All by myself: what I have learned from doing fieldwork on my own

by Olivia Wilkinson.

While spending time online you have probably come across a clickbait article about someone who gave up work and went travelling on his or her own to discover the meaning of life. There have been lists of the top 10 reasons to travel on your own, hundreds if not thousands of blogs have been born to document their owners’ solo travel experiences, solo travel tips are just a quick Google search away, and countless articles have been published that extol the virtues of travelling on your own and discovering your true self along the way.

Solo travel for research is rarely cast in this light of self-discovery.  It only hits the news when tragedy occurs, most recently with the killing of an Italian PhD student in Egypt this year, which highlighted the dangers present while conducting fieldwork. In particular, the position of a woman researcher conducting fieldwork can be precarious, with a study finding that 18% of women scientists had experienced sexual harassment during fieldwork. While there have been highly worthwhile academic work published that deal with the position of women in fieldwork scenarios, I want to reflect more generally on what it’s like to be a solo researcher away from home.

My interest is in light of two relatively recent experiences. Firstly, I did my own PhD research in 2014 and 2015 in the Philippines. It’s a wonderful country that I regularly miss, and that I encourage you to visit. But at times I found the experience very difficult. Sitting in a hostel in Manila on the first few days of my trip, I felt small and alone. I Skyped my boyfriend and threatened to buy a flight home for the next day. My self-doubt at the beginning of the lengthy trip was high. I worried that I hadn’t arranged enough interviews and focus groups ahead of time. I worried that the ones I had arranged would fall through. I thought I was not going to come home with enough data to fulfil my PhD requirements. I worried about the travel I would have to do around the country. I felt inferior in comparison to the old hand aid workers I was trying to contact as part of my research. The months ahead of me seemed overwhelming. Instead of buying a flight home, I decided to persevere. I’m glad I did: my worries gave way to excitement and the trip turned out to be a success. Some pre-arranged contacts worked out, some didn’t, but I met new people, organised new interviews and focus groups, and came home having experienced the most intense, but rewarding, months of my research career thus far. In hindsight, I feel I gave myself too hard a time, especially at the beginning, and have learned to be kinder to myself as a result. I hope I can share some of the things I did to calm my worries and feel more confident.


Olivia at the MacArthur Landing Memorial in Palo, Leyte, December 2014.

Guidelines for fieldwork

Secondly, I have recently worked with two other women, Bianca van Bavel and Brynne Gilmore, to bring together a set of guidelines developed by students and for students on the ethical conduct of international fieldwork (supported by the Development Studies Association of Ireland and the Irish Forum for Global Health). The guidelines emerged from conversations with other young researchers who had vastly different experiences of the amount of support they received in completing their fieldwork. After a comprehensive literature review and focus group discussions with other early stage researchers, the eventual set of guidelines we have formed gives highly practical recommendations on going about fieldwork in a responsible and ethical way, which is both safe for the individual researcher and the people they interact with during the research. If you are about to embark on research, or even if you are half way through, I would highly recommend reviewing the guidelines here. What we learned during this experience is how many times young researchers have felt let down by their institutions during their fieldwork, made avoidable mistakes, and generally been ill-prepared for the fieldwork experience. Although I was lucky enough to have a supportive background both personally and through my university, I still found the experience challenging. For those with less than supportive situations, the combination of factors can be extremely limiting.

While I urge you to look through the guidelines for specific advice backed up by the weight of evidence from our research, I will also briefly reflect on some of the key takeaways I personally have from my research experience, looking back with the 20:20 vision of hindsight as I come to the end of my PhD. So, what have I learned?

Tips to remember

Know your boundaries. This is about managing your own expectations as well as other people’s. Understand how likely you are to take risks, and whether you should take those risks. You are ultimately responsible for yourself. For example, are you prepared to take a lengthy bus journey on your own to a place you’ve never been before to talk to one interviewee who might not even show up? What are the risks that you might encounter to get to that one interview? Are they worth it for that particular interview? The answer may be yes, absolutely! But it may also be no and that’s ok. One less interview is not the end of the world.

Don’t be afraid to ask. There are advantages and disadvantages to being a young female researcher. I felt, on the one hand, that I had to push quite a bit to underline my seriousness as a researcher. It was another woman, in fact, who belittled my research as just a pet project for my own benefit. On the other hand, however, I felt that I could benefit from this as people were very willing to help me out, assisting me in making further connections, as well as things like figuring out transportation or buying a SIM card. A lot of this was about learning to ask people for help and not thinking I was asking too much or seeming too needy.

Have an itinerary – and tell other people about it. It’s useful to plan your time carefully. You may feel like you have months ahead of you, but it will go quickly. More importantly though you should let others know when and where you will be. Like the advice to hikers before they head into the forest, let someone know when to expect to hear from you. Of course schedules change rapidly and you should take up opportunities when presented with them, but it’s always best to let a few people you trust have a broad idea of when and where you will be.

Know when to take breaks. Fieldwork is really tiring. You spend a lot of time doing administrative tasks, waiting on replies to phone calls and emails, and conducting interviews, which is an intensive process. Navigating from place to place in a new environment can be exhausting. You may also stand out a bit. At the end of the day, I found myself wanting to hide away and get some down time. Watching trashy TV all weekend (yes, I did this on occasion) is not necessarily a waste of time. You may only have a short amount of time in a certain place and feel pressure to get a lot done, but burn out can happen quickly, especially when you’re on your own, and some time for recuperation is well worth it.

Try to include a scoping trip. I was lucky enough to be able to conduct a month-long scoping trip before my main research trip. I highly recommend it, as it allowed me to not only gain contacts and organise things for my subsequent, longer trip, but also familiarise myself with the places I was intending to stay and learn how to navigate around the islands I would be staying on. This was very useful for my second trip when I was working really hard on my data collection. I was glad to have that familiarity, which made me feel more at ease.

My PhD experience would not have been even half as rewarding without my fieldwork. I personally gained a lot and I hope that I can give back through my research findings. Yet something we underline at the very beginning of the fieldwork guidelines is that international fieldwork is not for everyone. It’s a commitment and there are risks, both of which you need to be aware of from the outset. Inform yourself with our guidelines and other documents out there. If it’s still for you, then I have one last recommendation: remember to enjoy yourself too! Take a weekend off to explore! You deserve it.


Time for reflection while waiting for a focus group to start, Leyte, March 2015.


“It puts you in a place like a bottle”: Stigma, shame, and gender based violence

By Carol Ballantine

I’m fascinated by stigma. It’s the way that social judgements, seemingly innocuous and even random in themselves, can determine the whole lives of individuals. Stigma increases HIV infections, it isolates people who need human support, it results in cruel discrimination. One Kenyan woman put it powerfully, in a conversation with researchers for the NGO Trócaire:

Stigma … it puts you in a place like in a bottle. You don’t know how you can get out of it… It’s like something that kills you slowly. It follows you everywhere you go ‘til it finishes you.”[1]

We all do it. We all stigmatise without even realising it. Identifying stigma is the first step to taking away its power.


Stigma refers to the social judgement that particular characteristics or attributes are undesirable. The first theorist of the subject, Erving Goffman, referred to stigma as a “spoiled social identity”. This captures the sense that, owing to public judgement, one’s entire identity can be devalued – in the eyes of others, and even in one’s own eyes.

Stigmas attach to all sorts of attributes: behaviours; conditions; diseases and beliefs. The subject most closely associated with stigma in the popular mind, particularly in countries like Ireland, is mental health and mental illness. Certain diseases are also heavily stigmatised, such as HIV, leprosy and TB.

My research is beginning to look at how we can understand the impact of gender based violence by understanding the stigma that goes along with it.

In recent decades, the importance of stigma has been well established in the field of public health. Epidemiologists aim to understand how human interactions and behaviours affect health and disease conditions. Stigma is a crucial piece of this puzzle. Stigma prevents people from accessing the medical and psycho-social services that they need to overcome their afflictions. For example, estimates indicate that nearly two thirds of all Americans with a diagnosable mental illness do not seek help. This is particularly problematic when it comes to infectious diseases. In the case of HIV, not only does pervasive stigma prevent people from seeking medical care, it also prevents people from disclosing their HIV status to others, or discussing HIV with others. This tendency to conceal and avoid mention of the virus enables new infections and confounds attempts to control transmission.


If we are ever to address large-scale public health issues like mental illness and HIV (among many others), the importance of tackling stigma is well established. But that’s not the only – nor even the most important – reason to address stigma. Because stigma has a corrosive effect on individual lives. It causes isolation and exclusion, the loss of family and friends at the very time when they’re most needed. It can cause self-doubt, self-blame, self-hatred. In the course of my work, I’ve spent time with lots of people who are (among other things) HIV positive, in Ireland and Honduras, Kenya and Ethiopia. When they’ve talked about their diagnosis, they’ve unfailingly talked about the stigma that goes with it. Sometimes it sounds like stigma is a symptom of the disease. Sometimes it sounds like stigma is worse than the disease.

Stigma and Gender Based Violence

I am working on a research project investigating the social impacts of gender based violence (GBV) against women. The term GBV refers to violence directed against a person on the basis of gender or sex[2]. While women, men, boys and girls can be the victims of gender-based violence, women and girls are the main victims. Like mental illness or HIV, violence against women is a global public health concern, since it is the cause of both morbidity and mortality in women of all ages. It’s also a global human rights concern: women worldwide can’t live their lives to the fullness of their potential because of physical, sexual, financial and emotional insecurity and trauma.


Stigma is relevant when it comes to understanding gender based violence: both how the violence continues to be perpetrated, and how it impacts people.

Recent analysis of data across thirty low income countries showed that on average, only 6% of women exposed to intimate partner violence approached formal services such as health care or police.

While there are many reasons for women to avoid formal services, one of these is definitely a sense of judgement, of blame, and anticipation of gossip and social rejection. In one study, twenty so-called battered women from Israel discussed their feelings of self-stigma. Here is one woman speaking:

“In fact, why doesn’t a woman complain? She is ashamed that people would find out that she is beaten. She is ashamed to go to the police. This shame is one of the reasons that she doesn’t complain.” [3]

And another woman who was assaulted, from the same Kenya study as before:

“I fear that I will tell them [neighbours and friends] and they will start talking about me and laughing. I do not like that because they will know what is happening in my home and they will go around telling everyone about it.”[4]

We are living in a moment where this stigma is beginning to be recognised and named: that’s why concepts like rape culture and victim blaming are becoming commonplace in some communities and spaces. But stigma is a sticky phenomenon, and shifting it means seeing its many differing dimensions.

Complicating the public stigma that attaches to GBV is the shame that is an almost constant state for many women. Shame is not the same thing as stigma: it is a painful emotion involving a negative self-judgement that affects the whole self. Stigma produces shame, and this can be the most insidious impact of stigma, as it turns a person against herself. And there is good evidence that shame affects women more than men, and differently to men. For Freud, shame was “the feminine emotion par excellence”. Sandra Bartky argues that for many women it may be “the pervasive affective taste of a life”. Triggered by stigmatising public attitudes and gendered emotional dispositions (that is, emotional dispositions that are patriarchally constructed and shaped), shame can take hold on women. It silences them. It makes them complicit in their own victimisation. It enables the abuse and the violence to continue.

As with all other stigmatised conditions, stigma related to GBV is important for at least two reasons. First, for the undeniable impact that it has on individuals: the limitations that it places on their own physical and mental health (through failing to seek help, and loss of self-esteem) and through the isolation and mistreatment it often provokes, the gossip, cruelty and exclusion. And second, for the insidious role that stigma plays in enabling violence to continue. Stigma keeps women in abusive situations, blaming themselves for the violence, or fearing the judgement of others if they leave. It tells perpetrators that they are less than fully responsible, that the victim bears at least some, if not all of the blame. Of course stigma is not the only thing that holds gender based violence in place – but it’s a powerful contributor.

Stigma is a profoundly conservative force, policing the norms that are open to discussion. Because it operates internally in the psyche of stigmatised individuals, it often militates against solidarity, organising and collective action. And yet it works the other way too.

At times, the best reaction to having a label applied to you without your consent is to embrace the label, claim it, and use it as the basis of new forms of solidarity. This has happened to good effect with HIV – though nobody could say that the stigma has evaporated as a result. Stigmatised identities are often reactive and defensive (who would choose to define themselves as a survivor of domestic violence unless they felt they had to?). The support that develops within the community can stand in marked contrast to the continuing derision outside it. The responsibility for shifting the norms, attitudes and beliefs that inform stigma can’t be left to the victims of stigma alone.

Researching GBV stigma

My PhD research is looking at the impacts of gender-based violence, and the role of stigma and shame in amplifying and multiplying these impacts. One element of stigma is that, while it attaches to GBV almost everywhere, the dynamic is very different depending on the norms that prevail, the ways that people interact, and people’s material conditions and values. In my research, I’m focusing on migrant women living in Ireland. They already confront stigma and shame related to their migrant status, and often their status as women in their own communities. I want to know about how gender based violence has affected their lives, and the role stigma has played in this.


In spite of a critical absence of comprehensive data on experiences of violence, small studies emerge and shed light on this situation, as I hope my research will. This year Wezesha, an African diaspora organisation, released a damning report on the experiences of migrant women affected by conflict living in Ireland. The report is full of disturbing detail about migrant lives in Ireland, and the layers of trauma, victimisation and strength that emerge don’t fit in any easy frameworks. Nonetheless, the ring of stigma and shame sounds clearly through the noise:

“Women have even expressed how they are fearful of speaking with their doctor about their past experience of trauma, depression and stress saying that once it is entered into hospital records it will impact on their possibility of accessing jobs in the future. They indicated that all they want is to move on with their lives.” The threat of social opprobrium, holding people down.

I plan to investigate lifetime experiences of GBV among a small group of migrants in Ireland. I want to examine the ways that GBV has affected their lives and their communities, and the part that stigma and shame have played.


Spending four years on a research study feels a bit like self- indulgence. Like any apprenticeship, the deepest implications are personal. I am meeting myself in new ways, and of course encountering the ways in which this line of enquiry was prompted by my own extreme proclivity to shame.

I see the insidious power of stigma everywhere – and the dazzling strength of shamelessness.

While activists have done an excellent job of popularising the idea of victim-blaming, using a public health model to understand the patterns and effects of stigma enables us to view it clearly as a policy issue. This study will contribute to an understanding of how violence is experienced by marginalised individuals and the interventions that can help promote prevention, protection and punishment. Here in Ireland, we don’t have detailed knowledge about gender based violence (who is most affected, where and when?) – largely because of savage cuts to all but frontline services (the last comprehensive study on sexual violence in Ireland, for example, was conducted in 2002, when levels of migration into Ireland were far lower than they currently are, and migrants were not even included among the marginalised groups identified). This qualitative study will give an insight into one largely under-served group in the population, their experiences and the barriers they face to seeking help.

Beyond my small study cohort, I hope to show that stigma has an impact of its own on people’s lives, an impact that is additional to and separate from the violence itself. In as much as violence prevents people from taking part in community life, I want to examine the role that stigma plays. This has implications for the priority that we give to eliminating gender based violence – and for the ways in which we do so. I’m hoping that I can also shed more light on the seemingly intractable persistence of gender based violence, in every society in the world.


[1] From an unpublished research study by Jessica Penwell Barnett and Eleanor Maticka-Tyndale, 2013

[2] This definition is drawn from the United Nations High Commission for Refugees.

[3] Buchbinder and Eisikovits, 2003

[4] Barnett and Matcika-Tyndale, 2013

Sitting with strangers and touching stomach soap: Reseaching Performance Art in Eastern Europe

by Dr. Amy Bryzgel

Imagine you walk into a stranger’s home and he shows you pictures of his stomach being operated on — skin pulled back, a layer of fat being removed. “I took the fat from my stomach, and made a soap from it — here, feel it,” he says, as he takes a piece of soap from the drawer and shows it to me. “Does anyone know I’m here?” I think to myself, “should I be here? Is this dangerous?”

Bryzgel - Albania

Amy Bryzgel meets with artists from the artistic and activist group Montenegrin Alternative Culture, Podgorica, June 2013

A few weeks later, I found myself in another stranger’s home. “Would you like a beer?” he asks. I take a sip from a freshly poured beer and he shows me some pictures. “Here, I tried to urinate into my mouth, and when I couldn’t, I urinated into my hand and drank it.” “Was this really beer on the table?” I thought to myself.

This is my research. For two years, I traveled across Eastern Europe, to 21 countries and countless more cities, and met with over 250 artists, curators, art historians, and arts practitioners to gather research for my forthcoming book, Performance Art in Eastern Europe since 1960.

The man who had his stomach operated on is Zoran Todorović. He is contemporary artist from Serbia, and I met with him to talk about his art. He made the soap for a work called Agalma, the title being a reference to a Greek word meaning gift, and the work was a gesture of intimacy with his viewers—at the exhibition of the work, which documented the surgery and making of soap, he invited visitors to wash their hands with the soap. At one exhibition, visitors were given the opportunity to be bathed with the soap, by two curators, in a private room. The man who urinated into his hand is Siniša Labrović. This performance is called Perpetuum Mobile, and refers to the current position of artists in the neoliberal system, where artists struggle to make a living for themselves. Labrović created a way to be self-sustaining, by creating a performance that enabled him to feed himself

2.31.2 Todorovic-Agalma performance dokumentation photo - Beograd 2003

Zoran Todorovic, Agalma, documentation of performance, Belgrade, 2003. Courtesy of the artist

During the communist period in Eastern Europe, performance art—live art created by visual artists, also known as body art, live art, action art—usually developed unofficially. Painting and sculpture, the traditional art forms, were under government control, and were usually employed in the service of the state. Depending on the country in question, the state’s control over art varied. We are familiar with the propaganda paintings and cult of personality busts and statues from the former Soviet Union, however, in places such as Yugoslavia and Poland, artists had a bit more leeway. Artists were able to create experimental art in artist-run or student venues, but not in official state-run galleries, museums and institutions. Still, performance art was never really recognised as a legitimate art form as it was in Western Europe and North America, and developed, for the most part, underground.

It is for that reason that I had to spend two years traveling through the region to meet with and talk to artists, to gather the oral histories to create a written history that had not yet been written. How did the genre develop? Why did artists create performances? How did they create them? These were the questions I asked. I met with artists who worked both during the communist period and who are working now (and some artists whose work spans both the communist and post-communist periods), in order to gauge how the art form has developed before, during and since the transition.

As an undergraduate student in art history at Boston University in the 1990s, I rarely, if ever, encountered an artist from Eastern Europe in my courses. In fact, I would dare to say that I didn’t encounter one contemporary artist from the region in either my courses or my textbooks. For various reasons, the art of Eastern Europe was largely omitted from the history of art. During the Cold War, travel to the region was difficult, and most scholars lacked the language skills to do primary source research. Those who did would have found few, if any, primary sources for their research, because the state controlled the art history discourse as well. And with most art in the service of the state, the meaning was not open to interpretation—all art served the state ideology of building socialism. So while experimental art in the region developed underground, art history as a discipline was stalled, and art historians have been playing catch-up since the 1990s.


As a 3rd generation American with Polish roots, the omission of Eastern European artists from my discipline was personal. So I set out to fill this gap in my later research. Studying performance and body art from the region not only worked to fill a lamentable gap in the literature of 20th century and contemporary art, but also provides insight into the social and cultural conditions of late socialism in the region. Analysing the range of activities that were allowed and prohibited, where and when, has served as a litmus test for the limits of freedom in state sponsored socialism. For example, Yugoslav Croatia has a strong tradition of street art, public actions and performances in the 1970s and 1980s, yet this type of public display was virtually absent from the public sphere in Bucharest, in Ceaușescu’s Romania at the same time. In 1981, Tomislav Gotovac walked down the main street of Zagreb, completely naked, shouting “Zagreb, I Love You!” in a performance entitled Lying Naked on the Asphalt, kissing the asphalt (Zagreb, I love you!). In Bucharest, however, artists such as Geta Brătescu and Ion Grigorescu created body art and performances in the privacy of their studios, documenting the performances through photography or film. While Gotovac was arrested for public nudity, he was given the minimal sentence, because the judge was understanding of his artistic intentions. In Bucharest, however, an artist even attempting such a display would have faced more serious consequences—so serious that no one even dared try. This is just one example of the different manner in which state-sponsored socialism was implemented across Eastern Europe.

Performance Art in Eastern Europe since 1960 will be the first comprehensive attempt to write the history, chronology and development of performance art in Eastern Europe.

It covers over 200 artists in 21 countries, working from the 1960s until today. It fills an unacceptable gap in the literature on performance and contemporary art, which traditionally only includes the history and development of performance art in Western Europe and North America. Beyond that, it tells a range of compelling stories of artists finding ways to create experimental art in unfavourable conditions—not only under censorship, but with a deficit of materials and support for their work. Putting this history together required months of travel to and through the “other side” of Europe, meetings with artists in their home, cafes, bars; numerous cups of coffee and glasses of beer, and hours of engaging conversation. And it was anything but boring.


Holding Out for a Heroine: Women in Folktales of the Western Malayo-Polynesian Language Group

by Ikhlas Abdul Hadi.

Folktales are told across all known cultures throughout the world. We are familiar with a few, mainly through Disney’s popularisation of tales such as Cinderella, Snow White, and Sleeping Beauty. This well-known list of female-oriented stories may lead some to believe that folk stories are dominated by female characters. The opposite is true however, when we look at international collections of folktales that have appeared in print. With women making up nearly 50% of the world’s population, it may come as a surprise that there are not as many folktales about women as there are about men. In a quantitative study led by Jonathan Gottschall, it was found that this phenomenon is prevalent worldwide; that ‘male main characters […] outnumbered female main characters by more than 2 to 1’ (100).

Ikhlas 1

The table above is taken from Jonathan Gottschall’s Literature, Science, and a New Humanities (2008)

‘Male main characters…outnumbered female characters by more than 2 to 1’

At present, there are no conclusive answers to this conundrum – some speculate that the blame is to be laid on the male editors who chose to include more male-oriented stories in their folktale collections; but Gottschall is unconvinced. He found that this discrepancy between male and female characters occurred even in collections edited exclusively by women. He suggests that the ‘missing tales of women’ could have been caused by a lack of folkloric access to storytelling women; this hypothesis imagines the existence of women who possess more female-oriented stories, but they were inaccessible due to past societal restrictions on interactions with male collectors (151). Another possibility is that there just weren’t as many stories told about women; that early female-led stories centring on a pre-industrial life are more home-based, and are less interesting than men’s. This is a rather problematic suggestion, and shows that there is still room for further research in this area. But the aim of my studies is not to answer why there aren’t many female-led stories. I decided to take on a route similar to the motivations of the founders of Women are Boring: approaching the problem by showcasing female-led stories that have made it into printed folktale collections through research.

Even though there are not as many folk stories about women as there are about men, there is still plenty of potential in working with the materials available and shedding light on these female-led stories. I believe that the more they are studied, the more they will become known around the world. Following this line of thought, I decided that while I was bringing light to little known female-oriented stories, I might as well focus on a group of women whose folk stories had never before been collectively studied – those from the Western Malayo-Polynesian language group. This language group consists of languages spoken in southern Vietnam, the Philippines, the island states of western Micronesia, Indonesia, Madagascar, and my home – Malaysia.

Because of these specifications, I experienced the absence of tales on women first-hand.

My initial scope of research was on Malay folktale texts, but this was widened to the Western Malayo-Polynesian language group as it was difficult to find a sufficient number of female-led stories for analysis. Selection of tales was further complicated when searching for plots that featured female characters who shaped the outcome of a story. If the women were not active characters, these stories would not yield sufficient information for further analysis. Because of these specifications, I experienced the absence of tales on women first-hand. Upon scouring online collections and libraries in the University of Leeds and the Royal Netherlands Institute of Southeast Asian and Caribbean Studies (KITLV), I managed to obtain only 100 printed stories that contained active female protagonists from Western Malayo-Polynesian societies. To illustrate how difficult it was to obtain these 100 stories, take a look at Mable Cook Cole’s collection of 61 Philippine folktales: in this collection, only 4 tales contained plots that features active women and thus were included in my thesis.


The Western Malayo-Polynesian language group

We live vicariously through these stories, and they can assist us in making judgments in our own lives.

With an arsenal of stories from the Western Malayo-Polynesian language group, I use findings from evolutionary theory to better understand why they have managed to survive. Because folktales are a universal phenomenon, it has been argued that they are an inherently human activity. The persistence of their existence provides a hint of their importance to humans, and evolutionary literary theorists argue that stories can implicitly help humans with navigating both their physical and social world through simulated events. We live vicariously through these stories, and they can assist us in making judgments in our own lives.

With an evolutionary understanding of human drives, I began looking through the stories for common themes that may confer evolutionary benefits. I saw that an overwhelming number of stories were focused on searching for a partner (approximately 50% of the collected stories), and another large theme was focused on women’s roles in the family (approximately 40% of the stories). It’s a staggering number; almost 90% of the female-led stories collected dealt with themes that were related to reproduction, a key element in propagating the human species. It is a number that seems to suggest that we (or at least Western Malayo-Polynesian societies) were telling stories that held evolutionary-beneficial themes, implicitly designed to help us survive better.

Almost 90% of the female-led stories collected dealt with themes that were related to reproduction, a key element in propagating the human species.

It could be argued that viewing these stories from such a perspective limits the potential of women; if ‘beneficial’ stories were ones that promoted reproduction, it would stand to reason that they would promote the tired idea of women as mothers. Indeed there are plenty of stories that promote motherhood as the ultimate goal for a woman. When viewed from an evolutionary perspective, it can make sense that we tell such stories. Childbirth is necessary in order for humans to continue to exist, and thus there is always a need for mothers. But this heavily simplified analysis of folktales needs to take into consideration that folk stories normally rely on a fairly conservative, heteronormative storytelling tradition that may be serving a patriarchal idea of womanhood.

This is why we should not view these stories in isolation; there are plenty of other tales that exist alongside those with ideas of women as ‘natural’ mothers. There are Western Malayo-Polynesian stories of mothers, when lacking support from their family, who abandon their children. This may seem to run counter to the idea of the ‘natural’ mother, a mother who is ‘naturally’ able to give birth and raise a child into adulthood on her own. But it has been shown across evolutionary psychology that the ideal mother figure can only be attained if she feels that she will be supported upon giving birth. If not, history and oral stories show that mothers will cease investing in their children when they find themselves in poor circumstances. There are also stories of women who reject marriage and motherhood, preferring instead to rule kingdoms or sacrifice themselves to bigger cause. These stories imply that there are other options besides motherhood, other paths in life that may benefit a woman from an evolutionary perspective other than reproduction. Thus there are various adaptive ‘lessons’ that can be reaped from the fictional depictions of womanhood, ones that are not necessarily based on patriarchal ideas.

We should not view these stories in isolation; there are plenty of other tales that exist alongside those with ideas of women as ‘natural’ mothers.


Anna and Elsa from Disney’s (2013) Frozen

I would also suggest that the lessons derived from folktales are always changing. When comparing stories that have been accepted in the past, to the ones that have been popularised today, there is a clear distinction in values. Bringing in Disney again, a company that is arguably the largest distributer of modern folktales, we see a difference between the ‘lessons’ to be derived from Cinderella and her stepsisters, Drizella and Anastasia (1950), and from Anna and Elsa, sisters of the immensely successful movie Frozen (2013). The female protagonists of Frozen are not competing with each other to win the attraction of a Prince, or in evolutionary terms, a reproductive partner. They have other concerns – an aspect that is reminiscent of findings from my own research, where approximately 10% of the Western Malayo-Polynesian stories focused on themes beyond searching for Prince Charming. It is a small percentage of stories, but it may be an indication of a change in women’s priorities, and perhaps a change in the way women can obtain evolutionary benefits for themselves.

Throughout my research on Western Malayo-Polynesian stories, I had been introduced to many different types of women; mothers who are patient with their unhelpful children, mothers who despair and abandon their children; sisters who protect each other from monsters, sisters who fight and attempt to murder each other; wives who sacrifice themselves for their husband, wives who dream of better husbands; princesses who are given away in marriage, and queens who turn down offers of marriage. And there are more folktales out there; tales that tell of implicit evolutionary advantages, which have yet to be considered. Further research is thus always needed to assist in re-evaluating the evolutionary underpinnings of how and why women are portrayed in certain ways, and also to recover more of these ‘missing tales’ of women.


L’Oreal-UNESCO For Women in Science Awards

By: Grace McDermott, Co-Founder of Women Are Boring.

The Awards:

Last week, Women Are Boring had the honour of attending the L’Oreal-UNESCO Women in Science Awards. We had the chance to meet and learn about some of the women carrying out ground-breaking scientific research work in Ireland and the UK.

Approximately 30% of researchers in the world are women*, a statistic which is notoriously lower for women in the Sciences, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM). Women comprise  a mere 15% of the UK STEM workforce, and to this day only 3% of all Nobel prizes in the sciences have been awarded women. As such, it is no surprise that a recent study showed that some 23% of current female science students in the UK “won’t” or “aren’t sure” whether they will pursue a career in science.

The L’Oreal Women in Science Programme “recognizes the achievements and contributions of exceptional females across the globe, by awarding promising scientists with Fellowships to help further their research.” Founded eighteen years ago, on the premise that ‘the world needs science and science needs women’ over 2000 women from across the globe have been recognised  and received funding to further their research. 

Despite an uphill battle for female STEM researchers across the globe, this year’s awards saw a record number of applications, a feat which proves that female scientists are not going away anytime soon. Out of 400 applications, 40 were longlisted and 8 academics made it to the final nomination list, a selection that L’Oreal’s Scientific Director, Steve Shiel called “ impossibly difficult”. The 8  nominated candidates included female mathematicians, chemists, paleo-biologists, nuclear physicists and the list goes on. In the end, five fellowships were awarded. 

There were two things about the awards that really stood out as newsworthy. Firstly, it was the importance of the research the nominees presented, and the simultaneous significance of presenting such work to audiences who would have otherwise never engaged with it. Secondly, it was the urgent need for a reexamination of what the research community and its supporters, consider valid research costs.


All of these women were impressive in their own right, taking on major issues that range from curing diseases, to perfecting wastewater treatments, or challenging accepted conceptions about how star clusters form. Shiel stated

“It’s hard to compare the work of paleobiologists to a medicinal scientist’s work but one thing was evident about all of the winners, and it was that they each had passion. They each had a palpable passion you could feel for what they did, but also this sense of curiosity and discovery.”

The importance of communication: 

Like any award ceremony, there was no shortage of deserving candidates, many of whom we intend to feature in the upcoming months, but one of the projects that stood out for us was Reham Bedawy, a short-listed PhD nominee who was working to support the early detection of Parkinson’s via a mobile phone app. If helping to diagnose life-threatening illness wasn’t enough, she was also able to clearly explain the operationalisation of her work and a seemingly complex disease to two social-science researchers (i.e. us!) who wouldn’t know the right end of a beaker. Her work is inarguably significant, regardless of whether or not a non-expert audience could understand it, but as a result of her interesting and translatable presentation, at least two new researchers who may have otherwise been completely unaware of Parkinson’s research, are now engaged and eager to learn more (follow Reham on Twitter here).

As a media researcher, I was surprised to find how much in common I had with a mathematician. As a large portion of my work focuses on the role of social media in revolutionary movements, I could draw parallels with some of the techno-focused aspects of her methodology. She made me consider how I may better leverage mobile apps for my own work, and above all she inspired me. Her presentation, like so many of the researchers’ presentations, exemplified the significance of not only individual female academics, but the power and influence of the collective. A room full of intelligent, motivated and successful women is something that is seldom seen and far less celebrated. As an aspiring academic, the presence and recognition of these accomplished women helped reignite my own confidence, and motivation to carry on with my work.

It made me think about what the world might look like if these women were splashed across our news headlines, Twitter feeds, or history books?

We need to redefine “direct research” costs:

Aside from inspiration, the awards led to a realization: supporting female academic achievement requires a redefinition of “direct research costs”. What we found particularly noteworthy about the awards was the fact that the winners were allowed to dictate the way in which there awards would be spent, sometimes in ways which are seemingly unconventional in the research community. Many of the past laureates spoke about the importance of using the awards to help facilitate childcare and family relocation to areas or institutions, which were crucial to the development of their work. Moreover, several nominees were pregnant, or brought their young children with them to the awards.

While all funding aimed at supporting equality in research is important, the seemingly non-direct costs of research careers are sometimes the most expensive and difficult to articulate. As such, the importance of funding opportunities which give female academics the power to control the use of their grants presents an equalizing potential that traditional research grants do not. The testimonies of an overwhelming number of past laureates attested to this.

Often, when we speak about female academic achievement the topic of motherhood is ignored. As the notion of motherhood so often consumes, and even stifles the narrative of women in the workplace, I often find myself intentionally discussing the achievements of female academics, or female professionals as an entirely separate entity from their roles as mothers or caretakers.  But these awards brought to the fore the importance of recognizing and funding female academics not only via direct research grants, but also by way of flexible and family-centric support. A recent article in the New York Times upheld this, finding that even seemingly gender-neutral family-friendly policies in many academic institutions tend to favor male academics.

These testimonies leave many open-ended questions, but highlight the need for a continued conversation on the meaning of gender equality and the importance of building female equity in the research space.

What is clear is that female academics experience a different professional reality than their male-counterparts. The awards, and each of the nominated women exemplified the importance of advocacy, not only in the context of each of our individual research work, but also in terms of our collective experiences.