Intersectional discourse

Lexie Thorpe reports from a symposium at the British Psychological Society's Annual Conference.

The voices of disadvantaged groups are increasingly advocated, but those whose identity intersects with another such group face unique challenges. Bridgette Rickett, from Leeds Beckett University, chaired a symposium by the Psychology of Women and Equalities Section of the British Psychological Society, which has recently changed its name to reflect the need to understand the interaction of multiple oppressions.

Rickett began by presenting her findings from a Foucaldian Discourse Analysis of the experiences of working class female lecturers in an academic environment, with particular emphasis on emotional labour. The changes to higher education fees have arguably increased student expectations and pastoral demand. This responsibility may be more likely to fall to women, and working class women in particular, whose occupations would stereotypically relate to caring professions. 

Two themes emerged from Rickett’s analysis. Firstly, the feeling of being ‘fishes out of water,’ with academia existing as a classed and gendered hierarchy of knowledge and power. These women feel set apart, with their schooling and way of speaking marking them as different. Although the women may have been suffering from imposter syndrome, the possibility that they were genuinely not welcome by some should not be overlooked.

The second discourse, ‘mopping up tears,’ related to the women’s perceived ‘special’ pastoral role. Within the privileged academic hierarchy, the care-taking work was perceived to fall to these women, who felt that their class meant others perceived them as more ‘down to Earth’ and approachable. If students shared this view, and had a positive experience of pastoral support, the word would often spread to other students who would also seek support, and the demand on the women would increase. This led to an internal conflict, whereby the women could find belonging in the environment, as their gift was valued; but this also reinforces their difference, as lecturers from different backgrounds may feel unable – or not required – to carry out this work.

Understanding intersectionality can be further complicated when the effects of disadvantage are intermittent. Dee Lister (Manchester Metropolitan University) presented her work from the perspective of feminist theory and disability studies, whilst taking a critical stance on the dualism of ability/disability. This false binary is particularly apparent in conditions which fluctuate, such as Irritable Bowel Syndrome, in which case sufferers may or may not identify as disabled. Lister explored the narratives of women living with IBS, considering how their diary entries fitted with western cultural scripts of femininity and chronic illness. 

Attempting to ‘perform normalcy stories,’ driven by shame, was a prominent theme. Even in their personal diaries, some women showed a euphemistic avoidance of the term IBS, and passed moral judgements on their pain as ‘bad’. Some hid behind humour, or minimised the disruption caused by their condition, describing it as ‘boring’. IBS was a secret problem concealed from their public life. The diaries also told of ‘body battles’. Unsurprisingly, IBS had a negative effect on body image, with women feeling that they were too big and even objectifying their own bodies, with comments such as ‘I’m about as sexy as a slug’. However, most striking was the changeability of the women’s embodied selves, with some reporting that they feel good about themselves when their IBS is settled; a variability that does not easily fit with dualistic ideas of ability, and advocating a change in language and perspective. 

- You can read more coverage from the Annual Conference online, and in the June and July print editions.

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