Gendered Risks in Survey Research

by Carin Runciman

As researchers of gender and sexuality, we are reflexive of our own positions in our research, but how do we understand the experiences of survey workers who are crucial to quantitative research? This blog post is based upon an article of the same title published in the International Journal of Social Research Methodology.

Hands holding a cell phone and typing

I consider myself a thoughtful researcher who is attentive to the ethical dimensions of the research I lead and conduct. However, leading an exit poll during the 2019 national elections in South Africa exposed the limitations of my thinking around gendered relations of power in conducting survey research. In this blog, I reflect upon how issues of power, gender and sexualised[1] harassment can shape survey research and the need to mainstream these discussions as core to quantitative research methods training.

The realisation

Since 2014, I have been involved in conducting survey research related to South African elections. In 2019, I took over the project’s leadership and was responsible for recruiting and training over 100 survey workers. In 2014 and 2016, the survey was interviewer-administered using paper-based surveys, while in 2019 data was captured via an app on cellphones we supplied for the project.

As survey workers returned from the field, I would ask them about their experiences. Much of this yielded interesting or funny anecdotes of encounters with participants or reflections on visiting new parts of the country. However, one recollection was jarring.

Boipelo[2] was a research assistant who I had worked with over several years. She was now working at another university as a Researcher but had returned to work on the exit poll as it was research that she enjoyed doing. Greeting her as she returned from her research site, I was pleased to see her. When I asked her how the survey had gone, she laughed and started to explain to those of us present that many of the men she encountered did not want to participate in the survey unless they could have her phone number.

This was not the first time I had received reports of men asking young women survey workers for their phone numbers. However, in the previous rounds of the (then paper-based) survey, it was much easier to claim that you did not have a working phone. Now, women could no longer so easily offer up such an excuse when they were standing with a cellphone in their hand.

Boipelo continued her story, laughing as she told us that she would offer men a digit of her phone number for every question that they answered, while always giving the last digit incorrectly.

At the time, Boipelo was light-hearted. In many ways, what she was recounting was an everyday encounter. Women’s lives are shaped by such encounters and the deployment of strategies to avoid and deflect them. However, this incident was a wake-up call for the gender-blind way that I had conceived of the research training for the exit poll and for my research methods teaching, more generally.

To learn more, research assistant, Arina Sibanda and I, interviewed 17 survey workers to better understand their experiences and to explore potential gaps within current research methods training.

‘Part of the job’

As part of the interviews we asked our survey workers to reflect on their understanding of sexualised harassment. These revealed, perhaps unsurprisingly, that there were differing understandings. This, of course, reflects our wider society where sexualised harassment is often misunderstood as sexual attraction rather than as a performance of (male) power. But what is, perhaps, concerning is that the majority of survey workers were students of the social sciences, where there is a somewhat reasonable expectation that they would have developed a critical perspective on gendered relations of power.

While most of the survey workers interviewed did not report having experienced or witnessed any forms of sexual harassment, a minority did. They reported incidents similar to that related by Boipelo, particularly being asked for phone numbers as a condition of participation. For those who discussed an incident, the overwhelming sense was that this was ‘normal’ and ‘part of the job’. Boipelo similarly described the encounter in this way, but also reflected on its emotional impact:

As in any other context they make me feel like I am just like a tool, I cannot do anything besides giving out my numbers. I am there to work, so I felt like a new meat in the fridge and there are vultures waiting.

Boipelo’s experience of being dehumanized and objectified is not unique to the research context. As she makes clear, this is something that is common within her everyday experiences. However, the power with which Boipelo narrated her experience evokes a critical reflection on my own role and responsibilities in leading this project and my failure to make clear that this kind of experience should not be viewed as ‘part of the job’.

Reflecting on survey methods training

While it is impossible to mitigate all the risks that researchers face in the field, as the project leader, I was responsible for reflecting on and discussing anticipated risks and how to navigate them. The main risks that I had identified were political party officials being obstructive to the survey and the risk of protest at the voting station, based on our previous experiences of the survey research. While the physical safety of survey workers was a concern, I had negated any consideration of gendered power relations within survey research.

On reflection, this absence was glaring and at odds with my teaching and supervision of qualitative research, where such discussions of gender and risk are often central to methodological and ethical concerns. This revealed an embedded assumption that survey workers, compared to ethnographers or qualitative researchers, were somehow abstracted from the very same social processes. Indeed, most methodological literature pays scant attention to issues of power when conducting surveys and this is similarly replicated in survey methods research training.

Both qualitative and quantitative research need to be understood as gendered practices and the teaching of research methods needs to reflect this. This is important not only for better preparing students for the challenges of data collection but, to enable such teaching to contribute to forging an academy and society that is better equipped to deal with sexualised harassment through embedding critical awareness of it within our pedagogy.

[1] I use the term sexualised harassment rather than sexual harassment to emphasise patriarchal power rather than sexual attraction (see Kloβ 2017).
[2] This is a pseudonym.

Image credit: Photo by Jason Goodman on Unsplash

Cross posted from the Research Training Centre blog at SPS with permission from Dr. Runciman.