It is an universally acknowledged truth that a researcher in possession of an approved PhD project must be in want of interesting data.
It will not be new to any of you that in qualitative research interviews and focus groups, the role of the researcher/interviewer is not only tricky, but also, to some extent, compromised. The researcher elicits data, tries to enrich it in interaction, interprets it and discusses results.
When I was collecting data for my PhD project about gendered discourses in allied health professions, I interviewed both female and male nurses as well as speech and language therapists to understand more about the influence of gender stereotypes in their professional experience.
During the interview, the participants’ sex and gender, in relation to mine, were quite relevant to the interaction, as I was expecting. Unexpectedly to me, instead, my own gendered self played a role in the immediate interpretation of what was being said in the interview.
One specific question quite interestingly elicited the same answer from men every time.
“Do you think female and male professionals might bring different qualities to the profession?”. Glance towards me. Eyes down. Eyes up again. Some “You know…” attempts, and myself with my Jane Austen’s “I have not the pleasure of understanding you”-face. Them blabbering something about how they didn’t want to be disrespectful to women, but how they had to say that, which was not pleasant to say anyway: women tend to a) not focus on work-related topics when discussing in meetings; b) not be able to identify responsibilities; c) not take up responsibilities; d) not focus on practice but on gossip; e) talk behind other women’s backs and be offensive. This is why, they said, among other reasons, we would need more men in SLT and nursing: to improve working experience for men, to raise the level of professional interactions and meetings, to make it a real scientific environment rather than a chitchat club.
At this point, I would usually feel offended and think about my male participants as sexist, unbearable human beings who were just drawing upon stereotypes to describe the women’s contribution to the professional environment. “Angry people are not always wise”, says Jane, and at the end of the interview I would take revenge over these unfair descriptions of women’s professionalism and discuss with them my view on their opinion.
Something happened in my life, and I had to suspend my PhD for a while because of health reasons. During that period, I had to find a job in Italy, and I ended up in a very small all-female company (mediation services). The dynamics of interaction there would drive any least-reasoning human being crazy, because of the closed circle that the chief-secretary-supervisor group had built for themselves by insulting, blaming, threatening, mobbing, any (women) colleague for the problems the agency had. Therefore, I found myself thinking that maybe what I had rejected about my interviewee’s views could actually be true, and that female-dominated workplaces could also be made of rage, troubles, silliness, and disrespect.
It is true that “our scars make us know that our past was for real”, as Jane said, but it is also true that my perspective on workplace environments and views on them was a matter of balance.
Needless to say, when rejecting the interviewees’ ideas, I was fighting for my own idea of women as good and reliable professionals just as men, and interpreting on the basis of my willingness to find what I was looking for in their answers. However, when I was rejecting my all-female environment, I was misunderstanding dynamics that were related to personalities rather than gender.
Indeed, I have come back to PhD life now, and I understand how biased my views on the topics and answers were. How I was putting my own female pride and (sort of) feminist prejudice against men’s views between the elicited data and myself. My data will instead provide me a good insight on many sub-topics that are tricky and worth unveiling together with the main research topic, and proliferate in writing to enrich the understanding of the two professions as wholes.
My relationship with the male interviewees’ answers tells me that as a young researcher, it is still difficult for me to approach qualitative methods in a rigorous and detached way. The question is: when and to what extent does this ability develop?
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