A Review of
The Importance of Intersectionality for Research on the Sexual Harassment of Black Queer Women at Work
Intersectional Research on Workplace Sexual Harassment of Black Queer Women Is Needed
Psychological research must apply an intersectional lens to explore the unique forms of sexual harassment faced by Black queer women at work.
The #MeToo movement has sparked a global conversation about sexual harassment, giving researchers a rare opportunity to advance scholarship on a topic of wide public interest. However, most sexual harassment research describes a narrow group of people: white, cisgender, and heterosexual women. The dearth of literature on sexual harassment experienced by Black women, and Black women with additional marginalized identities, deeply limits our understanding of the ways in which sexual harassment may differ across identities. One group whose experiences have been particularly overlooked are Black queer women, who hold identities that are marginalized on three fronts (gender, race, and sexual orientation). This research oversight is unacceptable, considering that Black women with varying intersecting identities have been at the forefront of calls for social change.
Evidence shows that workplace sexual harassment is pervasive. Studies have found that, on average, up to 58% of women, 31% of men, and 50% of transgender and gender-nonconforming employees are harassed at work (Aggarwal & Gupta, 2000; Ilies et al., 2003; James et al., 2016). Workplace sexual harassment can have severe consequences, including negative professional, physical health, and mental health outcomes. The limited existing data reveal that Black women report higher rates of sexual harassment compared to white women, and queer women report higher rates compared to straight women. However, little to no psychological research has studied how experiences of workplace sexual harassment uniquely manifest for Black queer women, or what the implications of these negative experiences may be.
In this article, six researchers from the University of Michigan and University of North Texas apply an intersectional lens to psychological research on workplace sexual harassment. Intersectionality theory states that, in order to understand an individual’s experience, we must consider each of their identities. This theory also emphasizes the importance of power: even within marginalized groups, social hierarchies persist and render some experiences visible and others invisible. The authors detail how an intersectional framing may be used to advance our understanding of workplace sexual harassment encountered by Black queer women, and they make recommendations for how scholars can incorporate an intersectional lens into future research and advocacy. While the authors focus on Black queer women in the workplace, more broad application of intersectionality theory will benefit many other groups.
Methods and Findings
Although scholars are increasingly applying an intersectional lens when studying experiences of workplace sexual harassment, many analyses do not encompass the experiences of Black queer women. In this study, the authors apply the theory of “selective incivility” to advance understanding of workplace sexual harassment experienced by Black queer women. Selective incivility refers to subtle or rude behavior targeted towards racial and gender minorities in the workplace, such as interrupting, excluding, or ignoring an employee. This theory argues that racial and gender discrimination in the workplace is often masked as incivility, since it is no longer socially acceptable to be overtly racist or sexist. Sexual harassment is one manifestation of selective incivility. To the authors’ knowledge, no research has yet examined how Black queer women experience selective incivility.
The authors offer several key findings:
- Black queer women may experience a unique form of sexual harassment on the basis of their race, gender nonconformity, and sexual orientation. Black women report a unique form of racialized sexual harassment that is not captured by a gender-only framework. This involves demeaning and/or offensive conduct that cannot be separated as either gender-based harassment or race-based harassment. A similar issue arises for queer women, who experience unique stereotypes. Studies suggest that sexual harassment experienced by queer women is simultaneously shaped by their gender and sexual orientation.
- Being a Black queer woman may lead to “triple jeopardy,” some protective qualities, or both. Studies have found that Black women, who are marginalized on the basis of both gender and race, are particularly susceptible to selective incivility and may receive a “double dose” of discrimination. Black queer women may therefore have a “triple dose” of discrimination and experience further workplace exclusion as a result. On the other hand, Black queer women may be perceived as masculine in the workplace, which may provide partial protection from some forms of discrimination, but their queer identity may make them more susceptible to other forms.
- The invisibility Black queer women experience likely has consequences. Black queer women are largely ignored by researchers and likely subjected to higher rates of sexual harassment than estimated. In addition, Black queer women may experience different rates of incivility in the workplace than other minorities or nonqueer Black women. Studies have found that consequences of experiencing selective incivility include psychological distress, lower job satisfaction, and greater intention to leave the job. Black queer women may also be at a unique legal disadvantage, as women of color are half as likely to win discrimination cases compared to any other demographic group, and lawsuits focusing on discrimination on the basis of both race and gender are not recognized in court.
The researchers conclude with a call to action and recommendations for ways that scholars may incorporate an intersectional framework into future research and advocacy. They underscore the urgent need for future research to do justice to the workplace sexual harassment experiences of Black queer women.
Scholars engaging in this work must unpack whether queer Black women experience partial protective qualities, a “triple dose” of discrimination, or both. Further research must assess whether and how often Black queer women experience incivility at work, how this compares to overt discrimination they may experience, and which consequences arise from experiencing the combination of both. Both sexual harassment research and selective incivility research must apply an intersectional lens to understand the unique forms of sexual harassment — and barriers to justice — encountered by Black queer women. This lens may help us better understand the experiences of other marginalized people. For example, research about how LGBTQ stereotypes affect Black queer women may help us understand how Black queer men may be treated in a similar context.
Scholarship with an intersectional lens has great potential to inform interventions and policies that will uplift Black queer women and promote systemic social change. In particular, psychological research can illuminate the underlying factors that make sexual harassment so pervasive and pinpoint the best sites for intervention for bystanders, perpetrators, and individuals targeted by sexual harassment. For researchers interested in applying an intersectional approach, the authors suggest (1) identifying which systems of power are present, (2) assessing which identities are present and how the context may interact with these identities, (3) determining how systems of power render certain identities invisible or visible, and (4) applying an intersectional lens responsibly by challenging how intersecting systems of oppression affect Black queer women and their ability to thrive in the workplace.
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