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

SOS Thesis! Alumni4Students: Maeva Chargros (Olomouc – Krakow)

Interview conducted by Gianluca Michieletto 

The second interview of the section “SOS Thesis: Alumni4Students” presents Maeva Chargros, who tells us about her Euroculture experience and gives students an insight into her thesis. Maeva is French and was in the 2017-2019 Euroculture cohort. Before that, she did a BA in Nordic Studies at the University of Caen, France, with an Erasmus in Tartu, Estonia. Before enrolling in the MA, she worked for start-ups and NGOs all over Europe, gaining some experience in the field of digital communications. Maeva started her Euroculture path at the Palacký University in Olomouc, Czech Republic, moving to the Jagiellonian University in Krakow, Poland, for her second semester. She was so impressed by the atmosphere of the small Czech town that she decided to spend her third semester (Research Track) and eventually begin a PhD there. When asked about the reasons that led her to apply for Euroculture, she simply said that she wanted to get a MA in something related to European Studies, which could lead her to a job in political communication.

Euroculturer Magazine: How would you describe Euroculture to future students? And what does it represent to you?  

Maeva Chargros: Euroculture is a cosy bubble – but in a good way. It does not cut you off from the rest of the world, instead, it is quite the opposite. It facilitates your peregrinations, it helps you figure out what you want your next steps to be, and everything is done so that once the bubble pops open, you land on your two feet from a safe height. So, it’s a cosy bubble that turns you into a cat… Sort of…  

EM: What do you think is the best thing about the programme?  Continue reading “SOS Thesis! Alumni4Students: Maeva Chargros (Olomouc – Krakow)”

SOS Thesis! Alumni4Students: Ashanti Collavini (Udine-Groningen)

Interview conducted by Gianluca Michieletto 

In this new section of the Euroculturer Magazine, we interview alumni who have much more to offer than an insight on the Master itself and can actually give many tips to current students regarding their own thesis writing process.

The first one is Ashanti Collavini, who was part of Euroculture 2017-2019. She spent her first and second semester respectively at the University of Udine, in Italy, her home country, and at the University of Groningen, in the Netherlands. For the third semester, she chose the research track at UNAM, the Mexican partner university. Before Euroculture, Ashanti did a BA in Foreign Languages and Literatures (English and Spanish) in Italy. She applied for Euroculture because she wanted to broaden her studies towards other subjects and gain international experience. She also wanted to live and study in foreign countries, improve her language skills and experience new cultures and academic systems. Ashanti is currently undertaking a second Master’s degree at the University of Trieste, but she is also the current Euroculture coordinator for the University of Udine. 

Euroculturer Magazine: How would you describe Euroculture to future students? And what does it represent to you?

Ashanti Collavini: I would describe Euroculture as a unique opportunity of life enrichment. One of those that gives students a set of skills and knowledge that they probably wouldn’t be able to fully develop by studying only in their own countries. At least, this is true for me! Euroculture represents a life-changing experience, since each country I studied and lived in shaped who I am today.

EM: What is the best thing about the programme? Continue reading “SOS Thesis! Alumni4Students: Ashanti Collavini (Udine-Groningen)”

Take Action – A Common Graduation Ceremony for Euroculturers

Anne Kurzweg | anne.kurzweg@gmail.com

It was during the Intensive Programme in Bilbao when the thought “Let’s have a common graduation!” came up. The idea arose in the middle of a process that tied us, the 2011-2013 MA Euroculture students, closer together but which, at the same time, marked already half-time on the Master programme’s clock. In the middle of making new contacts and reviving friendships from the first semester, we felt that the IP was a truly unique occasion to get together on the way to achieving our joint degree – one that would not come back. It is hard to say – maybe the felicitous gala dinner gave the key incentive for the idea, or maybe it was the melancholy that came with saying goodbye to so many marvellous people… Maybe, as we move between countries and universities, personal contacts become more important than places. And almost naturally, we strive for a common, dignified closing point, after all the effort put into this prestigious Master programme.

The discussion about the how-when-where that had barely begun during the IP shifted to our Facebook group in June. By the end of July, 55 of the approximately 80 2011-2013 Euroculture students had participated in or read the entries, and about 30 of them had actively ‘liked’ the overall idea. One of the first issues discussed was the location – where should a common graduation ceremony be held? There were proposals reaching from Krakow to Hawaii and from Groningen to Uppsala. Another of the first concerns was about additional costs for travelling and accommodation, and many wondered if there was some funding possibility as was the case for the IP. The motivation to set up a common graduation ceremony had started to materialise in concrete issues.

The first joint Euroculture graduation
(12-13 October 2012 in Göttingen)

Surprisingly, we have come to know only recently that preparations for the first joint “Euroculture Alumni Day and Graduation Ceremony” had already started at that time. Unnoticed by most of us, a news article appeared in the Euroculture group on the EMA (Erasmus Mundus Students and Alumni Association) website at the end of July, inviting Euroculture graduates, alumni and their relatives and friends to the event. The first joint Euroculture graduation, which was held 12-13 October in the Göttingen, was primarily organized for Göttingen home and host students, but was also open to students from the other universities. So it gathered graduates from the years 2008- 2012 and represented a meeting of former Euroculture students at the same time. The approximately 90 participants and guests from all over the world enjoyed highlights like a common dinner, certificate awarding ceremony and a casual get-together with snacks and drinks. While travelling and accommodation costs were not covered, the university offered to make reservations with the university discount.

When I started writing this article, I believed it would be with the mission to get a common graduation ceremony on the way. What it does now is to announce that a dream that many of us shared has already come true. Really, Prof. Dr. Tamcke from the University of Göttingen seems to sum up our feelings perfectly when he says: “If you finish your studies it’s not a mechanical thing alone. You need something also to feel that it’s a special point of your life and you need to celebrate it a bit”. In the end, the joint graduation ceremony and the alumni network are those characteristics of the MA programme that have the ability to carry the Euroculture spirit beyond its physical limits: staying in contact, keep meeting other Euroculturers, keep sharing ideas about Europe.

A last question remains: does all this mean that we can actually count on a graduation ceremony for us next year? Or one in some years time at least? Well, it looks like it! The University of Göttingen writes on its homepage: “Euroculture Göttingen would like to thank the participants for coming and helping us set up a wonderful tradition!” and announces that the event will be held on a yearly basis from now on. It’s just that… have we ever heard officially of such a ceremony for us? Let’s make sure, just in case. Take it as a mission to keep talking about the graduation ceremony in any possible Euroculture context, ask at your universities about it, tell all the Euroculture students and staff, and, if you like, even try to get involved in the organisation of the event. There’s no offer without a request for it, and we are here to make things happen the way we like them!

News article on EMA website: community.em-a.eu/networks/groups/course_48/news/news.65

University of Göttingen’s report about the “First Joint Euroculture Alumni Day and Graduation Ceremony”: www.uni-goettingen.de/de/414291.html

Videoclip on Youtube “First Joint Euroculture Alumni Day and Graduation Ceremony”: www.youtube.com/watch?v=KqJnm64oTvE

Anne Kurzweg, Contributing Writer

Anne has a BA degree in Social Sciences and studied MA Euroculture in the University of Deusto, Bilbao and Uppsala University. Currently, she is an intern at the European Capital of Culture office in San Sebastian. Minority languages, cross-border cooperation and peace studies are some of her favourite subjects, and she recently got absorbed by the idea of social transformation through civic participation… Yes, she is one of those do-gooders.