Women and Research

Non-Sexist Research in a Sexist World - Exposure not Participation

and Strategy for the Woman in the Research Field

In any research work it is important to take account of and at the same time avoid sexism in its work and writing. Here I'm responding to, if very loosely, a book called Nonsexist Research Methods: A Practical Guide, by Margaret Eichler published by Routledge in 1991.

She applies a series of headings and gives them meaning within certain contexts by which sexism can be detected. What I'll do is speak more generally - you can read the book for yourselves of course.

First of all the Research Title - the title of your work - has to correctly reflect the basis of the research. You cannot study just men, for example, and then have a title that implies everyone. Equally you should avoid over specific language, sometimes called generic language, like "Man" when you mean people or humankind. This is sometimes known as androcentricty.

Then there is the language of the research writing as a whole. The same is true for the writing throughout - if yours is a study of women only or men only then nothing can be claimed or implied for the whole population. But there are other matters too in the language you use. Do not use double standards, applying or suggesting different criteria for men and women where they do not exist within the research. On the other hand, where you do find sex specific characteristics then do not use the language of generalities. It is picked up as being a claim that cannot be supported. Another double standard is where the style of language suggests one sex in passive mode and one active mode. I'm afraid much of our language is like that but research findings should avoid or correct such impressionistic language.

The same double standards - different criteria and activism/ passivism can be used in theoretical constructions and concepts. Basically you are trying to be a non-sexist researcher in a sexist world. If you study marketing or advertising, for example, you cannot gloss over the sexism, but you must not take it into your research. If you are studying organisation and management, again you have to watch that you do not become uncritical about hierarchies or business practices. So much can be easily ignored, and even incorporated into research concepts.

So do not generalise where there are sexual differences, but do not create concepts which include sexual stereotypes that you should be trying to root out of your own work.

For example, how many of you studying sport are going to slide into macho male metaphors as accepted within your research. What about the swashbuckling image - again male stereotypes - of entrepreneurs. Again how much are you observing a sexist world correctly, but in fact how much are you incorporating of that into accepted assumptions in your work?

In other words, does your frame of reference have an androcentric viewpoint, where you have accepted gender stereotyping? Are you assessing female business performance against a gender stereotype of the male?

On the other hand, can you be accused of gynocentricity, which is the exclusion of men? The best example is considering family life - very often in a research question or task the male viewpoint is either excluded or a female view is taken as the stance when it comes to issues of the family.

Do you have a research question that is sexually dichotomous? That is, do you treat men and women differently on the basis of gender stereotyping. Again sport is a good example. On the other hand, are you gender insensitive. Again, you have to sort out how you as an intentionally non-sexist researcher represent what is a sexist world.

Gender insensitivity can also include research questions where you might ask questions of men on the one hand and women on the other, but the groups do not compare, either socially or economically, and the result is bad research making distinctions between the sexes that have other causes.

All of this, it hardly needs saying, applies to ethnicity as well. The job of research is to expose inequalities but not to participate in them. All that I have been saying, of course, is not just about the research you do, it is about the research you read about, the literature studies you make. How much is what you read an exposer of and/ or participant in stereotyping. You should be a critical reader in these matters as well as a self-critical writer.

While on this subject I should draw your attention to another piece of writing about research, this time in Field Research: A Sourcebook and Field Manual edited by R G Burgess, published by Routledge in 1982, and in it Chapter 9 called 'The Making of a Female Researcher: Role Problems in Fieldwork' with 4 authors, L. Easterday, D Papademas, L Schorr and C Valentine, pages 62 to 67.

Obviously this applies to women as researchers. It suggests that female researchers have difficulty with their work particularly in areas of some male and female segregation, where, for example, there might be concentration of one sex, or a split according to hierarchy, and so on. There are problems with access. Much of this of course is about relating to men but there is also the potential for problems in all female arenas as well, if say the woman researcher is seen as a threat, particularly where there is a sense where a new woman on the scene is threatening, and again this can be in situations of hierarchy or promotion or intense gender sterotyping which still must be followed and against which the female researcher is a threat.

The authors see a number of patterns of behaviour in the making of a female researcher. Now I have to say that there are sexist overtones here, but then this is observational which gives rise to the model making. It is then followed by suggestions and advice.

One model of female researcher is the "Go-fer". Not Gordon the Gofer but the obvious overtone, and this is where the woman researcher makes herself attractive in appearance and manner to the men.

The next observed model is described by the authors as the "Mascot" - good to have around, a pretty thing to be observed.

The final model they categorise is the father-daughter relationship, paternalism, where some male treats the woman like a daughter, someone who needs help, showing the way, offering fatherly protection...

Something of these rather sinister types apparently even carry some potential benefits, according the authors. In that if you are not taken seriously in some male environments then it might facilitate entry into otherwise difficult to get into research environments. "Oh sure, come on in" is how it's characterised. Or some men might want to impress the woman and give her more data than might be done otherwise. Or the father-daughter scenario sets up a kind of privileged relationship that again might provide more data.

Well you may be pleased to hear that the authors' advice is basically not to follow any of these paths. When asked about yourself, a woman in the research field should slip in some fabricating information that keeps a distance between her and the people being researched. Women in research should avoid personal involvements in the field even to get that extra piece of information in such situations. The recommendation is not to create over-rapport with individuals - equalise your time with the different people you make contact with. Do not discuss more about the research project - usually a sound research method - with one individual.

Whilst the chapter in that book is quite depressing in some ways, I suppose they are trying to say how the female researcher has tried to get on, how she has tried to impress, or play dumb and pretty, or played the daughter. However, the making of a female researcher is not to become a Go-fer, a Mascot or a substitute daughter but to be seen as objective, professional and to be taken seriously.

Eichler, E (1991), Nonsexist Research Methods: A Practical Guide, London: Routledge, 170-175.

Easterday, L., Papademas D., Schorr, L., Valentine, C., 'The Making of a Female Researcher: Role Problems in Fieldwork' in Burgess, R. G. (1982), Field Research: A Sourcebook and Field Manual, London: Routledge, 62 - 67.