailed by countless groups.

Identifying measures that advance both climate and equity objectives is hard, but essential and achievable. This blog introduces a framework to help policymakers apply an intersectional lens to these discussions. This framework can be used to identify opportunities that ensure a green recovery includes specific groups and appropriately accounts for diverse identities. It also allows for better targeted policy that helps those most affected by the pandemic play an essential role in growing prosperity for all Canadians.


What is intersectionality?

Intersectionality is a concept that argues that each person’s multiple identities ultimately shape their lived experiences, and how they are treated in the world. Originally introduced by Kimberle Crenshaw, she used the concept to explain why the experiences of black women were unique, because of how their identities – being both women and black – combined to shape their experiences in the world. Intersectionality argues that a person’s lived experiences cannot be fully understood by looking at each identity – gender, race, sexuality, ability, social class, age – separately. It argues that, in order to fully understand the barriers an individual faces in society, one must acknowledge that being a black woman means one faces different barriers than one would face by being a black man, or a white woman.

This key concept in intersectionality – that each person’s identity is more than one thing, and this combination of identities is what shapes how we interact with the world – has been used to better understand key realities. First, how race and gender shape life experiences (structural intersectionality). Second, how attempting to further the rights of a community by treating everyone identically can harm a subgroup within that community, who may face additional barriers to equality (political intersectionality). Third, how the representation of certain groups can lead to the creation of harmful or offensive stereotypes (representational intersectionality).

Intersectionality can be thought of as both a theory, and a concept that informs analysis. Although the concept has become somewhat of a buzzword recently, its use allows for a more nuanced understanding of how rules, regulations, beliefs and systems impact different groups differently. It offers a useful frame for understanding social inequality, since it allows for a clearer understanding of the barriers facing each individual in their everyday lives.


What can intersectionality offer to policymakers?

When put into practice, applying an intersectional lens allows policymakers to develop more targeted and specific approaches to supporting equity for any group or community by asking the question “Inclusive for whom?”. This is critical when asking hard questions about who benefits from a given measure, and who does not, in a recovery aiming to be both green and inclusive. Economic recovery measures must also reckon with the reality that meaningfully advancing equity for any group is only possible if the existing barriers to their participation in the workforce are removed. Intersectionality offers an approach for answering both questions. It forces policymakers to identify how policies impact different subgroups within a single community. This provides decision-makers with the information needed to target the barriers to participation faced by each subgroup that are perpetuated by existing rules, ideas, and beliefs. This, in turn, makes it more likely that a given policy will achieve its stated objective.

Second, accounting for this diversity of perspectives can change the way certain policies or spending initiatives are regarded if this changes their perceived benefits or costs. Intersectionality necessitates the collection of information and data across perspectives, and this information may change the value of a given investment or policy in the eyes of decision-makers. If a given measure might have a positive aggregate impact, but have a pronounced negative impact on subgroups such as racialized women, unemployed fossil fuel workers or low-income immigrants, this may change the way a measure is perceived. It may also force policymakers to consider changing a policy or deploying a complementary measure alongside it, to ensure their actions are capable of achieving a policy or measure’s stated objectives. 


Four steps for applying an intersectional lens to a green and inclusive economic recovery

1. Identify a specific community to target through “inclusive recovery” policies: In order for a recovery to be meaningfully inclusive, it must acknowledge that inclusivity requires using targeted approaches to lowering the barriers to equity faced by specific groups. It is not enough to simply say a policy is trying to be inclusive for all women or every new Canadian, since different subgroups within these communities each face their own barriers to equality. Applying an intersectional approach first begins with acknowledging complexity.


2. Uncover the barriers to the full participation of a community, one community at a time: Once a community has been identified, the next step is to uncover the barriers to their equal participation within a green and inclusive recovery. These can be identified by researching obstacles to labour force participation across communities, and asking tough questions about how existing policies may currently be negatively impacting marginalized or vulnerable groups. Importantly, specificity will be needed here. Understanding how to support inclusivity requires examining each spending measure and evaluating how it affects each community. An example of this is that a program advancing energy efficiency retrofits for buildings should be examined to assess how it will affect different communities. This process will likely uncover uneven effects across groups, and make it clear which approaches would offer the greatest benefits for advancing equity for which groups. This step would then be replicated for ZEV incentive programs, investments in adaptation-resilient infrastructure, renewable energy deployment and a range of other green recovery measures. The key here is to acknowledge that each community will face different barriers to benefitting from each program, and the hard work of accounting for impacts must be done one measure and one community at a time. 


3. Develop policies/programs to lower or remove those barriers: Existing policies or programs may present structural barriers to rejoining the workforce that, if ignored, will limit the potential effectiveness of a given recovery program. The oft-cited example of Canadian women and mothers struggling to find time to return to work due to increased childcare responsibilities is one example of this. In this case, access to training programs or start-up capital is not the primary barrier to supporting greater female labour force participation in the clean economy, and deploying these programs independent of addressing the more structural time constraint will likely have a limited impact on driving an inclusive recovery. This is partially why the Federal government has committed to developing a federal child care program under the banner of a post-COVID economic recovery. This process of addressing primary barriers that prevent work will require asking tough questions about existing policies. It will likely uncover a need for ambitious approaches to truly support economic inclusivity across multiple communities. 


4. Account for how lowering these barriers will impact other communities: The key concept underpinning an intersectional approach is that there are no one-size-fits-all solutions. Addressing one barrier that exists for a given community may inadvertently create, or raise, the barriers to labour force participation for another. Before enacting major changes, understanding how different subgroups within a community will be impacted by a program is necessary to predict how the benefits of a policy will be distributed across the population. This step can help policymakers better understand impacts, and develop policy approaches that mitigate adverse effects while maximizing the equity benefits of a given measure.


Designing a better recovery

Intersectionality offers a way forward for policymakers reckoning with how to make an economic recovery both green and inclusive. For any green recovery measure assessed, an intersectional lens can be applied to understand how different communities would be impacted by a policy. From there, complementary policies and programs, or reforms to existing policies, can be deployed. This four-step approach can advance economic stimulus that realizes a green recovery while ensuring equity is supported across communities.