Is the gender of researchers a methodological issue?

Today I heard a professor of political anthropology tell a story that showed how the gender of researchers can be a methodological issue.

She and others were researching what it was like to be a female member of parliament in Ethiopia. They were conducting a focus group with the members of parliament, and initially there were the British female professor, a female Ethiopian researcher, an Ethiopian male professor, and a British male researcher. The British professor said that there women were tough, many of them having fought in a war; and the Ethiopian professor was confident that the women would say to him whatever they would say to the female researchers. The gender of the researchers was irrelevant.

So they conducted an experiment. Everybody was present for the first half, and the women members of parliament were clear that they experienced no discrimination in parliament. Eeverything worked well. Then the men left, and the meeting changed completely. The women said that they were attacked and abused by their male colleagues. They said that they were always scared to speak in parliament, whereas the men had no fear. The British professor thought it likely that at least some of the men were scared but that the women should assume they weren’t was an important finding in itself.

So the gender of the researchers completely changed the results of the study.

It occurs to me that this methodological finding might well apply in other contexts: perhaps, for example, patients would tell other patients things they would not tell doctors.


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