Design Research as a Gendered Experience

As it is International Women’s Day, it seemed like an opportune time to talk about the unique challenges that women can face in a design research agency. Not the regular challenges that all women face in every workplace – like potential discrimination, balancing a family with the demands of work and the like – but the unique challenges of our work.

Much of the fieldwork that we do is essentially anthropological, with a narrowed focus on the product or service that we are researching. As a female anthropologist, there are challenges that you encounter during fieldwork that (most) men won’t. While you may think of yourself as a professional gathering research data, a role in which your sexuality is irrelevant, the people that you build your fieldwork relationships with may see you in an entirely different light. In my case, as a single and interested young woman.

This creates ethical and practical issues during the course of research, particularly when immersed in  a culture where the rules of gender interactions and sexual reciprocity may be entirely different from those we’re used to.

For a long time, women anthropologists fought for academic recognition. In the beginning – and to an extent, still – women fought to prove that they could do a man’s job: that they could go to the same places as men, war zones or remote and dangerous field sites, talk to the same people and gain the same quality of insight. Ethnographic monographs suppressed stories of failure, of danger or sexual harassment because they suggested that fieldwork and the data it produced was compromised.

The rise of gender anthropology led to a focus on how being a woman in the field could be leveraged analytically. For example, only a woman would have the empathetic insight to effectively study child rearing and motherhood practices, as Margaret Mead did, and only a woman could gain the necessary access to study women’s experiences in Muslim societies.

While the field sites I engage with at Sutherland tend to be relatively accessible, that’s not to say that gender doesn’t affect how I gather data. It’s still important to consider gender dynamics depending on the environment you’re going into, and how your gender might affect your results. For example, I am presently conducting research on behalf of a global company looking for insights into how to improve gender parity in senior positions. We’ve selected a mostly female team to conduct on site research, anticipating that our female interviewees may be more candid about their experiences with us than with men.

Coinciding with a recent feminist wave, anthropology has begun to discuss sexuality and gender again. If feels like a moment where we can begin to explore how sexuality and gender impacts our experience of field research, for good and ill, and to examine how we train our researchers to navigate relationships safely. We may need to acknowledge that some field sites are too unsafe for women to work in, and that’s okay. Institutions and organisations also need to work harder to prepare female researchers to manage fieldwork situations where their sexuality and gender puts them at risk. An important step is to recognise that field research is a gendered experience, and to plan for this.


This post was based on a collaboration between Dr Imogen Clark and Dr Andrea Grant and their colleagues for the Journal of the Anthropological Society of Oxford. Please find the full Special Issue on Sexual Harassment in the Field here.

Principal Design Researcher

Sutherland Labs
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