Gender and danger: the ‘good girl persona’ in institutional fieldwork

By Ines Bolaños Somoano

I have spent hours formulating my questions, over and over again, so that they are precise but cannot be interpreted as provocative or too critical. Despite my intensive preparation, we reach a crucial point in the interview and I am nervous. I want to confront my interviewee, ask him why he says X thing happened, when official memos quite clearly state Y event was key instead. The look in his face tells me he doesn’t think I know about it, nor that I am likely to put him in a sore spot.

I ask him an easy question first, let him paint a pretty picture, before I move on to the meaty stuff. Then I aim my metaphorical weapon. I make sure my posture, face expression and voice all reflect an adequate sense of gratefulness and respect for his time and knowledge. My efforts are rewarded as I get a somewhat honest answer, if one that also vastly underestimates my knowledge in the subject.

When I exit the office, however, I do not feel exultant or accomplished; I am actually angry with myself and with my interviewee for the charade. For having had to feign ignorance and slow thinking in front of officials I have researched. I know, however, that others approaches (confident assertiveness or jovial camaraderie) would have not worked. As a female researcher, the ‘good girl persona’ is my only realistic approach to interviewing powerful institutional elites.

Of course, even using the ‘good girl persona’ hinges on me being a young, middle-class, female Spaniard with good command of English. If we travelled away from this positionality to a, say, black gay male German researcher, we would find other strategies for protection. While this piece is rooted in my experience as a woman, I hope it will motivate other minority researchers to come forward and discuss the “personas” they use in their fieldwork.

The ‘good girl persona’ introduced

As the name indicates, the ‘good girl persona’ is a performance, on the part of the researcher, of a predetermined set of traits: class, education, and most importantly, a gendered attitude that panders to traditional power dynamics. The ‘good girl persona’ is receptive, and changes according to the values of those attributes in your interviewee and surroundings. Its performativity, however, travels very well across a multitude of fieldwork and identity perspectives. The purpose of the persona is to allow the researcher to pursue gender unfriendly areas of research, and to protect her from the backlash of standing up to well-established power structures.

It presents female researchers as professional, well informed (“homework done”) individuals. Educated enough to be competent, but not so much so that they come across as intimidating or overly intelligent. It shows a diligent female academic, collected and with just the right touch of naiveté (a favoured trait in women), so that the interviewer will feel at ease, willing to talk and impress, and will not fear intellectual or professional competition from her.

The main advantage of the ‘good girl persona’ is perhaps the same thing that annoys most of us who have to use it. It shields the researcher using it from being seen in certain ways. It projects a very specific and gendered attitude, so that female researchers employing it might come across as harmless, respectful and deferential to the interviewee’s knowledge and position of power. The “adulating inquiry” mood that the ‘good girl persona’ performs, though, is not an easy on the ego. As a woman in academia, you will have already learned how to phrase your intelligence correctly, so that men (particularly older men in positions of power) won’t feel intimidated. In institutional settings, this is also an invaluable tool, for it ensures access to actors and knowledge that would be closed to an assertive, better informed woman.

It might seem that playing the ‘good girl persona’ is a simple choice not to make, if researchers want to avoid the dangers outlined. This is, however, a lie. Most working women, be it academics or professionals, have had to perform a certain degree of ‘good girl persona’ attitudes in order to be successful, navigate office politics and achieve their goals. It is not as simple as being, instead, forward, self-assured and unapologetic. Such an attitude, as a woman or other minority, is not likely to get you anywhere in most institutional environments, where unjust power hierarchies and gender gaps abound. This is, therefore, not a choice to be punished for, but instead a technique, with advantages and disadvantages.

Health and safety implications

So, we may wonder, what are the disadvantages? And what is the link between the ‘good girl persona’ and institutional research risks? Institutional fieldwork tends to take place in official, generally safe locations; furthermore, access to policy and political figures is highly regulated and guarded, so you are very likely to secure interviews weeks in advance, and be screened upon arrival to the premises. Some physical risks, then, can be avoided, such as open violent assault. Instead, researchers in institutional settings will be most seriously affected by mental health issues and sexual assault.

On one hand, researchers’ mental health can very seriously degrade in stressful fieldwork scenarios. This is especially true for female and minority researchers, who might feel even more pressured to make a good impression on interviewees and “prove” themselves. This leads to the first serious drawback of the playing the ‘good girl persona’: performance pressure. Doing fieldwork, being away and isolated, is already a stressful and alienating experience for the researcher.

In a way, the ‘good girl persona’ implies actively undermining your own intelligence and assertiveness. This display may seriously damage a researcher’s mental health, for it too often conflates with the all-too-prevalent “impostor syndrome” that plagues female researchers in academia (Bahn, 2014). These factors, combined, drown researchers’ self-esteem and can lead to abandoning fieldwork or suffering from depression.

On the other hand, the ‘good girl persona’ exposes researchers to the uninvited guest of every social gathering: sexual harassment and assault. There is a very real risk that one of your interviewees takes your ‘good girl persona’ (and it’s soft, appeasing air) as permission to openly flirt with you; tell sexist jokes; ask you out; corner you in an office; and any and every variation of sexual misconduct.

The fact that you are in an institutional setting doesn´t mean its actors aren’t part of the same patriarchal system perpetuating gender stereotypes and gender violence. In fact, given the hierarchical nature of intra-institutional power dynamics, you might find yourself in rather conservative and inflexible power environments. If you interview policy making and political elites, you are likely to deal mostly with men, far older than you, who are used to exercising authority and occupying prestigious or powerful positions.

We should remember that even when experiencing outright assault or harassment, it can be very difficult for victims to report or openly admit it. It may also seem impossible to confront the perpetrators if they are protected by their own power. Importantly, it is often the perception of our own powerlessness in contrast to the perpetrator’s power, which stops researchers from reporting sexual misconduct. 

Mitigating Risk and Handling Aggression

So where does this leave us? I hope the answer is on the path to change.
As a necessary first step, we must stop fetishizing fieldwork in general as a necessarily painful and lonely experience. Fieldwork is not a rite of passage, it is our work, and it should not be peppered with sexual harassment and feelings of uselessness. At the end of the day, such a change demands an active effort at the university level. We need to provide researchers with things like fieldwork preparation sessions, pre and post fieldwork counselling, and peer-to-peer exchanges on the realities of fieldwork in various scenarios.

That’s not all, however. We must also explore and discuss the specific hurdles of institutional fieldwork, mental health and sexual harassment, and find better ways to overcome them. I find that reflexivity and preparation help a bit. Researchers have to become aware of their boundaries, their willingness to endure or not certain discriminatory attitudes. This is, do you want to use the ‘good girl persona’ or not? Academics engaging in institutions need to talk and write about their experiences, encouraging other researchers to be forthright and honest about it too. No longer can we afford to tiptoe around these issues in university classrooms.

It also generally helps to thoroughly research your institution prior to your fieldwork. Identify their Anti-harassment Committee or Human Resources equivalent, so in case of sexual misconduct you will immediately know who you can go to for support and next steps. Almost every government or NGO has, at least on paper, a set of guidelines to communicate sexual harassment, and now it is the time to remind them why they were put into place.

Finally, I think the easiest way to survive the performance anxiety and burn out of the ‘good girl persona’ is to maintain a network of support. For a start, you can find a liaison/mentor person in your target institution. They will constitute an invaluable ally within the institution, to navigate institutional conduct and etiquette, facilitate access to difficult interviewees, etc. Additionally, institutional liaison figures can and should be your first point of contact for reporting sexual misconducts and other discriminatory incidents. The difficulty of communicating sexual assault can be made easier by having an intra-institutional ally, a person with whom you can drop your ‘good girl persona’ act and demand help and respect.

Another good way of building a network of emotional is to maintain regular counselling sessions. Preferably with someone you have worked with before and who can counsel you remotely during your fieldwork. Many universities nowadays offer counselling services, and in the current pandemic, conducting therapy over Skype has become common practice for counsellors. A therapist can help you navigate the feelings of anxiety, worthlessness and insecurity associated with institutional fieldwork, whilst providing an extra source of emotional support in case of more intense negative experiences.

I want my final words to be an exhortation to the academic community in general. We need to acknowledge how gender discrimination affects researchers’ experiences and ability to gather information and progress in their careers. Not only in renown dangerous or “exotic” areas, but in our everyday routines, governments and institutions. Gender discrimination is perhaps the biggest risk to female researchers’ careers, and there are no methodology manuals to help us with it.

References

Bahn, K. (2014, March 27). Faking It: Women, Academia, and Impostor Syndrome. The Chronicle of Higher Education. https://community.chronicle.com/news/412-faking-it-women-academia-and-impostor-syndrome

Kirby, Vicky (1994) ‘Response to Jane Gallop’s “The Teacher’s Breasts”: Bad Form’, in J. J. Matthews (ed.) Jane Gallop Seminar Papers: Proceedings of the Jane Gallop Seminar and Public Lecture ‘The Teacher’s Breasts’, June 1993. Canberra: Humanities Research Centre.

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About the author
Ines Bolaños Somoano is a former Euroculture Student who is now a PhD researcher at the Social and Political Sciences Department of the European University Institute in Fiesole, Italy. This article was initially published in the online magazine The New Ethnographer.

About The New Ethnographer
The New Ethnographer is an academic project about making fieldwork safer, healthier and more ethical. For more information visit www.thenewethnographer.org

Photo Credits
Article: CoWomen, Pexel
Ines’ photo: personal file

Insights into the Stasi: a surveilled life in former Eastern Germany

By Hannah Rittmeyer

“Happy slaves are the bitterest enemies of freedom.” – Marie von Ebner-Eschenbach

In February 2020, I attended a seminar of the Konrad-Adenauer-foundation, where I am a scholar and where I was honoured to spend a day of interesting lectures and readings with Dr. Karsten Dümmel, a contemporary witness of the former Deutsche Demokratische Republik (DDR). This experience made me think about how little this important part of German history is discussed in schools and by people in Germany, but probably even less in other parts of Europe and the world. With the current corona crisis, one can observe the long-lasting effects of the DDR regime, particularly with regard to surveillance and the considerably higher fear of many Germans, compared with their European neighbours, of measures like a corona tracking app, curfews and compulsory vaccination. This article wishes to provide some insights and a deeper understanding of the DDR, especially regarding surveillance, mainly pursued by the Ministry State of Security (Ministerium für Staatssicherheit)commonly known as the Stasi. Continue reading “Insights into the Stasi: a surveilled life in former Eastern Germany”

The Roots of Racism: Understanding today’s protests through yesterday’s lens

By Ana Alhoud

On May 25th an innocent man was killed by an unrelenting knee.
That knee belonged to a man who saw only what he wanted to see.
He held him there on the asphalt and ignored his pleas for mercy.
“Please,” said the man on the ground. “I can’t breathe.”
While one man’s knee crushed life from the other, people watched.
Cell phones held like nets so the day’s injustice could be caught.
Horrified faces and traumatized eyes saw this same terror, but weren’t that surprised.
The deepest stares were those of the man’s peers, in silent agreement with the execution taking place at their feet.
The people cried, they screamed and shrieked
For another life lost on this “colorblind” street.
A few days later a police station was set ablaze by a group of people hurt to the point of fury.
This latest reminder that their skin is a sin took its place as the people’s jury.
The kindling of 400 years of terror and sub-standard citizenship finally caught flame,
And that flame roars with the wails of millions wrongfully slain.
The pot has boiled over and the world stops to see
What happens when the people remember how to be
Together, fighting for each one to be free…
George Floyd looks on, finally able to breathe. Continue reading “The Roots of Racism: Understanding today’s protests through yesterday’s lens”

Covid-19 also spreads hoaxes: How the pandemic became the stage for a war on (dis)information

By Richard Blais

In a time of global pandemic where a global war is fought against the newest form of coronavirus, another battle regarding information and its usage is at stake. Conspiracy theories and controversial figures flourish throughout the internet and other media, contributing to the overall chaotic situation and possibly serving the interests of some people. This interest of mine for disinformation in time of a pandemic started about a month ago when a classmate sent on a WhatsApp group a message the following information: “According to a friend, a leak from the official Czech government has revealed that when 1,000 cases of coronavirus will be reported in the country, tighter restrictions will be imposed. If you are a smart person you should rush to supermarkets to gather food.” This rumour was proven false in the days that followed, yet this message managed to trigger some fear and added to the overall uncomfortable situation of being a stranger in a country whose culture you’re not completely familiar with. Continue reading “Covid-19 also spreads hoaxes: How the pandemic became the stage for a war on (dis)information”

What do Covid-19 conspiracy theories say about our society?

By Nemanja Milosevic

We are seeing many conspiracy theories spreading online about the novel virus that are either very vague (this is a preparation for something bigger, the exercise of larger population control), put specific blame for the virus (some country created it in a laboratory) or present a large ploy that is behind it (implementation of a larger idea, like 5G). I will not try to debunk those stories, as there are already many attempts to do so, but rather to provide a reading of some of their elements.

In cultural anthropology, stories such as urban legends, fables and myths are seen as narratives that fill provide a culture with a set of meanings that they can use to understand the cosmology they belong to, how things function morally, politically, culturally, etc. Their veracity is not important and individuals who share them might be well aware of that fact. Here, I am suggesting that we try to understand conspiracy theories in such a way: as a narrative that responds to a certain need of people who are emotionally invested in them and spread them further. Continue reading “What do Covid-19 conspiracy theories say about our society?”

The emerging role of small states amidst the crisis of multilateralism

By Christabel Fernandez

My time at the United Nations exposed me to the many fascinating facets of multilateralism and international relations. International Organisations like the United Nations are indeed a beacon of hope to peaceful international cooperation and a prevention of a third world war. Yet my time there also exposed me to the almost crippling and unbelievable reality of how IOs operate, and the blatant disregard for international norms and standards that large and powerful countries have. While the criticism against the abuse of power by states like those in the Security Council’s Permanent Five (P5) are widely known, less is known about the camp of small states that are seeing their collective voice grow, and for a more noble cause.  

Coming from Singapore, I have always had a sort of “soft spot” for small states and their struggles in international diplomacy. Their fights are numerous, from overcoming resource limitations, security and trying to gain legitimacy on an international level, and these are just some examples. Singapore, however, a tiny island nation-state, has managed to somehow make a mark in the world today. From leading the UNCLOS negotiations, [1] to holding key leadership positions in international organizations, [2] Singapore and Singaporeans have created a reputation for themselves as small, but capable. There is an affectionate term we use in my country known as being like “chilli padi”, a tiny red pepper with fiery seeds found in Southeast Asia – referring to the ability to pack an underestimated mean punch despite your small size. Continue reading “The emerging role of small states amidst the crisis of multilateralism”

Covid-19 in developing countries: the case of Peru

By Johanna Pieper

Disclaimer: This article deals with Covid-19 news. Thus, the information contained here may be subject to change.

On March 15th, the Peruvian president Martín Vizcarra announced to the nation in a televised message  the closure of borders and a mandatory quarantine nationwide. The government decided to implement radical measures to prevent the virus from spreading. Covid-19 had arrived in the country on March 6th and today 28.699 cases are confirmed. One can say that the Peruvian government has acted quite fast to prevent the country from experiencing a tragedy. But what is Peru actually experiencing right now? 

Tiaré López, a Peruvian who studies in Germany, was staying in an Airbnb apartment with her boyfriend when the quarantine was announced. “I arrived in Lima on February 17th due to an internship which I had planned for March. Honestly, I did not expect this to happen here. And suddenly the situation in the country changed so fast”, she reports, although she was informed about the impact of the virus in China and then in Italy and how Europe was shutting down. I do think that the government made the right decision. Everyone knows that our health system is not capable of handling a pandemic and I am glad the president acknowledged this importance to save the citizens and to put them above the economic well-being of the country. The measures were necessary to avoid tragedies as in Ecuador, where corpses have been abandoned on the streets.”  Continue reading “Covid-19 in developing countries: the case of Peru”

The true millennium bug

By Guilherme Becker

We were not expecting this. We were not prepared for this. The year was 1999 and the world was faced with one of its greatest expectations ever: the 2000s. The new millennium. A new era. A time forged from the previous decades, especially in the 1990s, but then also completely different. From the 2000’s on, kids would grow up connected to computers and electronic devices with limitless potential. There was the Internet, with a whole new way of communication. Worldwide. Connection. There were cableless tools. There were Nokia’s, Motorolas, Sony Ericsson’s, and then the IPhone, and Android. A beautiful picture.

Those were only some of the expectations of that time. And you could say that indeed we live in this world today. But back then, blocking the door to that new period, there was a possibly huge problem. A problem that could actually stop the development of this beautifully cybernetic world or maybe postpone it for a couple of years: the so-called millennium bug. Continue reading “The true millennium bug”

Quarantine and consumption withdrawal: will the coronavirus teach us how to enjoy life without being consumers?

By Charlotte Culine

There is more to life than our purchasing power. Beyond the lack of social contact, the quarantine measures set in most European countries have worried more than one about its repercussions on the economy. The coronavirus has indeed, and will, in the coming months, put the neoliberal capitalist system under pressure. One of the main reasons is that middle classes are stuck at home. It means that large part of the population in most European cities has sufficient purchasing power to sustain the capitalistic system and are, therefore, the main target for multinational companies’ advertisement strategies.

Quarantined, this cherished target-group is not able to consume as much as they usually would. In a world where overstimulating advertisements are omnipresent in the urban landscape, it has become difficult to step outside without ending up consuming anything, be it to get yet another pair of jeans, or to try the new vegan Starbucks triple caramel latte – two milks, one sugar. Continue reading “Quarantine and consumption withdrawal: will the coronavirus teach us how to enjoy life without being consumers?”

Pushing the limits of the European Union: What is the Hungarian government really aiming for?

By Dorottya Kósa

Over the past few days, my international friends have been bombarding me with questions concerning the new emergency law in my home country, Hungary. Receiving messages full of worries and having to pick up the phone to answer questions about the collapse of democracy in Hungary encouraged me to write this article. I hope to clarify certain things about the new legal realities and how it in fact did not change Hungary’s political powers.

Crash course on the legal framework of Hungary

Article No. 53 (State of Danger) of the Fundamental Law – the Constitution of Hungary – covers special legal orders for extreme circumstances such as a national crisis or a state of emergency. In a state of danger the government has the power to adopt means to suspend the application of certain acts, deviate from them, and take extraordinary measures. [1] As Article No. 53 declares, the means shall remain in force only for fifteen days, but the National Assembly can extend their power by voting every second week. The fourth paragraph pronounces that “upon the termination of the state in danger, such decrees of the Government shall cease to have effect.” Continue reading “Pushing the limits of the European Union: What is the Hungarian government really aiming for?”