Tackling the ethical approval process

Forms over function: Ethics, ethnography and the NHS

by Carol Robinson

At times last year I forgot that I was doing a PhD. It’s not that I was having a wild time as a student. No, by 9am every day I turned up to the office my department has kindly provided, settled down at my desk and worked solidly until some point after 5pm. Some of that time I’d be keeping on top of email, or attending departmental meetings, but mostly, I was working. Twitter doesn’t distract me, I had an organised weekly list of things to do that I worked through, and things were progressing nicely, thank you.

So why did I forget that I was working towards a PhD? Because for most of that time everything I did was aimed at getting ethical approval for my research. So it was almost a shock to look up and remember that wasn’t really my goal. My goal is to do the PhD research, to contribute to human knowledge and understanding, and to do it in a way that improves people’s lives. For a while however, compiling what became 91 pages of ethics forms plus supporting documents and all the bureaucracy that goes with that completely eclipsed the research.

I always knew I’d need to get ethical approval for my work. What I didn’t appreciate was how time-consuming, frustrating and complicated this would be. I used to listen to other people’s stories of wrestling with UK’s Integrated Research Application System, or with the NHS Health Research Authority’s byzantine processes and think either that they were exaggerating for effect or that perhaps their project wasn’t, well, good enough. I’d had approval from the prison service for England and Wales for two previous research projects; how hard could it be? I now apologise whole-heartedly that these thoughts even crossed my mind.

I did make life harder for myself by wanting to research dying prisoners, thus requiring both health service and prison service approval, as well as that of my University. The prison service process was fairly straightforward and familiar. The real trouble was with the NHS processes, and with the relationship between the three bodies. What kept me going for several weeks, as I tried to untangle the mass of acronyms and synonyms involved, was the thought that I was gaining useful experience. At the end of all this, I thought, I’ll be able to put on my CV that I understand the process, know how to fill in the form and could liaise with a health Research Ethics Committee. Not true. The process is so capricious that all such an entry in my CV would prove is that I once had the mental fortitude to see an application through to its conclusion.

Although my colleagues will tell you I sighed out loud quite a bit, I did make it through the time when an overnight update to the IRAS website hived my answers off into two separate forms, one of which I couldn’t see. I didn’t scream when I discovered just before submission that this should be changed back to one form. I stayed cheerful as my participant information sheet, carefully written to suit people not that keen on reading, expanded to yet another page with all the extra information I was asked to include. I only muttered a modest amount when asked to add the (to the participants) totally meaningless IRAS reference number to it. I maintained my outward equilibrium whilst I confirmed I would not be doing things I’d never thought of (wearing clerical dress was my favourite such request, closely followed by audio-recording outside of interviews). But I confess my heart did sink when someone I was relying on to understand what should happen next said this would be a learning process for them too.

Being a reasonable person, I did appreciate that part of the difficulty was that I was having to fit getting approval for sociological research into a process intended for clinical trials. The mismatch only seems to be partly recognised by the bodies responsible. So, whilst there’s a protocol template to complete aimed at qualitative research, I still had to say I wasn’t using ionising radiation or using human tissue samples. And whilst there are ways to amend the project once it’s been approved, there’s no appreciation that good sociological research is often iterative. Instead, there’s the assumption that you will know all possible scenarios in advance. With this comes an assumed relationship to the research participants; they are to be the subjects, not the co-creators of research knowledge. There is no scope for an understanding of ethical research that deviates from a generic (clinical) ideal, and consequently, the best of a discipline’s specific characteristics and of its newer research methodologies can be lost. I say newer, but in practice even my well established chosen ethnographic methodologies sit uncomfortably with the process of getting ethical approval from a health research authority.

There was a tendency in the guidelines provided to use language in unexpected ways. Have you ever had that experience of all the words making sense individually, but being incomprehensible when put together? I found myself trying to draft emails to effectively ask “so if ‘host organisation’ doesn’t mean ‘the organisation hosting the research’, what does it mean?” I struggled, along with my supervisors, and it turned out, the ethics committee staff, to understand what the REC had wanted when it asked whether I had an ‘honorary contract’. Later on, the REC asked if the scientific validity of the study has been confirmed independently of the academic supervisors, giving as an example of how this might be achieved “a University PhD review process”. None of us, not my academic supervisors, not the university ‘sponsor’ that I’d discovered along the way was also needed, knew what this meant. We were stumped, and resorted to gently approaching a professor elsewhere to see if they could provide such an independent scientific review, and quickly. In the end, this was not needed –all that was meant was would the University’s ethics committee be looking at it. Yes, of course.

There were funny moments too. Having had my application reviewed by a Research Ethics Committee that met in Essex, I then discovered how similarly I pronounce ‘Ethics’ and ‘Essex’, on the phone, to a poor, kindly person trying to understand which ethics committee had looked at it. Eventually, I said, “the one that met in Chelmsford” and we moved on. Having three ethics committees look at your work is not fun. As things are, it’s inevitable for research such as this, but unsurprisingly their expectations are not always compatible. The prison service doesn’t want any contact details for external people, such as academic supervisors, included on Participant Information Sheets; the NHS expects this. The University wants email addresses only; prisoners don’t have email. The NHS REC regarded the notices that prison governors would issue to let prisoners and staff know about the research as ‘posters’ that the REC should scrutinise, so needed the final text agreeing before I could get their approval – 6 months in advance of the governor issuing the text. Prison governors are incredibly busy people, so I am indebted to them for having calmly accepted this.

There is, outwardly, plenty of advice available on NHS websites. Much of it is out of date, hard to find, or impossible to understand. There are flow charts describing a parallel world, ‘start here’ guides buried beyond discovery, and directories that are out of date. Lovely, kind and supportive staff within the NHS R&D offices or working with RECs do their best, but if your project is unusual, there are things they can’t be expected to know, such as that there’s a limited number of Health RECs who will look at prison applications, until it’s nearly too late.

I’m not alone in this. In my struggle to understand the process, I came across numerous articles by academics similarly venting their frustrations, including one that fairly calmly reflecting on the problems, before revealing that their own project had spent the entire initial research budget trying to get permissions for research. Wiser people before me have also found that processes designed for quantitative-based medical interventions and clinical trials cannot adjust to the needs of qualitative research. And yet not much seems to have changed. My gripes may seem small, but behind them is a bigger issue, that of the imbalance of power between researchers and research ethics committees and the lack of accountability of the people, some experts, some lay people, appointed to make such important decisions.

So now I have all the ethical approvals I need, 10 months after I first starting filling in the forms, I’m remembering fondly why I’m here. It comes in flashes; the possibility of time to open that new book I’ve been eyeing up, something on the news that reminds me of the relevance of my research interests, a chance conversation with a colleague. Best of all was a recent conversation with a senior manager at one of the prisons I’ll be visiting for fieldwork. We’d not spoken before, but within minutes she’d reminded me why I’m doing this, why it matters that I’ve survived through all these hurdles. Out there are people who are doing their best in tough circumstances, and good quality research may just be able to help them. I’m looking forward to getting on with it.


Not anonymous enough? Research data and issues of anonymity.

by Carol Robinson, doctoral researcher, University of York.


Recently, I settled down to enjoy an article by one of my favourite academic writers. It was everything I’d hoped it would be: well written, thought provoking and interesting. It took a new approach to its subject and had a campaigning edge that I sympathised with.  And then, towards the end of it, I realised that I knew one of the people who had participated in the study being reported. Not that I knew them in terms of recognising a type, but that I actually knew them. My first response was one of disappointment. I want my academic heroes to be flawless. My next thought was along the lines of ‘will anyone else know them?’ followed quickly by the question ‘does it matter?’

A quick search on-line resulted in a Wikipedia page that confirmed other people would be able to identify the participant if they wished. The academic had not revealed their interviewee’s age or location, but from the context it was clear that they were referring to a member of a small group and once more specific information was given, anyone with a curious mind and an internet connection could produce a name. From my knowledge of the individual, further details in the article then confirmed what I had found.  Anyone else would be able to identify them, even if they lacked my certainty.

So, does it matter? The article probably won’t be widely read, even in academia, and it’s therefore doubtful that anyone else will do the searching to put a name to this participant. It’s possible the participant wouldn’t mind if they were named, although the author gave no indication that they’d consented to this. The encounter that was described didn’t include anything particularly controversial or personally revealing. If they read it, the person might not like some of the ways they were portrayed but there was no obvious information that could be used against them. But shouldn’t the participant have been assured of anonymity regardless?

Anonymity is one of the things I have to think about in my own research, which is around deaths in prison, two subjects with particular sensitivities. It is one of the hallmarks of ethical conduct, together with confidentiality and informed consent, necessary not least because twentieth century history has too many examples of exploitation and damage occurring in the name of ‘research’. Anonymization arguably has a value in its own right.  Attempting anonymization, even if we secretly admit we may fail, is a way of preserving the idea of academic integrity, of seeking to avoid the exploitation of other people’s generosity that would taint our work. It is evidence of academic vigour. This links back to my initial disappointment that an experienced academic had made a mistake. If the anonymization was ineffectual, were there other aspects of this article that were in some way dubious?

Demonstrating that we have followed the conventions of academic research, whether by correctly referencing our sources or by using recognised methodologies, is part of staking our claim to be academics. It shows a respect for the traditions of our particular discipline, and in the case of techniques such as anonymization, establishes our research as ethically valid. And if ethical validity is lost, it is arguable that other forms of credibility are lost too.

Research ethics committees usually insist on anonymity and confidentiality for people participating in any research, especially vulnerable participants, as a way of protecting them. It is assumed that some harm or loss may befall an individual if their identity is known, if the stories and experiences they share and which become the researcher’s data are in some way linked backed to them as a person living in the real world, beyond the study report or academic article. Sometimes, as in my own research, this is associated with taboo subjects or criminal activity, where there may be very real consequences if anonymity is not maintained.

In seeking ethical approval for research involving prisoners, deemed to be vulnerable because of their incarcerated status, I am encouraged to think through how I will record and store my data in a way that protects their identity. The specific threat is rarely stated. Although it may be poor practice, is failing to anonymise a person really putting them at risk of harm? In many cases, there is perhaps no direct link between a possible failure to anonymise effectively and a harmful consequence for the participant; the information revealed has to have the potential to be used in a way that would confer harm. However, there is often a simple presumption that all people participating in research should be protected, which ignores the question of whether harm is likely to follow from identification.

In all aspects of our lives, most of us share personal information continually.  We willingly offer up personal information all the time, giving our names, addresses and even bank account details to near strangers, trusting without evidence that they will be used for the purpose we intend. We share our views in conversations that can be overhead by others and via on-line discussions with unknown interlocutors. We post pictures on social media, link them to others without their consent, and live surrounded by cameras. Why do we persist in thinking we can anonymise research participants?

Researchers may use pseudonyms, but often a participant’s gender, age, nationality, race or class are pertinent to the research and so cannot be hidden. We can limit access to some findings, but that poses its own ethical dilemmas. And when the research needs to focus on participants from a small group, as in the case of the article I was reading, anonymization becomes so much harder to achieve.

I have experienced this in my own research. Last year, I interviewed uniformed prison staff with experience of working with terminally ill prisoners, in a prison where there were few female officers. The interviews gave really useful insights into the work prison officers perform with dying prisoners but I was painfully aware that the female interviewees may be identifiable by other staff in the prison, despite my best efforts at anonymization, simply because they belonged to such a small group. Even with a wider pool of participants, in a tight-knit world such as a prison anonymization is hard to maintain. Surely we should not abandon useful research because it involves a small group or close-knit communities?

Indeed, should we even try to anonymise our research participants? Most of the time I would say yes, but there are times when far from protecting our participants, doing so actually risks inflicting a harm.  As researchers, we promise anonymity to ethics committee on behalf of other people, who may not wish for it. Very often, participants may have offered to help the researcher because they too care about the issue that is driving the research and want to have an impact on the situation. They may want to have their voices heard, and by extension, themselves credited. When we anonymise them, we keep their voices, but hide their faces. For vulnerable participants in particular, this is potentially a misuse of power. It is a way for the researcher to exert their positional power and claim control. Nicely anonymised, our participants may not even be able to spot themselves in our final reports and presentations. They can’t see how they are represented, and so they can’t hold us to account. There are ways round this, involving them in the production of the final report, but in my discipline at least, few researchers seem to opt for these approaches.

Lastly, I found myself thinking ‘what does one do if one spots that an academic has not sufficiently anonymised their data?’. It is not easy to be certain what responsibility we have when we spot something problematic with someone else’s work. In the case of the article I read, the peer reviewers had been content with the text, the editorial board satisfied and the article is now published. The damage, if there were any, is done and in an age of on-line journal access, probably un-doable.

I asked colleagues, and was struck by two responses in particular, widely divergent but both from science faculties. One, coming from a discipline where the professional accountability of practitioners is paramount, felt strongly that I should contact either the author directly to alert them to the problem, or the journal anonymously to suggest they review their procedures. From another department, a colleague suggested I keep quiet, and not draw attention to the problem or myself. For them, raising the matter with the author would only make things worse. Each response of course reflected the culture and values of the particular academic disciple. In some academic disciplines, where the use of human participants is rare, the question of the quality of participant anonymization may rarely come up. But for many disciplines, including my own, where the involvement of human participants is so often essential to a research project, this is an issue that can occur at any time. Do we as academics have a collective responsibility to revisit anonymization?


Emotion Rules in Feminist Book Reviews: An Inroad to Improving Feminist Relationships

By: Lisa Kalayji

WAB 2Swimming through the endless tidal wave of demoralising political think pieces and scholarly jibber-jabber in my mostly academic Twitter feed, I came upon an account called ‘ShitMyReviewersSay’, which features the cruelly scathing comments that anonymous peer reviewers write about the hopefully-to-be-published academic journal articles of their colleagues. The account’s handle? @YourPaperSucks.

Its purpose, other than to give us an opportunity to chuckle at what, under different circumstances, makes us want to either cry or set a university building ablaze, is to highlight the absurd magnitude of the viciousness that peer reviewers will direct at their colleagues when given a chance to do so anonymously.

It’s cathartic to have a laugh at this sort of thing, but when it doesn’t come in the form of a satirical Twitter account, our reaction is a lot different. ‘What the hell?!’ we wonder incredulously. ‘Couldn’t you express your criticism in a less ruthless and petty way? What good does it do you to ruin someone’s day and treat their carefully nurtured brainchild of a paper like garbage?’

ShitMyReviewersSay reminded me of the book reviews in Trouble and Strife, the radical feminist magazine I’m doing my PhD research with.

Trouble and Strife published a fair number of book reviews – feminists write a lot of books! – and over the course of my research I’ve found that there’s a vast deal we can learn about a group of people, be they academics, radical feminists, or any other group, from the way they review each other’s writing.

My research is about emotion culture: the system of rules and social norms that prevail in a society or social group which affect how people feel emotionally and how they express those emotions. Book reviews contain a treasure trove of clues about the emotion culture of the social group that the reviews come from, but in order to see those clues, you need to know some of the things sociologists have learned over the last few decades about how emotions work.

Emotions are relational

As the term ‘relational’ suggests, emotions come up in relationships between people. Because psychology dominates the popular lexicon we use to talk about and make sense of emotions, we tend to think of emotions as states which exist inside of us, are linked to our neurochemistry and our personal histories, and are mostly governed by things like innate human needs for social bonding. All of those things are partially true, but what the sociological study of emotions has revealed is that emotions are actually relational.

Why we feel the way we do in any given situation is constituted by our relationships to the people and things around us and what we understand those things to be and mean.

There isn’t anything in our genetic code that makes us get annoyed when a friend we’re supposed to meet for lunch shows up half an hour late (though our biology is necessary for us to be able to experience feelings), and the feeling of annoyance isn’t something inside of us that emanates outward through the things we say or do (though we do express emotions in that way). We’re annoyed at someone (that’s the relation), and the reason for that annoyance is what we think the lateness signifies. We’re busy people! Don’t they think we have better things to do than sit around waiting? We have to be back at work soon – now we’re going to have to rush through lunch! Our awareness that our friend knows that it’s considered rude to keep someone waiting and that it’s an inconvenience to us is what makes us annoyed – their indifference to our needs and to the agreed conventions of how keeping a lunch date with someone works creates our feeling. Likewise, though, if we found out that they’d been delayed because a stranger attacked them on the street and nearly broke their jaw, our annoyance would quickly give way to concern – what their lateness showed about our relationship to them would have changed, and with it, our feelings about it.

Emotions are subject to rules

Much like there are social rules about how we’re supposed to behave in different sorts of situations, there are also rules about how we’re supposed to feel and how we’re supposed to express feelings. If an adult is audibly crying at, say, a fancy restaurant or a business meeting, that would seem inappropriate, and probably make everyone around them quite uncomfortable. If they were at a funeral, however, that would be considered normal and appropriate, and no one would be bothered.

Even if feelings aren’t expressed, there are rules about how we’re supposed to feel.

If, for example, you’re a bit off your game at work because your sister died last week and you’re in grief, and while not actually admonishing you for it, you get the sense that your boss is annoyed with you for not being your sharpest self right now, you might get upset or angry at them. When someone is in grief, we expect others to respond with compassion, even if that grief peripherally causes some inconvenience to others – it’s a violation of the social norms of compassion and empathy to get annoyed at someone for being grieved, even if the annoyance is mostly hidden and not openly expressed. The rules are also different depending on what the characteristics of the people involved are. If that person crying in the restaurant is an infant, while people might still not be pleased about the noise, it wouldn’t make them feel awkward and uncomfortable, because we consider it normal behaviour for babies to cry regardless of time or place.

These are all some general aspects of how emotions in social life work in ordinary social situations. What my research is about, though, is the specifically political dimension of emotions in social life.

Social norms about emotions are deeply political, even in most seemingly innocuous daily interactions like those I described above. Rules about who is allowed to feel or express what feelings towards whom divides along a lot more political lines than the differences between adults and children. Anger is generally considered more appropriate in men than in women (and in women is more likely to be characterised as histrionics or emotional instability), and vulnerability more appropriate in women than in men (with men’s abilities to be ‘proper’ men called into question if they cry, especially in public). Rules about emotions are also racialised – even very slight expressions of anger from black men are interpreted as very threatening because black men are culturally conceived of as inherently threatening, while much stronger expressions of anger from white men (or women) are regarded as less threatening and are more likely to be considered justified. Our prevailing cultural conceptions about what characteristics different kinds of people innately have give rise to specific, and often strictly socially enforced, rules about who can feel what and how their feelings can be expressed.

Emotions in feminist book reviews

Feminists do a lot of writing, and a lot about how emotions work in feminism can be learned from examining the books, magazines, pamphlets, manifestos, and websites they write. I’m researching radical feminism, a specific type of feminism (there are a lot of them) which emerged during the ‘second wave’ of the Women’s Liberation Movement in the late 1960s, and continues today. From 1983-2002, a radical feminist collective the UK published a magazine called Trouble and Strife, and a lot of radical feminist political thought from that period can be found there.

WAB 1Because feminist politics is so substantially borne out through reading and writing, one of the central strategies that feminists use to think through politics is by reading and debating one another’s writing. For that reason, unsurprisingly, Trouble and Strife published quite a few book reviews, wherein contributing authors to the magazine reviewed books authored by other feminists. By comparing these reviews, and the responses to them that readers communicated to the magazine through letters to the editors, we can see radical feminist emotional politics in action.

What I’ve found is that the emotion rules in radical feminism are different for relationships between radical feminists than they are when dealing with someone outside that political community. When dealing with fellow radical feminists, they’re more considerate of one another’s feelings, express their criticisms more hesitantly and gently, and are more appreciative of the aspects of the work that they agree with. On the rare occasion that someone breaks this rule and is harshly critical of someone within the radical feminist community, there’s a strong backlash, with others writing letters to the magazine to express strong objections to those criticisms having been published, and some questioning the political identity of the magazine as a whole in light of their decision to publish exacting reviews.

This will ring true for many feminists who currently engage in online activism, who are familiar with the more receptive audiences within their own political communities, and harsher (and sometimes outright vitriolic) criticism from feminists who have a fundamentally different set of political values.

This has profound implications for the future of feminism: if feminists who disagree on crucial political issues are more willing to upset one another, and less desirous of understanding where others are coming from, then we’re likely to see a continuation of the entrenched infighting that has plagued feminism for decades. I’m not suggesting here that we should return to the ‘happy sisterhood’ of yesteryear (which, as many feminists have pointed out, never actually existed). What I do want to highlight, though, is that if we want to understand why conflicts between feminists get so heated and can be so divisive, understanding the emotion rules which give shape to feminists’ relationships with each other is a crucial piece of the puzzle.

Once we become more aware of these rules and how our own feelings are shaped by them, we can act to change them, and while this won’t solve all of feminism’s problems, it can go a long way toward generating more fruitful dialogues between feminists who belong to different political communities.

This strategy can be extended to other social movements as well, and it has rarely been a matter of more urgency than it is right now for social movements to be able to prevent the breakdown of their political projects due to irreconcilable conflicts from within their communities. During the currently ongoing period of rapid and disorientating social and political change, understanding the emotion rules of social movements can help us to ensure that efforts to enact positive social change are successful, and examining the way we speak to, speak of, and write about one another is one tool we can use for making sense of our emotion cultures.

You can find all issues of Trouble and Strife on their website at troubleandstrife.org.

‘When you know better, you do better’: Tackling inequality in secondary schools

by Holly Foley, PhD candidate in Sociology at TCD, Project Co-ordinator at The Rising Tide Project and Junior Chambers Ireland ’10 Outstanding Young People’ 2017 nominee.

‘When you know better, you do better’ – Dr. Maya Angelou


Schools are the battleground where inequality can be eradicated and the students’ right to equality can be won. Society can judge its most vulnerable members with a very harsh eye. Nobody wishes to live in poverty, raise their children in poverty and be judged by their peers for the size of their TV, the food on their table and the clothes on their back. Let us imagine that we were all genuinely doing our best with the skills and knowledge that we had, however limited or however bountiful, but accepting that we were nonetheless doing our best. Maya Angelou bestowed many pearls of wisdom upon us, one of which resonates with me daily “When you know better, you do better”. It can be that simple. Schools bring our young people together to educate them; education in its many forms helps us do better.

There is a growing body of literature which explores the influence of school in the lives of young people. Now we know better, let us do better. Let our schools raise our young women and men up from their first steps on their educational journey until they march out the door, heads high armed with the knowledge and power to do better.  Sounds lofty? I am a realist, so let’s get practical. Our teachers must teach the curriculum, but in what environment, with what expectations and with how much awareness of “the hidden curriculum”?

Let us explore class inequality first. Research in an Irish context found that irrespective of social background and Leaving Cert grades, young people attending a school with a high concentration of working-class students were much less likely to go on to higher education than those who attended middle-class or socially mixed schools. In Ireland, students from middle-class schools were more likely than those from working-class schools to go on to some form of post-school education and training. It is not the bricks and mortar or the tables and chairs of the school that is creating such an obvious divide. Schools need to examine their culture.  Is everyone present because it is compulsory, or because they want to teach and learn and grow and do better? What is the belief system in the school? Do the teachers believe in their students? Do the students believe in themselves? Schools cannot control the messages students are getting in the media, in their neighbourhood or in their homes. They can, however, carefully craft the messages that students receive during their day of learning and they can encourage students to control how they receive positive and negative messages about themselves. What subjects are schools offering? Is the school offering a higher-level option to junior and senior cycle students? Schools which do not offer a European language and higher-level subjects to their students are sending a loaded, negative message to their students: these are not for you. Schools which do not offer and actively encourage students to study higher-level subjects are curbing the future life-chances of their students and need to hold themselves to a higher standard. What types of guidance does a school offer? Research tells us that working-class students and students from ethnic minorities are more heavily reliant on formal guidance in schools for making educational decisions. Does the school have a college-going culture? Are students exposed to different types of pathways? Visibility is crucial when planning post-school pathways. If a student does not know a certain career or profession exists, how can they pursue that pathway?  Simple answer: they cannot and so they do not. Instead they follow the familiar pathways that have been worn before them but, no more! Now they will know better and they will do better.

This leads us to the issue of gender inequality. Research suggests that male students achieve more success than female students in co-educational schools. Reasons for this include teachers calling on male students more frequently to answer questions, allow male students to speak over or ‘shout-down’ female students and dominate the discourse. Not only is this further reinforcing gender inequality in the classroom, but it internalises the power structure for females who carry this experience of subordination into higher education and the workplace. Are co-educational and single sex schools fighting gender bias in subject choice? There is a disservice being done to all students by not fostering a culture in which male and female students can actively engage in traditionally highly-gendered subjects.  If a school is not challenging gender bias in subject choices the message is clear to students from a very young age.  Students make distinctions between what is for them and not for them; thus, their pathways become gendered which is not in the best interests of the students, the school or wider society. Gender inequality damages everyone and stunts our growth as people and as a society.

I attended a single sex school, and I lament the wasted opportunities that a ‘better’ culture and a ‘better’ understanding of our agency in society could have created. There were approximately 700 young women in my school. Can you imagine the change 700 young women could make in the world if they were armed with the tools to tackle inequality in its various forms? Prescribed prose and poetry on the curriculum in my time did not speak to young working-class women and their place in the world, or the power they possess. Geography seemed a somewhat abstract subject, mountains, rivers,  and lakes unfamiliar from my own vantage point in a housing estate. And of course, the Leaving Certificate “points race”, a tall-tale of meritocracy, which in reality is run on a two-tier track and never the twain shall meet.

We do a disservice to our young students by not acknowledging the power to create change that they possess. One young person working in isolation to tackle inequality will undoubtedly face an unrelenting path. A school of 700 young people, hungry for more, has the power to create a tsunami of change in their community, to empower their peers to go forth and demand better. Schools must acknowledge their unique position in shaping these future agents of change. Over the course of a lifetime a school has daily access to young people, where they can empower them with the knowledge to create change, consistently reinforce these values and lift their aspirations to previously unimaginable heights.

Let us end on a reflection of the school as the ‘battleground’ where equality can be won. If a school makes it their mission to wage war on inequality, their students will carry this victory with them. Empowered and emboldened by this victory, students can assert their place in society and challenge inequality on a global stage with confidence and eloquence because these students will know better and these students will do better.

Austerity, women and health inequalities in the UK

by Amy Greer Murphy, Durham University

My PhD is part of a five year research project entitled ‘Local Health Inequalities in an Age of Austerity: The Stockton-on-Tees study’. It’s a mixed method case study exploring the localised impacts of austerity on health. My role is examining the experiences of women living in Stockton using qualitative research.

A few key terms

Austerity refers to attempts to reduce government deficits through spending cuts and sometimes tax increases. Across Europe, austerity was implemented in many countries, such as Greece and Ireland, as a precondition of receiving bailouts in the wake of the financial crisis of 2008. In the UK, a major restructuring of the public sector and welfare system has been undertaken since 2010.

Neoliberalism refers to the application of free market principles to public policy. It has been enacted in the UK since Thatcher’s Conservative government came to power in the 1980s and has comprised of deregulation (e.g. of the banking and financial system), privatisation (e.g. of bus and rail services) and, more recently, austerity (e.g. extensive welfare reforms).

‘Health inequalities’ refer to disparities in life expectancy and years of health life (‘mortality’ and ‘morbidity’) within and across nations. There is a gradient in all countries – those with more socio-economic resources also have better health (Marmot, 2010). In the UK, health inequalities are widening since austerity began. Schrecker and Bambra (2015) have referred to the process of widening health inequalities and liberalised economic and social policies as a ‘neoliberal epidemic’.

Austerity and inequality in the UK

The UK is a large country, and one of great social contrasts. The contrasts that are relevant to my research are related to inequality of opportunity, resources, health, and the government policies, political decisions and historical legacies that bring these about. The North East has experienced a huge restructuring of its’ social landscape in recent decades. Mining, heavy industry and manufacturing have all but ceased to operate there. The jobs that once provided decent incomes and rooted people to their communities, providing clear routes through the lifecourse and class allegiances, have slipped away. In their place are zero hour contracts in care homes and nurseries, seasonal work in factories and as agency staff providing security in shopping centres.

Through this research process I have tried to understand what neoliberalism and austerity feel like if you’re not on the winning side of them, focussing on gender and class. I’ve then tried to see the wider connection to globalised economies and deregulated financial markets.


One of the ways austerity is affecting places and people differently is through health. In Stockton-on-Tees, the gap in life expectancy for men is the largest in all of England, at 17.3 years, and one of the widest for women, at 11.4 (Public Health England, 2015). If you are a man born in one of the wealthier, typically less urbanised parts of Stockton you can expect, on average, to live 17.3 years longer, and more of those years in good health, than a man born just a short walk away, in a more built-up and less well-off part of town. You are also at a higher risk of cardio-vascular disease, obesity, cancer, mental health issues, suicide, alcoholism, to be more socially isolated, have a worse paying, precarious job or no job at all, and to be at the mercy of an increasingly retrenched welfare state for your income and livelihood. The picture for women is similar, but different in crucial ways I will explore later.

This, of course, isn’t the picture for everyone in Stockton; I don’t want to paint a doomsday caricature (Benefits Street, the Channel 4 show, made a noble attempt at that in 2014 with their ‘poverty porn’ foray into life on Kingston Road). Stockton is steeped in a proud industrial legacy, is surrounded by beautiful dales and hills, has a vibrant town centre, and is home to thousands of people of all kinds who are creating thriving and enduring communities. Undeniably, however, government policy is making the lives of an increasing number of its residents tougher.

The research topic

Women face a distinct set of risks under austerity, as their lives, choices and opportunities often play out differently. This led me to develop my research project, to be carried out with mothers from across the borough. I wanted to understand what the experiences are of being a woman living in a place like Stockton – what can they tell us about other similar places that have experienced stark deindustrialisation and withdrawal of resources and traditional routes to employment and social stability? What does it feel like to live through welfare reform, as a mother, with enough money or very little, in an area with lots of different inequalities?

The methods

The research design was informed by the work of Sociologists who have used their skills to bring to the academic and policy world narratives that are otherwise silenced – quite often the voices of women. Berverley Skeggs (1997), wrote about class and gender and respectability in an area of England not so far from Stockton, Ann Oakley (1979; 1993) spent years with mothers asking them what they thought about housework, women’s health and becoming a mother, and Arlie Hochschild (1989) delved into the lives of women trapped in the double- or triple-bind of work, caring for children and elderly relatives. The methods I used are similar to theirs, and ‘qualitative’, meaning they are designed to explore diverse social worlds and understand why certain groups of people or individuals make choices or live in certain ways, or why their lives are presented in a certain light. I had a methodology (system of methods) and sampling strategy (idea of why I wanted to contact, and why). Unlike some quantitative social research or scientific experiment, or the research wasn’t designed with representativeness or generalisability in mind.

I used ethnography, or participant observation; I spent 16 months at a women’s group where I gained friends and mentors and learned about being woman living on a low income in Stockton. I also interviewed 15 women, 14 of whom are mothers, from a wide variety of socio-economic backgrounds and from many different walks of life. I recruited participants through the local Sure Start centres, Twitter, Thrive, the anti-poverty charity I spent a lot of time at, and through snowball sampling (asking people I met if they could recommend someone, or pass on my details). I offered a voucher as a thank-you and recorded my interviews.

Some findings

Continuing austerity and the decline of opportunities: For respondents and their wider networks, there is a huge concern about the likely continuation of austerity and what that might mean for families and communities. We spoke about diminishing opportunity and prospects, the long-term decline of services, the quality and availability of housing and work in the area.

The desire to ‘just be a mam’: Respondents found their roles as mothers and carers increasingly devalued, with the expectation that caring work should be provided by the market and that they should seek formal work as a primary source of income. However, quality work is unavailable, childcare unaffordable, and an important source of identity formation, their role as carers and mothers, diminished under austerity.

Mental health: It became increasingly obvious as I spent more time in the field that the deterioration of participants’ mental health and sense of wellbeing was stark. Discussions of everyday struggles with depression, anxiety and serious bouts of post-natal depression were worryingly frequent. Furthermore, long-term physical health and chronic pain issues were part and parcel of life for many of the women I spent time with, symptoms of a lifetime of stress, poor quality housing and other inequalities (Mattheys et al. 2015).


Underpinning my research is the understanding that women, particularly mothers, face a set of distinct risks under austerity, through labour market changes, reliance on the welfare system and the public sector. They are employed in higher numbers in the public sector, and so more vulnerable to job losses there, and more likely to be underemployed or in low-paid work in ‘feminised’ sectors. They may also face maternity discrimination in their workplace, experience a large gender pay gap and are absent from the labour market for extended periods while they take care of young children. Women also make use of public sector services in high numbers, the very services being cut back during austerity. They rely on the welfare state for many reasons to a much larger extent than men. Welfare reforms like the benefit cap, bedroom tax and sanctions, closures of community centres and privatisation of Sure Starts and lone parent conditionality hit not just women in large numbers, but children and families too. This research is trying to illustrate how austerity is regressive and contributing to growing inequality, and how this group, like many all around the UK, are finding it a challenging time to live through.


  • Blyth, M. 2013. Austerity: the history of a dangerous idea. Oxford University Press, Oxford.
  • Hochschild, A. 1989. The Second Shift: working parents and the revolution at home. Viking Penguin, New York.
  • Konzelmann, S., 2014. The political economics of austerity. Cambridge Journal of Economics 38 (4) pp. 701–741.
  • Marmot, M., Allen, J., Goldblatt, P., Boyce, T., McNeish, D., Grady, M., and Geddes, I. 2010. Fair society healthy lives. The Marmot review executive summary. The Marmot Review. UCL Institute of health equity, London.
  • Mattheys, K. Bambra, C. Kasim, A. Akhter, B. 2015. Inequalities in mental health and well-being in a time of austerity: Baseline findings from the Stockton-on-Tees cohort study. SSM -Population Health 2 Pp. 350–359.
  • Oakley, A. 1979. Becoming a mother. Martin Roberston and Company Ltd., Oxford.
  • Oakley, A. 1993. Essays on women, medicine and health. Edinburgh University Press, Edinburgh.
  • Public Health England, 2015. Stockton-on-Tees Health Profile 2015.
  • Robson, S., and Robinson., J., 2012. Findings and recommendations from interim case study: the impact of austerity measures upon women in the North East of England. The Women’s Resource Centre, London.
  • Rubery, J. and Rafferty, A. 2014. Gender, recession and austerity in the UK. In: Karamessini, M. and Rubery, J. 2014. Women and Austerity, the economic crisis and the future of gender equality. Routledge, Oxon. pp. 123-144.
  • Schrecker, T., and Bambra, C., 2015. How politics makes us sick: neoliberal epidemics. Palgrave Macmillan, London.
  • Skeggs, B., 1997. Formations of class and gender, Theory, Culture & Society. Sage Publications, London.


This IS ‘proper’ research: Taking on the social science vs. science debate

By: Rosie Smith 

“So why is your research necessary?”

“How do you get funding for research like this?”

These are just two of the many questions that I was asked recently whilst taking part in a competition for PhD researchers at my university. The competition was interdisciplinary and was aimed at showcasing doctoral research at the institution, whilst also providing early career researchers, like myself, a gateway into public engagement. Needless to say the competition was one of the many uncomfortable things I intend to do this year as part of my resolution to be a ‘yes’ woman and challenge myself more.

Finalists were made up of three researchers per faculty (social science, science, arts and humanities), and as a criminologist I quickly found myself gravitating towards the social sciences camp. It was a full day event in which we were judged on a multitude of criteria ranging from originality, impact, accessibility, interdisciplinary scope, and importance. I use the word ‘importance’ hesitantly, as it’s a term that causes particular anxiety when I consider my own research. My work explores the concept of ‘spectacular justice’ and the way the mass media makes the criminal justice system visible and public. I explore this concept by analysing how high profile criminal cases are represented in media archives from the 1800s to 2016.



And whilst I thoroughly enjoy my research, I still often find it difficult to have confidence that my work is ‘important’, and necessary. In part this is because I am self-funding my research, and at times I find it difficult to have confidence in my work when understandings of ‘good’ research are so closely bound to notions of impact and attracting funding. But it is also in part because of situations like these, when I am forced to contemplate the debate around what constitutes ‘proper’ research.

When I was posed these questions, I admit, I was initially shocked and somewhat taken aback by the abruptness with which they were posed. But at the same time these questions draw on some of the existing anxieties I have as I begin the journey into academia. To me, these questions in some way breach the social conventions on conversation etiquette, not to mention conventions on what is and is not okay to ask a frazzled and distressed PhD student.

To the first, I was honest, and launched into the toils of juggling several part-time jobs alongside trying to develop the aura of a rounded and successful academic.

But it was the question “Why is your research necessary?” that caused me more concern. Looking around the room at the other contestants I began to question whether this question had been asked of the other finalists, in particular the natural, computer, and the physical scientists.

I was transported back to the long debates I had as an undergraduate with my ‘proper’ scientist friends. In these debates I would spend hours defending the position that social science is important and necessary, and that the two disciplines can exist in parallel.

I would passionately defend the position that the relationship between the two does not need to be one of comparison. Admittedly, my efforts to convert them were largely fruitless. And I was often left being endearingly mocked, only to be told that “but it’s not a real science though is it?” And unfortunately this is still a plight I am fighting as I embark through my PhD.

It is as if this debate is a matter of either or. You are either a social scientist or a scientist, with very little scope to dabble somewhere in the middle. This was only confirmed as the day progressed. I overheard the finalist next to me ask a gentleman, “Are you going to go to Rosie’s stand next?” To which the gentleman replied, “I don’t think so, I don’t like social science, I’m a more of a scientist”.


Needless to say I tried my best to convince him of the merits of the dark underbelly of the social sciences, but was left wondering why I had to.

I cannot escape the importance of gender to this debate. Despite being interdisciplinary, the competition finalists were overwhelmingly female, with male colleagues only being represented by the science faculty.

Needless to say there are a large number of male social scientists who contribute greatly to the field, but historically the social sciences have been regarded as a ‘feminine’ discipline.

This is supported by statistics on the relationship between gender and higher education degree choices: in 2016, 17,075 men accepted university offers to study a social science subject in the UK, which amounts to just over half the figure for women which totalled at 30,860 (UCAS, 2016). And so I interpreted the questions “why is your research necessary?” and “how do you get funding for research like this?” not only as a judgment on the value of my research, but a value judgment more generally about the credibility of the social sciences as a predominantly female discipline. I couldn’t ignore the feeling that the feminization of the social sciences served as a double mechanism to justify the position of the sciences as superior.

At times I worry that as a social scientist, the rivalry that exists with science, whilst often only in jest or antics, has a direct impact on understandings of what constitutes ‘proper’ research.

And I question the appropriateness of using one set of criteria to judge and compare the value and ‘necessity’ of the two disciplines. In my opinion they are complimentary rather than contradictory fields. And we should be striving to broaden our understanding of what constitutes ‘proper’ research. Because although my research does not find a solution to world hunger or fight disease, it does have value- just in its own way.

At the end of the day the judges seemed to recognise some of that value too. When the scores came in, I won! It was one of the proudest moments of my Phd so far, as a social scientist, as an early career researcher, and as a woman. This experience has taught me many lessons, but the most important is to take the victories, whether big or small, when they come around. Equally I aim to worry a little less about how much impact my research has, or how much funding I attract (or not) and concentrate on enjoying my PhD and remembering that whilst not earth-shattering, my research is still necessary. All research is proper research.





CHILD SOLDIERS: Where are the girls?

CHILD SOLDIERS: Where are the girls?  Kids, guns and the Patriarchy

By Marie Penicaut

Much has been written lately about African child soldiers.[1] We, in the West, are all familiar with the image of an eight or ten year old boy, holding an AK-47 too big for him, in a pseudo-military uniform, his eyes crying for help. We see him in newspapers and on television. We hear his horrifying story in documentaries, interviews, and sometimes self-written memoirs. Since Blood Diamond[2], we also see him in fiction films, poignant and stereotypical representations of these kids’ tragic lives that we too readily take for granted. And, as Nigerian author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie wonderfully puts it in an inspiring TedTalk, “the problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete. They make the single story become the only story”.[3]



The ‘typical’ child soldier

But where are the girls in all of that? Why don’t we see pictures of little girls carrying AK-47s? Why is there virtually no girl – not a single one – in Netflix’s critically acclaimed Beasts of No Nation[4], while many studies have proven that they constitute up to 40% of all child soldiers in some African contexts? Why are they so often completely ignored by academic literature, governments, international organisations and NGOs alike?



Agu’s all-boys unit marching towards combat. Screenshot from Beasts of No Nation.

The answer should not come as a surprise. Once again, the Patriarchy strikes: society puts us in two clear-cut categories, where according to our biological sex – male or female[5] – we are expected to behave in a certain way. Girls will naturally be peaceful, pacifist, and passive; boys will be inherently violent, aggressive, and impulsive. Hence the common belief that on one side, ‘girls don’t fight’, while on the other, ‘boys will be boys’ – which inevitably leads to the idea that war is the realm of men, and of men uniquely.

No wonder, then, that girl child soldiers are invisible, even when confronted with evidence that 10 to 30% of child soldiers worldwide are female, and 30 to 40% in recent African conflicts.[6]

When – and if – mentioned, it is only as simple camp followers. As the ‘good little women’ they are, they cook, do the laundry and take care of the youngest. But in reality, many receive military training and fight just like the boys.[7] During the Mozambican War of Independence (1964-74), which opposed the Portuguese government and FREMILO (The Mozambique Liberation Front), the rebels had mixed and female-only military units where girls and young women fought for the liberation of their country.[8] War was an opportunity for them to escape their gender roles. They were treated just the same as men. But once the country became independent in 1975, it was not long before they were sent back to the kitchen, and the crucial role they played was progressively forgotten.



Johnny Mad Dog or the stereotypical child soldier narrative

We should not underestimate the power of the media and of pop-culture. They both represent and influence the way we make sense of the world. The first thing I did when I started researching child soldiering in Africa (for my master’s dissertation) was to try to find as many fiction films and documentaries on the topic I could. Before entering the more nuanced and detailed academic discussion, I wanted to have the exact same perception of the phenomenon as everyone else.

I was shocked when I watched Johnny Mad Dog[9], the ultraviolent and ultra-clichéd adaptation of the eponymous novel by Emmanuel Dongala[10]. It tells Johnny’s story, abducted at 9 by rebels, now 15, in yet another unnamed African country torn by a senseless conflict – the Western discourse on African child soldiers is also profoundly racist: most movies are entirely decontextualized, as if the story could take place anywhere on the continent, negating the vast diversity of its 54 countries and the complex reasons that lead to armed conflict.

In the book, there are two narrators: Johnny and Laokolé, a strong and smart girl, who manages her way through a world of violence and chaos. But Sauvaire completely silences her to put Johnny at the centre of the story. She becomes a character of secondary importance. Even worse: while in the book she cold-bloodedly plans to kill Johnny, and does it, as she knows he intends to rape and kill her, the film ends on her indecision whether to shoot at him in self-defence. Her originally strong agency is simply erased.

Dongala’s resistant discourse is violated and distorted to conform to the expectations of a public for which violence is the monopoly of males.



Johnny Mad Dog’s last image: Laokolé pointing a gun towards Johnny, breathing heavily, undecided.


Girl soldiers, the “ultimate victim[s] in need of rescue”[11]

If you are active on social media, there is a good chance that you have heard of the Kony2012[12] phenomenon. The 30-minute video posted on YouTube by Invisible Children, an NGO built by three American missionaries, was created with the aim of fighting the child-soldiering the three “discovered” in Uganda. The viral video – which gained 100 million views in less than a week – sums up pretty well all the stereotypes on child combatants. It also illustrates the difference of treatment between girls and boys in the global discourse: “the girls are turned into sex slaves, and the boys into child soldiers”. Things are simple. Girls do all the chores and are sex slaves. Boys are forced to fight and to commit atrocities. Girls don’t fight and boys don’t get raped. Even more than their male counterparts, girls are voiceless victims in need of rescue by the West.



Kony and his ‘army of children’. Source: Screenshot of Kony2012

Many girls and women are victims of sexual violence, especially in the climate of conflict and instability that has affected a number of African countries in the past decades. But stories of rape and abuse too often eclipse other stories of bravery, resilience and survival.

Even more than boys, girls are denied any agency, any voice; they are denied the possibility to speak out and tell their story as they experienced it and not as we want to hear it.

In some contexts, becoming a soldier can be empowering for them. They can gain power, a surrogate family where they had none, and escape their traditional gender roles.[13] Their experience is too often reduced to the sexual violence they may or may not have undergone. In virtually every documentary I have watched for my dissertation project, girls are interviewed uniquely to talk about their experience of sexual violence, and often asked to provide gruesome details to satisfy the journalist’s, and the public’s, morbid curiosity.

It is not the first and certainly not the last time that women have been misunderstood and misrepresented because of sexist stereotypes. But the tragedy lies in the consequences this has on the ground, for real girls that have served weeks, months, and sometimes years in militias. Because ‘girls don’t fight’, many demobilisation, disintegration and rehabilitation programmes[14] exclude them. Only 5% benefit from them.[15] And when they do, their special needs are rarely addressed: no female clothing in the aid packages, no tampons or pads, no reproductive healthcare, etc. Skills training and camp activities are often biased towards males – learning masonry, carpentry, mechanics etc.[16] When going back to civilian life, because they are labelled as sexual victims, they are affected by a stigma of sexual activity. Whether real or not, this stigma leads to social exclusion. Many girls hide their rebel lives from their family and community and decide not to register for demobilisation because they are too afraid of the consequences – of being seen as monsters, as dangerous rebels, as ‘bush wives’[17] that can no longer marry.

More than anything else, girl child soldiers are victims of the Patriarchy. In the West, which ignores and silences them; and in their own societies that stigmatise and exclude them both as rebels and as trespassers of their gender roles. The child soldier phenomenon is a complex one. Its gender dimension is only one aspect of the issue, but one that deserves much more attention than it gets now.

Movies like Beasts of No Nation, Blood Diamond and Johnny Mad Dog, with a large audience and good critiques, are missed opportunities to challenge a simplistic, essentialist and dangerous understanding of child soldiers.

They perpetuate many harmful ideas and are representative of the status quo on the place of women in war: none.  “Just as these films were made mostly by whites and thus show a white bias, so were they made mostly by men and show a male bias.”[18]



[1] Understood as “any person below 18 years of age who is or who has been recruited or used by an armed force or armed group in any capacity, including but not limited to children, boys and girls, used a fighters, cooks, porters, messengers, spies, or for sexual purposes” (The Paris Principles, 2007).

[2] Blood Diamond, 2006. Directed by Edward Zwick.

[3] Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=D9Ihs241zeg.

[4] Beasts of No Nation, 2015. Directed by Cary J. Fukunaga.

[5] Many do not identify with these two categories.

[6] Denov, 2010, p. 13.

[7] Keairns, 2002, p. 13; Annan et al., 2009, p. 9.

[8] West, 2005.

[9] Johnny Mad Dog, 2008. Directed by Jean-Sébastien Sauvaire.

[10] Dongala, E. (2002) Johnny Chién Méchant. Paris: Le Serpent à Plumes.

[11] Macdonald, 2008, p. 136.

[12] Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Y4MnpzG5Sqc.

[13] Valder, 2014, p. 44.

[14] UN-led child-specific programmes whose goal is to facilitate their return to civilian life. NGOs often intervene and collaborate at different steps of the process (UNDDR Resource Centre).

[15] Taylor-Jones, 2016, p. 185.

[16] Coutler, 2009, p. 64.

[17] Girls and women forced to ‘marry’ within the rebel group.

[18] Cameron, 1994, p. 188.

Maths: the same in every country?

by Rose Cook, PhD candidate at the Institute of Education, University College London.

Think women aren’t good at maths? Depends on where you’re a woman. 


(We never miss a chance to quote Mean Girls here at Women Are Boring)

Do you know the difference between Celsius and Fahrenheit? Can you interpret information from line graphs in news articles? Calculate how many wind turbines would be needed to produce a certain amount of energy (given the relevant information)?

These may seem like basic tasks, but if you are a woman living in the UK, Germany or Norway, the chances are you would struggle with them more than a comparable man. If you live in Poland, however, you might even outperform a male counterpart.

Why this variation in skills, and why does it appear in some countries and not others?

For some, these findings, from the 2011 international survey of adult skills, run by the OECD,  will confirm their existing beliefs. In spite of women being more academically successful than men, the perception that ‘women can’t do maths’ is widely held. A recent experiment [1] showed that both genders believe this to be true: both male and female subjects were more likely to select men to perform a mathematical task that, objectively, both genders fulfil equally well. In her successful book ‘The Female Brain’, Louann Brinzedine argued that women are ‘hard wired’ for communication and emotional connection, while men’s brains are oriented towards achievement, solitary work and analytical pursuits.

Another camp of social scientists argue that such narratives misrepresent the facts.  Janet Shibley Hyde and colleagues insist that, at least in the United States, men and women’s cognitive abilities are characterised by similarity rather than difference. Reviewing findings across many studies of gender differences on standardised mathematics tests, these authors found that ‘even for difficult items requiring substantial depth of knowledge, gender differences were still quite small’[2].

The fact that gender differences show up on an international survey of numeracy skills is a puzzling addition to an already contentious picture. Of course, not all maths tests are created equal. The difference may in some way reflect the way the survey conceptualises skills. Distinct from mathematical ability, applied numeracy skills are described as:

‘the ability to use, apply, interpret, and communicate mathematical information and ideas’.[3]

Crucially, individuals who are ‘numerate’ should be able to apply these abilities to situations in everyday life. Perhaps these ‘everyday’ maths skills are more biased by gender than the measures used in other studies?

Numeracy: the ‘new literacy

I argue that we should take these gender differences seriously. More and more, jobs now require numeracy skills, both to perform basic tasks and to support ICT skills. Outside work, numeracy skills are increasingly required to make sense of the world around us. They help us to grasp concepts such as interest rates and inflation, which help us to deal with money. Moreover, according to the British Academy,

‘the ability to understand and interpret data is an essential feature of life in the 21st century: vital for the economy, for our society and for us as individuals. The ubiquity of statistics makes it vital that citizens, scientists and policy makers are fluent with numbers’.

The importance of numeracy has been recognised recently in the UK with the establishment of an All-Party Parliamentary Group for Maths and Numeracy, the National Numeracy charity, and initiatives such as Citizen Maths.

International variation

Particularly curious is the large variation across countries in the size of the gender difference. Figure 1, below, shows that, among adults aged between 16 and 65, the male advantage in applied numeracy skills is particularly large in Germany, the Netherlands and Norway, while it is virtually non-existent in Poland and Slovakia. The graph shows raw differences in average skill scores; although gaps reduce somewhat when controlling for age, family and immigration background and education, they remain.

Figure 1: Mean numeracy skills by gender, International Survey of Adult Skills, 2012


Source: Author’s calculations using data from the OECD Survey of Adult Skills (PIAAC). Survey and replicate weights are applied. Numeracy scores range from zero to 500. For more information on the survey, please see: http://www.oecd.org/skills/piaac/publications.htm

Any genetic component is unlikely to vary internationally [4], suggesting a substantial role for cultural, institutional or economic factors that vary across countries.

My PhD study

Given that the survey tests adults who have many experiences behind them, isolating the causes of gender differences and cross-country variation is far from simple. We are socialised into gendered preferences, motivations and skills from our earliest years [5]. We go on to make gendered choices in our educational lives, our careers and our leisure activities. All of these life domains contribute to the skills we end up with in adulthood. To some, a choice-based explanation is unproblematic; determining one’s own destiny is a core value in many contemporary societies. However, this side-steps the question of where preferences come from. Skill differences in adulthood may well reflect individuals’ choices; however, the choices themselves are likely to be influenced by a complex mixture of cultural, educational, economic and institutional factors; which vary in their salience across countries.

In my PhD study, I focus on education and labour market explanations. A key task for my research is disentangling why gender differences in numeracy skills are relatively large in countries typically considered ‘gender egalitarian’. For example, Scandinavian countries consistently top the rankings of  the World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap Report, and are held up as bastions of gender equality. Yet Norway, Sweden and Denmark show among the largest gender differences in adults’ applied numeracy skills. Poland, Slovakia and Spain are not known for being particularly progressive on gender equality, yet they show among the smallest differences.

School and skills

One possibility is that gender differences arise from what girls and boys are exposed to while they are at school. Despite a similar basic structure, education systems across the world differ in the extent to which subjects are optional or compulsory. For example, in the UK, mathematics was not compulsory in upper secondary education until recently; whereas in other countries this has long been the case. Where numerate subjects are not compulsory, they may be less valued, and this could have created more scope for gender to affect subject and career choices. There is also wide variation in the types of mathematics learning boys and girls are exposed to across countries, as well as between schools and classes within countries.

Work and skills

Another possibility is that differences in skills are related to the types of jobs that women and men pursue once they leave education. In the majority of countries in the study, occupational segregation is still widespread in spite of female’s superior performance in education, and is partly to blame for the continuing gender pay gap.  Gender occupational segregation is particularly rife in Scandinavian countries, although this has been improving in recent years [6]. Countries with strong gender segregation in jobs promote gender norms about what careers are appropriate and accessible for men and women. This is likely to drive the early choices that contribute to skills in adulthood. In contrast, in some countries gender segregation of jobs is less pronounced, which may set more egalitarian norms for skill development. Moreover, given the link between more demanding, highly skilled jobs and skill development in adulthood, concentration into lower paid, more routine jobs could affect the extent to which women are able to gain skills at work. In some countries’ labour markets, women may perceive weaker incentives to develop mathematical skills than their male counterparts, preferring more typically ‘feminine’ ones, such as communication and literacy skills.

In my view, skills gaps are among the hurdles we need to overcome in order to attain full economic equality between men and women. Using international comparisons, my research aims to locate gender differences in applied numeracy skills within a broader, institutional context.  This is important both to correct the assumption that differences are ‘fundamental’ or ‘natural’, and to design effectively-targeted policies to equalise skills. I use a variety of quantitative techniques in my research which isolate factors associated with gender differences at both the individual and country levels. This should broaden the discussion beyond the common focus on encouraging girls to make gender ‘atypical’ choices in education, which neglects both males and the broader social context in which skill differences develop. Moreover, while there is a large amount of research on gender and education, skills inequalities among adults are less often addressed. Yet they affect adults’ lives in profound ways [7]. I hope to show some of the ways in which skill differences among adults are not fixed by early experiences and biology, but malleable according to social context.


[1] Reuben, E., Sapienza, P. and Zingales, L. (2014). ‘How stereotypes impair women’s careers in science.’ Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 111 (12), 4403-4408.

[2] Hyde, Janet S., et al. (2008) Gender similarities characterize math performance. Science 321 (5888) pp. 494-495 (p.495)

[3] OECD (2013) PIAAC Numeracy: A conceptual framework (p. 20) Paris: OECD.[4] http://www.statlit.org/pdf/1999-Steen-ASCD-Education-Leadership.pdf

[4] Penner, A.M. (2008) Gender differences in extreme mathematical achievement: An international perspective on biological, social, and societal factors. American Journal of Sociology 114 (supplement) S138–S170.

[5] Maccoby, E. E., and D’Andrade, R. G. (1966) The development of sex differences. Stanford University Press.

[6] Bettio F and Verashchagina A (2009) Gender Segregation in the Labour Market: Root Causes, Implications and Policy Responses in the EU. Brussels: European Commission.

[7] Carpentieri, J. C., Lister, J., Frumkin, L., & Carpentieri, J. (2010). Adult numeracy: a review of research. London: NRDC.

Death and Me

By: Dr. Ruth Penfold-Mounce, Lecturer in Criminology, University of York, UK.

During my criminology PhD research into the relationship between celebrity and crime at the University of Leeds some 10 years ago I came across an interesting story. It entailed the relocation of the mummified arm of murderer, George Carpenter. Dr Charles Kindersley had retained the arm after dissection in 1813 and kept it in his home as a souvenir until it was donated in 1938 to the police museum in Marlborough before being passed on to the National Funeral Museum, London in 2005. I was fascinated by this macabre tourist-like act conducted by a doctor and on returning home to my husband that night (and much to his bemusement) burst out with: ‘Darling, there’s a mummified arm in Wiltshire!’

This marked the beginning of my scholarly love affair with death and culture.

Death and Culture

Being a cultural criminologist based in a sociology department with a research interest in crime, popular culture and celebrity, and death is an unusual combination. It has its advantages, such as being able to draw on my combined research interests and film with the BBC’s Hairy Bikers. I talked them through the murder of George Cornell by the Kray Twins in the Blind Beggar Pub in the East End of London in 2015 (as pictured below).

I also discovered just how hard it is to walk, talk and hold crime scene photos at the same time. It turns out that filming for television is more difficult than I anticipated.

However, as an interdisciplinary scholar I face some unique challenges. I have to constantly work at making sure I do not disappear between the boundaries of disciplines.I battle with not being criminological enough for criminology journals, and yet too crime-based for sociology journals, and too popular culture rooted for death studies journals.Thank goodness for journals such as Mortality that welcomes engagement with death from a variety of disciplinary approaches.


Dr. Penfold-Mounce featured with the BBC’s Hairy Bikers

I have had to work hard to establish a death and culture scholarly community by drawing likeminded scholars together through various events including running day symposiums like Negotiating Morbid Spaces (2014) and Marginal Death Research: Doing Edgework (2015). I even ran a three day international conference Death and Culture (2016) where 90 scholars came together from over 15 different disciplines to talk about death from a cultural perspective. The result has been that I no longer feel so isolated, and a strong death network has been formed, it is growing, and it has connected researchers across the globe.

Gazing on Death and the Dead

A driving force of my work in death and culture is my passion to stop people thinking that death is taboo.

Death is actually ever present, ranging from Disney movies (pretty much every Disney character has dead parents think Bambi, Frozen, The Lion King etc.) to executions being filmed in Syria and placed on Youtube. We see more graphic death than ever before. The big barrier that seems to make people think death is taboo is that much of what we see is mediated. In other words, seeing death on television or in film (ie mediated death) gives us a softening lens through which to engage with death. It means that popular culture makes seeing death more palatable and even normal. As such it would seem that it is ok to watch death and see inside the violated human body (CSI autopsies are a great illustration of this) but we are less comfortable chatting about it in personal terms in general conversation. As you can imagine, I do not share this restraint. Instead I work hard at being open about death and making the dead visible. I want to attract people’s attention and get them thinking and talking about death and the dead.

Conveniently for me, death has been particularly evident in 2016. In fact 2016 has been a very productive year for my research. We have witnessed an unanticipated boom in terms of deaths amongst the famous, including:

  • singer David Bowie
  • actor Alan Rickman
  • radio and television presenter Terry Wogan
  • magician Paul Daniels
  • comedians Victoria Wood and Ronnie Corbett
  • musician Prince
  • entertainer and ventriloquist Keith Harris
  • boxer Muhammed Ali
  • actor Gene Wilder

Whilst a common response has been grief or amazement or just general outcry – my response is ‘That’s perfect for my research’.

This peak in celebrity deaths led me to become interested in the posthumous careers of the famous dead and I’ve written about how lucrative being dead can be by using a case study of Marilyn Monroe for Death and the Maiden blog. It would seem that being dead can be a successful career move for many celebrities. My enthusiasm for the famous dead, particularly recent deaths, has provoked responses of concern at my apparent glee at the death of another human.

Please do not interpret my enthusiasm for this topic as macabre or dismissive of the loss of these individuals or dismissive of those suffering a loss. Instead, my enthusiasm is rooted in exploring death within our culture and how the famous dead helps a wide audience engage with mortality.

Since researching celebrity and death it has become clear that the famous dead can have value, not just in economic terms, but also as a cultural symbol to explore fears about life ending. The celebrity dead demonstrate that an individual can have a life in death and not just a life after death. In my book ‘Death, The Dead and Popular Culture’ (with Palgrave Macmillan due out in 2017) I examine not only the value of the famous dead but also the entertainment that the dead in popular culture can contribute to society through the Undead (zombies and vampires) and also authentic corpses (models or live actors who play the dead in a non-fantasy setting). Consuming the dead and death is commonplace and everywhere and provides a safe arena in which to explore cultural fears about mortality.

So what is next for me and death?

Well so far in 2016 I have hung out by Dick Turpin’s grave for The York Press to discuss the famous dead and tourism, and desperately tried not to smile for the camera or rattle the beer cans which were around my ankles. I have also been interviewed about violence against the female dead in television drama with Radio 4.


Dr. Penfold-Mounce at Dick Turpin’s grave.

I have run a workshop on the famous dead at the Before I Die Festival in York and made plans to run an interactive session for the public on ‘Spectacular Justice’ at the York Festival of Ideas in June 2017. I have also taken on more fabulous doctoral students many of whom are focusing on death in relation to popular culture or crime. So I think I will just go and finish writing about ‘A Corpse for Christmas’, a lecture I am giving at St Barts Pathology Museum this Christmas and then get working on my new book with Palgrave Macmillan on ‘Death, the Dead and Popular Culture’. After all, I can rest when I am dead.


Images from ‘ A Corpse for Christmas’ the topic of one of Dr. Penfold-Mounce’s upcoming lectures.


“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