An interesting question of research ethics

In her most recent blog post, Päivi Korvajärvi mentioned a conversation we had over Zoom with our Tampere Nordwit team, where we discussed the complexity of analyzing research interviews when the explicit and implicit content of the interviews are clearly contradictory. In this post I would like to expand on this conversation and the ethical dilemmas that arose from it.

One of my tasks as a research assistant is translating sections of interviews which were conducted in Finnish into English for international publication. This means that I’ve read through a lot of quotes from the interviews, intensely focused on capturing the exact meaning of what was said. What has caught my attention, more than anything else, is this: The women Nordwit has interviewed in Tampere for our research describe events and experiences in their academic careers that to us, reading the interviews with some level of gender studies expertise, seem obviously gendered and often openly discriminatory. The interviewees, however, appear to be very eager to offer up pretty much anything besides gender as an explanation or context for these experiences.

My belief is that this is a kind of defence mechanism: in order to survive in male-dominated fields that can be unwelcoming or outright hostile towards women, these women have had to choose not to acknowledge how their gender affects the way they are treated. To acknowledge that gender makes a difference in the workplace – often, for women, a negative difference – would mean having to acknowledge that there is a systematic problem and a structure of oppression, one that the individual academic employee is relatively powerless to change.

With a sense of powerlessness comes a lack of agency and feelings of victimhood, and women can’t function effectively in academia and do excellent research if they feel like they have no agency and are victims in their own workplaces. Therefore choosing to deny that there are gendered structures and inequalities becomes the only viable option for continuing their work in their chosen field. Not to mention that being one of the few women in a male-dominated setting and talking about gender equality is not a likely recipe for popularity among colleagues.

I am just an assistant and have not seen the entirety of the data, but in our discussion, my colleagues seemed to agree that this is a reoccurring theme in the interviews. They pointed out, however, that problem that then arises for them as researchers is how to address this phenomenon in their research and various publications. The goal, of course, is to treat the women who were kind enough to take the time to share their professional lives for the benefit of Nordwit’s research with utmost respect. Is it, therefore, ethical, let alone respectful, to call the interviewees’ experiences into question in such a way? And are we calling their experiences into question by pointing out the contradictions between the experiences they describe and how they explain them, or are we simply analysing the way they contextualise their experiences and through what kind of discourse they recount them? Do we have a right to do that, either?

Clearly, this is a significant problem, because it is fairly obvious that there are practices and structures in academia, particularly in male-dominated STEM fields, which produce gendered inequalities and injustice, and there is no other way to address and dismantle systemic injustice other than to first acknowledge that there is systemic injustice at play. Pointing out in research that there is a pattern of discrimination, despite the individuals’ claims that there is not, is essential in calling attention to the problems that must be addressed. But is it a disservice to our interviewees to contextualize their experiences in ways they don’t agree with? Are we sacrificing them to the cause of understanding gender inequality in academia? And if we are, can we justify it?

Liekki Valaskivi

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