Intersectionality, race and the Sex Discrimination Act: The construction of equality silos

By Ashlee Christoffersen

The Gender Equalities at Work project is exploring how the Sex Discrimination Act 1975 (SDA), Equal Pay Act 1970, and their successor the Equality Act 2010 were created, introduced, implemented and changed, in what contexts and with what consequences. Based on initial analysis of documentary sources, this blog post takes an intersectional perspective to look back from the Equality Act to introduce the SDA, consider how the SDA was discussed in relation to existing race equality legislation in the years leading up to its passing (1964-75), and suggest areas for further exploration. Though now both covered by the Equality Act, gender and race equality legislation developed in ‘siloed’, separate ways, and looking at the early years provides insight into how and why silos developed, and with what effects for thinking about intersectionality.  

Intersectionality is the Black feminist theory that inequalities shape one another and are inseparable: ‘race, class, gender, sexuality, ethnicity, nation, ability, and age operate not as unitary, mutually exclusive entities, but rather as reciprocally constructing phenomena.’[1] It derives from Black women’s theory and activism concerning their experiences of gendered racism and racialised sexism, and not only women based in the US where the term emerged in the late 1980s[2]. In the UK particularly from the 1970s onwards, Black women and coalitions of Black women and women of colour articulated the role of race as a key structure shaping social life in the UK and its imperialist projects elsewhere, and issues of racism and imperialism within the British ‘women’s liberation’ movement[3]. Intersectionality makes visible the need to rethink and transform the siloed ways that gender inequalities have been addressed. The siloed approach has made the experiences of those at the ‘intersection’ of different inequalities (e.g. gender and race) invisible, instead mainly benefitting white and otherwise relatively privileged women.

Contemporary researchers interested in intersectionality’s applications in equality policy and practice worldwide have taken a particular interest in the UK, because of the Equality Act 2010[4]. The Equality Act and its enforcement counterpart, the Equality and Human Rights Commission, are together unique internationally for including many different inequalities within their scope. This unification creates opportunities for considering how inequalities shape one another and overlap. Not long before the Act became law, some were hopeful about the possibilities it presented to finally make the experiences of those at the intersections visible and thus remediable[5] (however, its limited provisions on ‘dual discrimination’ have not been enacted). Less known, and underexplored in existing accounts[6], is that the idea of unification of equality legislation was not new to the early 2000s, when Tony Blair’s Labour government instituted a wide ranging review of equalities legislation. A historical approach shows that unification was discussed way back in the 1960s, before there was any legislation on gender inequalities, but not necessarily for the same reasons. The Equality Act integrated many separate pieces of anti-discrimination legislation on different inequalities. One of these was the SDA.

Approaching its 50th anniversary, the SDA was landmark UK gender equality legislation, prohibiting discrimination (with important exceptions) in employment, education, and the provision of goods and services, and aiming to promote equality of opportunity between women and men. It was a result of considerable efforts by women (and some men) both inside and outside of Parliament, though the ultimate product, which was amended in 1986, fell short of the original proposals and demands of many[7].

The SDA was preceded by the Race Relations Acts (RRA) 1965 and 1968 (covering employment), and the SDA in turn influenced the RRA Amendment in 1976. Our initial research reveals a complex relationship between these Acts, which will be explored further over the course of the project. Among our sample of official records documents (House of Commons and House of Lords daily records and papers) discussing sex discrimination in relation to work or employment from the period 1964-1975, 64% (103 of 162) also discuss race. Yet, how so? Did political actors recognise that race and sex overlap, as some did in the lead up to the Equality Act?

Initial results would indicate that on the whole, no, they did not. Notably, although they were frequently discussed together, there was very little mention of the ways in which sex and race discrimination intersect. Some actors (e.g. then Secretary of State Roy Jenkins) were keen to unify sex and race legislation in order that there be parity of powers and procedures[8], not because they intersect to create qualitatively different experiences. However, often white women parliamentarians were keen that sex and race be separate, and at times made arguments that promoted the idea that they are mutually exclusive, e.g.: ‘it is surely no more difficult to judge discrimination on the grounds of sex than discrimination on the grounds of race[9]. They created and participated in a discourse that if ‘they’ (othered people of colour) have anti-discrimination legislation, then surely women (constructed as exclusively white and British) should too, because don’t (British born and bred) women ‘deserve’ it even more? In the words of Dame Patricia Hornsby-Smith, ‘pressure for this [Sex Discrimination] Bill has been given added impetus by a perfectly justifiable annoyance on the part of women that the Race Relations Act makes it possible for a [woman of colour] to protest if she is discriminated against because of her colour[10]’. Here ‘women’ clearly means only white women, and the annoyance isn’t that women of colour could not protest because of their sex and race, but that they could protest at all, while white women could not.

Shot of a woman holding a note pad written “PAY EQUAL” in the city

Black women and women of colour were mostly made invisible in these conversations, which is ultimately unsurprising given their lack of representation in elite structures of government, but that doesn’t mean they weren’t articulating these arguments outwith these structures at the time. One challenge for the project is uncovering these histories of both the influence and silencing of Black and women of colour theory and activism in the earlier decades of the Acts, when these voices and perspectives are excluded from official records and published accounts, including feminist ones. Nevertheless, the data we are collecting could shed further light on some of the following questions, and more:

What did siloing mean for the workplace experiences of Black women and women of colour, for whom considerable inequalities in employment as compared with white women endure 50 years on?

What specific mechanisms worked to silence Black women and women of colours’ perspectives? Whose interests did this serve? Why was gender equality legislation enacted in such a way that it mainly benefitted white and otherwise relatively privileged women?

Given that anti-discrimination legislation initially addressed race, how did gender, which came later, achieve the primacy perceived by many working in equalities decades later[11]? What discourses were at work in these processes?

[1] Collins, Patricia Hill. 2015. “Intersectionality’s Definitional Dilemmas.” Annual Review of Sociology 41: 2.

[2] Crenshaw, Kimberlé Williams. 1989. “Demarginalizing the Intersection of Race and Sex: A Black Feminist Critique of Antidiscrimination Doctrine, Feminist Theory and Antiracist Politics.” University of Chicago Legal Forum Vol. 1989, Article 8: 139–68.

[3] E.g. Amos, Valerie, Gail Lewis, Amina Mama, and Pratibha Parmar. 1984. “Editorial.” Feminist Review 17: 1–2.

[4] E.g. Hankivsky, Olena, Diego de Merich, and Ashlee Christoffersen. 2019. “Equalities ‘Devolved’: Experiences in Mainstreaming across the UK Devolved Powers Post-Equality Act 2010.” British Politics 14 (2): 141–61.

[5] Hankivsky, Olena, and Ashlee Christoffersen. “Gender Mainstreaming in the United Kingdom: Current Issues and Future Challenges.” British Politics 6: 30–51.

[6] Homans, Elizabeth. “Visions of Equality: Women’s Rights and Political Change in 1970s Britain.” Dissertation/Thesis, ProQuest Dissertations Publishing.

[7] Ibid.

[8] PP, Hansard [HC], 23 July 1974, The Secretary of State for the Home Department Mr. Roy Jenkins.

[9]PP, Hansard [HC], 28 January 1972, Shirley Williams MP.

[10] PP, Hansard [HC], 28 January 1972, Dame Patricia Hornsby-Smith, emphasis added.

[11] Christoffersen, Ashlee (forthcoming) Is intersectional racial justice organising possible? Confronting generic intersectionality, Ethnic and Racial Studies.

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