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Higher education inclusion and its dimensions: A theoretical proposal

Olga Matus-Betancourt[1], Mary Jane Schilling-Norman[1], Javiera Ortega-Bastidas[2], Cristhian Pérez-Villalobos[2], Peter McColl-Calvo[2], Camila Espinoza-Parcet[2]

Institution: 1. University of Concepcion, Chile, 2. University of Concepcion
Corresponding Author: Mrs Olga Matus-Betancourt ([email protected])
Categories: Medical Education (General), Students/Trainees, Teaching and Learning
Published Date: 01/02/2018


According to UNESCO in their 2009 World Conference on Higher Education the focus of future educational policies should be on improving access and equity in higher education, recognizing the importance of continuous work towards the inclusion of diversity and ensure growing opportunities for minority groups. This article presents a theoretical and empirical review of educational and social inclusion in Higher Education. It defines and analyzes five dimensions which have been the most commonly studied in tertiary education institutions as they represent the minority groups which are mostly observed in educational settings, as described by literature. The dimensions included are sex-gender, ethnic minorities, religion, disability and vulnerability, whilst taking into consideration how these dimensions interact and influence the educational experiences of students in Tertiary Education. It reviews research done on policies, access and experiences of inclusion and discrimination of these dimensions, and the importance of having diverse groups of students in the classroom.

Keywords: education medical; cultural diversity; minority groups; ethnic groups; vulnerable population


Educational inclusion can be understood as a person’s right to belong and participate in the educational system, with the assumption that this system is inclusive and hence there is no requirement for right of entry to be negotiated (Visser & Stokes, 2003). Despite the existence of policies towards inclusion in higher education, university as an institution has long been known as an entity that promotes segregation (Pitman, 2015; Torres & Schugurensky, 2002; Altbach, Reisberg & Rumbley, 2009). For starters, most educational systems are based on, and perpetuate certain social hierarchies (Pitman, 2015; Marginson, 2016; Reay, Davies, David & Ball, 2001), between those who are academically gifted versus the academically challenged. This scheme starts with universities’ selection of students and is maintained until the pupil leaves the higher educational system (Fangen & Lynnebakke, 2014). This obeys to the market view of education which has begun since the development of a capitalist economy in most countries. From this perspective, universities have been transformed into market economies where they capture the best students, in order to maintain high standards of excellence and be competitive in comparison with other universities (Nunan, George & McCausland, 2000).

Although educational systems have become more diverse through continuous efforts from policies and governments, students who come from stigmatized groups still perceive barriers to Higher Education (Stevenson, 2014; Tupan-Wenno, Camilleri, Frölich & King, 2016). In several countries (Altbach et al., 2009), access to Tertiary Education is even more difficult for those who are underprivileged. For example, in Africa, there is limited access to higher education, low rate of participation and high risk of drop-out among underrepresented groups (Tuomi, Lehtomäki & Matonya, 2015). In regards to this, the principal limit to opportunities for underprivileged families is the difference in terms of economic, social and cultural resources. Although policy can partly compensate for economic differences, it cannot eliminate the potency of this effect (Marginson, 2016).

How can we understand segregation? According to social identity theory as proposed by Tajfel & Turner (1979), people identify themselves socially according to the groups they belong to. Depending on their economic, social and cultural status they can be identified as part of the in-group (the majority or oppressor) or the out-group (the minority or oppressed). Hence, members of the in-group cognitively try to maintain a positive identity, which leads to compare themselves and differentiate from the out-group. This can lead to stereotypes, prejudice and discrimination in order to maintain a positive identity.

These barriers that minority students perceive may be the result of differences in the treatment of students inside the classroom and the inability of educators to understand and be sensitive towards minorities and as well, be inclusive in their teaching styles and contents (Ruggs & Hebl, 2012). Coupled with this, segregation is also practiced between students, separating each other in different social circles, thus leaving interactions only between members of the same group in most circumstances (Fangen & Lynnebakke, 2014).

The following theoretical review aims to understand inclusion in Higher Education setting, and also the dimensions included within. These dimensions are separated into vulnerability, ethnic groups, disabilities, sex and gender, and lastly, religion. This separation has been done to better understand this phenomenon, as in reality people can identify themselves into more than one dimension, and at the same time this can affect the way they experience belonging to a minority group.


Vulnerability or Disadvantage

Vulnerability or disadvantage can be understood as the minority who live in a position of oppression economically and/or culturally, and whom are refused access by the in-group to better opportunities for growth and development. Socioeconomic impoverishment has historically isolated people from accessing Higher Education because they lack the financial support and/or their schooling has not been of quality. Research done on this matter shows that inequity remains persistent, and that inequity based on socio-economic status, parental education, rural background and more, continues to prevail in Higher Education (Tupan-Wenno et al., 2016).

Furthermore, research shows that disadvantaged students once enrolled, encounter more difficulties to complete their studies, having fewer completion rates in comparison with other students (Altbach et al., 2009). Also, some reported having difficulties in social inclusion, lack of adequate family support and peer support, on top of social class barriers (Forsyth & Furlong, 2000).

This has been one of the most targeted groups when considering inclusion in Higher Education in the past decades, although some improvement has been shown, and participation has grown over time (Pitman, 2015; Tupan-Wenno et al., 2016). It is estimated it could take over 100 years for disadvantaged groups to catch up with their more advantaged peers, in terms of access and completion rates of Tertiary Education (Tupan-Wenno et al., 2016).

Ethnic Minorities

Ethnic minorities consider indigenous groups that are autochthonous from a particular country, in addition to migrants, refugee groups, and mobility students (those who migrate to another country for educational purposes and for a short period of time). Their ethnic status is usually identified by others through skin colour, facial characteristics, together with clothes and religious symbols (Ruggs & Hebl, 2012).

Ethnic minorities today seem to fluctuate between an environment of tolerance and equal rights to skepticism and labelling. Although many policies today aim at ethnic inclusion and equality, there is a risk towards repressive equality, meaning cultural differences have to be assimilated in order to be part of the bigger mass, or therefore these groups have to face isolation (Fangen & Lynnebakke, 2014; Tupan-Wenno et al., 2016). In consequence, ethnic minorities can experience positive and negative discrimination in regards to their ethnic background (Fangen & Lynnebakke, 2014; Fangen, 2012; Luzzo & McWhirter, 2001; Cadenas, Cisneros, Todd & Spanierman, 2016).

Due to the in-group’s lack of information and prejudices, immigrants can feel upsetting having to repeatedly answer questions in relation to their background, and decide either forcefully or by own choice, to withdraw themselves from social interactions with the in-group, or seek interactions with the out-group.

In relation to access to education, indigenous people have less access because they are more likely to live in remote areas where there are no universities (Altbach et al., 2009). Those who do make it, have to cover costs associated with relocation that can impact them financially and psychologically (Altbach et al., 2009). Furthermore, most ethnic minority students struggle with underachievement when accessing university (Wikaire et al., 2017), and evidence shows that ethnic minorities perceive racial discrimination and isolation from nonminority peers. Similarly, teachers, advisors, counselors and other role models often have negative perceptions towards them (Ruggs & Hebl, 2012).

In Latin America, a region that is ethnically diverse, there is evidence of racism against indigenous and afro-latino population, the latter suffering more discrimination (Hooker, 2005; Dulitzky, 2005). This is aggravated as governments deny the existence of racial discrimination in their countries (Dulitzky, 2005), when in reality, these countries discriminate through their government policies and laws, including education too, where there are a few percentage of students that access to Higher Education, with the existence also of illiteracy and poverty among them (Hooker, 2005). A similar situation can be seen in United States, where there is low participation from racial and ethnic minorities both in enrolment and graduation (Altbach et al., 2009). Likewise, in a study done with immigrants in Norway, completion rates of immigrants are lower than those of the majority population, being strongly related to the income and education of parents (Fangen & Lynnebakke, 2014).


The concept of disability has changed through time from a biological point of view of handicap to a model that recognizes the interaction between different variables that define the level of impairment of a person (Altman, 2001). According to the World Health Organization (2002), disability is a complex phenomenon that includes the interaction between a person's body and the society in which he or she is immersed. It takes into consideration body functioning and mental structure, social participation, and environmental factors. According to this model, disabilities can be physical or mental. Mental disabilities include emotional and behavioral difficulties that range from social maladaptation to abnormal emotional stresses. They are persistent (if not necessarily permanent) and constitute learning difficulties (Visser & Stokes, 2003).

Globally, persons with disabilities are underrepresented in Higher Education: there are poor rates of degree completion across all age groups in both high-income and low-income countries (Tuomi et al., 2015; Hartley, 2015). In addition, Higher Education Institutions have traditional ideologies concerning disability that fail to recognize the capability of students with disabilities and introducing disabled staff to the classroom to provide an inclusive experience for students (Tuomi et al., 2015; Kioko & Makoele, 2014; Biewer et al., 2015). This failure can be interpreted as a lack of institutional capacity and social inclusion. In Higher Education, lecturers seem to be less prepared to receive and include persons with disabilities into their classrooms, and guide their learning processes (Tuomi et al., 2015; Kioko & Makoelle, 2014; Biewer et al., 2015). This can be explained as lack of training but also because some teachers have negative attitudes towards people with disabilities. Along with this, infrastructure is not ready to meet all the needs of students (Tuomi et al., 2015; Kioko & Makoelle, 2014; Hartley, 2015; Biewer et al., 2015), including the lack of technologies that allow them to study more easily. Generally, this comes down to universities not having sufficient financial support and support services to meet the needs and demands of students with disabilities (Tuomi et al., 2015; Biewer et al., 2015), although evidence of positive assessment of support services for students with disabilities is available too (Kioko & Makoelle, 2014; Hartley, 2015). Furthermore, inclusion may be even more difficult when there are “invisible” disabilities, especially when students do not want to seek support services in fear of being stigmatized (Kioko & Makoelle, 2014).

On a more positive note, disabled students feel there is adequate peer support that is crucial for them to study and have a social life, which makes them feel included (Tuomi et al., 2015). This could be because policies towards inclusion of disabled persons are greater in number, and also there is more conscience and information in the in-group about people with this kind of conditions.

In relation to the inclusion of students with mental disabilities, Higher Education access for this group has increased over the years (Quinn, Wilson, MacIntyre & Tinklin, 2009; Kirsh et al., 2016). Still, students feel reluctant to share their mental health problems at university, and normally seek help when symptoms have aggravated, mainly because there is still a lot of prejudice in relation to mental health issues (Quinn et al., 2009; DiPlacito-DeRango, 2016; Kirsh et al., 2016). In general, students perceive that there is lack of adequate support services and lecturers and staff seem underprepared to engage with them in terms of their mental health problems, and some even tend to dismiss issues arguing normal stress or laziness (Quinn et al., 2009; DiPlacito-DeRango, 2016). Besides this, the lack of opportunities to talk about mental health issues and the lack of support given by institutions leave students feeling isolated and excluded (Quinn et al., 2009; Kirsh et al., 2016).

Sex and gender

Sex can be understood as biologically defined human characteristics, whilst gender is a social construction of what is considered male and female based on socio-cultural norms and power. In literature, there is an interchange between the word ‘gender’ and ‘sex’ to create erroneous impressions that certain barriers to progress are a matter of nature, when indeed they are socially constructed and therefore, can be subject to change (Ifegbesan, 2010).

In terms of traditional gender roles, that is, male and female, most stereotypes often describe men as intellectual, competent, strong and brave; whilst women are described as homely, warm and expressive, but incompetent and passive. They portray men as leading, strong and dominant, who work outside the home in often prestigious occupations; and female roles are usually portrayed as being subordinate and confined to the home (Ifegbesan, 2010). These social constructions are in constant change (Diekman & Eagly, 2000) and over decades women have achieved a lot in terms of equality, but there are still misconceptions and inequities that need to be mended.

Through time also, gender identities have begun to be considered as non-binary, as traditional classifications do not include the universe of gender identities people identify with. New terminology has included new words such as genderqueer (non-binary or non-conforming people). Genderqueer is a term used to describe a person whose gender identity and/or gender expression falls outside of the dominant societal norm for their assigned sex, meaning that person is beyond genders, or is some combination of them. Some types of gender identifications in this category include, but are not limited to, agender (no gender), bigender (two genders) and intergender (identity is between or a combination of genders) (Witcher, 2014).

Furthermore, transgender is another gender identity to take into consideration. Those who define themselves as transgender believe their gender assigned at birth does not express who they really are (Donatone & Rachlin, 2013). Transgender must not be mistaken with transsexual, because it speaks of two different dimensions. Transgender relates to gender orientation as described before, whilst transsexual relates to sex, that is, a person who desires or has changed their sex through medical procedure. Additionally, another term that should be specified is that related to sexual orientation. Gender identity, sexual identity and sexual orientation are three different categories that are related to three separate aspects of life: gender, sex and sexuality. In sexual orientation, we can find the common denominations of heterosexual, homosexual (gay and lesbian), bisexual and pansexual (romantic inclination towards people from all genders and sexual orientations) (Witcher, 2014).

In relation to Higher Education binary gender inclusion, research shows that gender parity is still a matter that needs further work on. There are certain areas of the world where access to higher education for women is still difficult. Such is the case of sub-Saharan Africa, where enrolment rates in higher education are the lowest in the world and wide gender differences remain (Tuomi et al., 2015; Altbach et al., 2009). These disparities are not only seen in the enrolment of students but also in the number of women in academic leadership (Tuomi et al., 2015). Moreover, around the world women students are distributed unevenly across fields of study. For example, women are less likely to enroll and are underrepresented in fields related to engineering, manufacturing, construction and science (Altbach et al., 2009; Ruggs & Hebl, 2012).

According to some studies, lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer students (onwards, LGBTQ) have reported being discriminated by students, lecturers and administrative staff, motivated by their religious beliefs. This has presented consequences related to social exclusion, economical support refusal, poor performance and termination of studies (Mavhandu-Mudzusi & Sandy, 2015). Research conducted on transgender and gender non-conforming students shows that they tend to experience multiple forms of discrimination including bullying and sexual assault without proper consequences for perpetrators (Seelman, 2014a); forms, applications, and record change procedures that do not recognize non-binary and fluid gender identities (Mintz, 2011); lack of curricula and knowledge among staff and faculty members about supporting transgender people (Seelman, et al., 2012); and lack of infrastructure such as locker rooms, bathrooms and housing that is gender neutral (Seelman 2014a, 2014b).


This dimension is quite complex as religion can be both considered as a minority and as a force of oppression. In countries where there is a dominant religion, many minority groups feel discriminated because of what some religions preach and understand about inclusion. There is considerable judgement between religious groups and these can lead from isolation to the extermination of minority groups (For example, mass killings of Jews during World War II; or ideological conflicts between Christians and LGBTQ community) (Mavhandu-Mudzusi & Sandy, 2015).

Considering the events of the past decade in regards to extreme religious terrorist attacks, today many students perceive religious discrimination, harassment and intolerance on campus leading to peer exclusion. In a study related to religious inclusion in a university (Stevenson, 2014), certain religious stereotypes appeared that categorized students belonging from different religions. For instance, Christians were considered “sexless” and “dull” while Muslims were stereotyped as “terrorists” and Muslim women as “oppressed”. Together with that, universities didn’t allow time off to students who had religious festivals that fell during normal teaching timetables or have the liberty to advertise meetings to congregate with other religious peers. Some students even chose to pass as non-religious to avoid being isolated.  

Another study about religious beliefs in higher education in the UK (Weller, Hooley & Moore, 2011) showed a series of findings relevant to the matter. First of all, although there were a number of students and staff that openly considered themselves religious, or belonging to a religious group, a minority of them perceived the contents of the courses they took or taught were not religion-sensitive. Also, some students felt their religion did not allow them to perform certain tasks that were expected in a course, for example, dissecting an animal. Socially, some felt it was difficult to engage in social activities specially where alcohol was considered. As well, there was an inability to celebrate non-Christian holy days, and some had problems wearing certain religious dressing attire in medical or health related disciplines. The vast majority of students in this study did not feel discriminated or harassed, although some tensions existed between different religious groups and sexual orientation minority groups. Finally, they thought freedom of speech was valued at their universities, although they did not feel comfortable promoting their own religion on campus.

When analyzing these studies, it seems that while religious diversity is encountered on different campuses, which depends on each country, most students might feel they can profess openly their religion without major consequences. Despite this, universities do not have inclusive policies that allow different religions to practice their faith openly without any restrictions, especially when these restrictions are established because there are interferences with curricula or it does not meet the student profile of a certain institution. Together with this, while there are many minority movements on campus that address and fight for gender and sexual orientation issues, the same is not encountered towards religious oppression (Edwards, 2016).


UNESCO in their 2009 World Conference on Higher Education stated the importance of focusing future policies on improving access and equity in higher education among other matters. Moreover, it recognized the importance of continuous work towards the inclusion of diversity and ensure growing opportunities for minority groups (UNESCO, 2009).

Inclusion is an important matter to be taken into consideration by universities, as each institution has a set of values they wish to transmit to their graduates that will generate impact on their communities and as citizens of their countries. Inclusive education that takes into consideration access, curricula, teaching practices and assessments that are inclusive, allows Tertiary Education Institutions to generate a shift from individual benefits to group benefits as they develop and potentiate the talents of all individuals instead of the talents of the elite or of a few students. By following this line of thought, and taking into consideration that most societies are based on a capitalist economic system, economic and cultural production will increase, thus meaning that inclusive education brings greater benefits to a society as a whole, rather than when this is concentrated on power groups or on advantaged students. Following this idea, an inclusive education will form graduates that are community oriented and socially responsible, values which are part of the graduate profile in many universities (Nunan, et al., 2000).

Despite public policies, still most neoliberal discourses ignore the structural and historical barriers to social mobility, arguing that personal responsibility and the market are solutions for creating equality and fairness (Grant & Allweiss, 2014). In conjunction with this, the ideology behind some systems that conceive education as a ‘market economy’ rises more challenges for minorities to access quality education, causing stratification and being often relegated to Higher Education institutions with high participation, and being segregated from the privileged students that attend prestigious universities that are known for their high-quality standards in education (Marginson, 2016).

Together with this, increasing access to Higher Education by minorities leads to think that exclusion of minoritized groups are not an issue anymore, and to erroneously think that certain actions and policies created for them to ensure access and completion of higher education are no longer necessary (Grant & Allweiss, 2014).

Considering this, and examining minority groups’ historical movements that have led to the creation of inclusive policies, it seems like through mobilization of the oppressed important changes will be achieved. Policies are still needed in order to promote inclusion and celebrate the diversity of people, but also, the task relies heavily on minorities itself. Through their voice only, they can make themselves heard and work towards actions that will have benefits for them and their identity group(s). This will allow also for the in-group to reflect on these issues and support the minorities by joining and supporting social movements. As seen specifically in the case of a University in the United States, through historical movements from minorities it has been possible to work towards policies that contribute to a more diverse student body, and moreover, the incorporation of a diverse curricula and staff in each student’s learning process (Grant & Allweiss, 2014).

Tertiary Education today in a vast majority of countries has the challenge of securing access to a great number of students and providing quality education to them (Altbach et al., 2009). The first gateway to inclusion in Higher Education comes with access and student selection. It is clear that policies that count towards diversity will allow a more inclusive campus (Muntinga, Krajenbrink, Peerdeman, Croiset & Verdonk, 2016), thus forcing exposure and interaction between majorities and minorities. These policies should strive to include students and staff from different backgrounds and make more inclusive curricula for courses that takes into consideration the diversity that students will face when entering the workforce. Beside this, with growing international mobility, Higher Education institutions need to develop an increasingly international focus to teaching, learning and assessment (Stevenson, 2014). Universities have to adapt what and how they teach to their students, and not the other way round. In this matter, the adoption of the Universal Design for Learning model could be an answer to this issue (Katz & Sokal, 2016).

Certainly, in line with what was commented before, inclusion benefits universities in many ways. Studies show that having a diverse group of students in the classroom has a positive effect on active and critical thinking, motivation and intellectual engagement, along with increased problem-solving skills and group skills (Gurin, P., Dey, Hurtado & Gurin, G. 2002; Chang, Denson, Saenz & Misa, 2006; Terenzini, Cabrera, Colbeck, Bjorklund & Parente, 2001).  It also leads to higher levels of civic involvement and lower levels of prejudice after graduation (Tienda, 2013). These benefits are not obtained automatically by grouping and forming a diverse class, because people will tend to interact with the group they belong to, be it the in-group or out-group. Instead teaching practices should concentrate on generating debate and explore different view-points, by pairing up majority and minority students together and/or encouraging group discussions with opinions that are diverse and enlightening (Tienda, 2013).

Only through mobilization, changes in actual policies in higher education as well as reforms in curricula and teaching practices will allow true inclusion to be achieved in tertiary education. Through this we will work towards on being a diversity-tolerant society and grant equal access to opportunities to those who struggle in today’s educational system.

Take Home Messages

Future lines of investigation to support this matter should include examining educational inclusion from the perspective of students and teachers; also, the development of new strategies for inclusion in educational curricula and teaching practices.

As well, a new line of investigation should examine educational inclusion of students across the life cycle according to the developmental tasks they are facing, through the perceptions of students and teachers.

Notes On Contributors

Olga Matus-Betancourt is Computer Engineer, MSc in Medical Education, Assistant Profesor at Medical Education Department, Faculty of Medicine, University of Concepcion, Chile.

Mary Jane Schilling-Norman is Psychologist, has a  Diploma in Child Mental Health, Diploma in Attachment and Psychopathology, qualitative research Analyst at Medical Education Department, Faculty of Medicine, University of Concepcion, Chile.

Javiera Ortega-Bastidas is Psychologist, MSc in Educational Sciences, major in didactics, Assistant Profesor at Medical Education Department, Faculty of Medicine, University of Concepcion, Chile.

Cristhian Pérez-Villalobos is Psychologist, MSc in Psychology, major in Educational Psychology, PhD in Educational Sciences, Associate Profesor at Medical Education Department, Faculty of Medicine, University of Concepcion, Chile.

Peter McColl-Calvo MD, MSc in Medical Education, Associate Professor at Faculty of Medicine, University Andrés Bello, Viña del Mar, Chile.

Camila Espinoza-Parcet is Psychologist, qualitative research Analyst at Medical Education Department, Faculty of Medicine, University of Concepcion, Chile.


This work is part of a research funded by National Commission for Scientific and Technological Research of Chile, CONICYT FONDECYT 1170525 Project “Diversity and educational inclusion in health careers in chilean universities”.


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Janusz Janczukowicz - (25/03/2018) Panel Member Icon
This paper provides readers with and interesting literature review on multiple issues related to diversity although the list of suggested dimensions is not exhaustive. Also, the dimension of “vulnerability or disadvantage” seems to represent the other approach to identification and classification of diversity related themes and problems. Now, the question is, how the concepts vulnerability and disadvantage intersect with all dimensions of diversity at the individual, organisational and global levels of medical education.
Tripti Srivastava - (07/02/2018) Panel Member Icon
Inclusion of diversity is a significant concern in Higher education across the Globe. Authors have put forth the various dimensions of diversities that are well founded. The overall development of student as a result of recognition to these diversities in education are elaborated in conclusion. It would be even interesting and valuable if the authors reflect onto ways and means in which these diversities viz. sex-gender, ethnic minorities, religion, disability and vulnerability can be addressed and suitably incorporated within Institutions.
Definitely a must read for a broader perspective towards education.
Petra Verdonk - (06/02/2018) Panel Member Icon
This is an interesting paper which provides background of concepts on diversity and inclusion in higher education, what it entails, and relevant dimensions. The authors include vulnerability as a dimension, while sexual orientation is not included. The authors introduce social identity theory to help understand segregation mainly at the student level (fixing the numbers), but also address other analytical levels. A social constructivist approach is shown in the social model of disability, or by addressing gender as a sociocultural phenomenon. Vulnerability, which is an indirect and a direct consequence of segregation and discrimination, is however not fully convinding as a concept at the same level as the other four dimensions. Besides, the authors align vulnerability mainly with socioeconomic position or class. Academic success may be associated with particular social identities, such as being rich or white or able-bodied, but privilege may also be a mixed blessing. Paradoxes in vulnerability and segregation may be uncovered using an intersectional perspective.
In a next stage the paper may benefit from a deeper analysis. First, which levels of analysis are addressed (do we speak about students, staff and organization, curriculum, hence, the three fixes, and how do they relate to the five dimensions)? Second, how do different theories apply to different dimensions (does a materialist explanation also help to understand inequalities between able-bodies and disabled bodies, and how does social identity theory help to understand gender issues in medical schools)? Third, are these dimensions and their mechanisms similar across the globe as the authors now move back and forth from Africa to Latin America to the United States? And finally, how can an intersectional perspective help us to understand the intersections of these dimensions? Looking forward to the authors further reflections.