by Jenny Chanfreau

On Wednesday 27 September 2017, LSE Gender PhD students organised an event titled Why feminism? An open discussion about doing gender research. During this event, PhD and MSc students from a range of disciplines engaged in a conversation framed around a series of questions: What does it mean to say we are working with gender studies? What does a gender perspective allow in research? How do we know research to be feminist, queer and/or postcolonial? What questions does that raise for our work? This series of posts presents the transcripts of the speakers’ discussion papers, beginning with Jenny Chanfreau’s reflections on quantitative analysis and divergent understandings of gender.

I thought I’d start with this question — What does it mean to say I am working in gender studies? — by reflecting on how my project seems to be perceived by others outside gender studies and academia. When strangers or acquaintances ask what my PhD is about I say I’m investigating how men and women’s work-family life-courses have changed over time in the UK. If they ask, I say that I analyse survey data to do this investigation. Most don’t ask. My initial answer seems to satisfy most people who aren’t really that interested in my reply, they’re just making polite conversation while waiting at the school gate or mingling at a BBQ. However, if I’m asked what department I’m in, the response Gender Studies is always followed by nods that this makes sense. ‘Gender’ equals women & men, right? It’s all quite neat, all boxed up with a bow on top.

And to be fair, for that sort of polite, somewhat disinterested, conversation I’m quite happy to keep it that way. No need to open a can of worms of reflections on how my research is influenced by my social position and whose voices and experiences aren’t being reflected because of my choice of methods. No need then and there to get into the tensions of trying to reconcile the complexities of the social construct of gender using the binary variable available in survey data which conflates sex and gender. Sometimes it’s nice to just park the complications.

When actually ‘at work’ on my project it’s a different story — how to think and write about gender in my research obviously preoccupies me a lot. And how gender is understood by people outside gender studies circles — in particular among those social researchers generally in the business of collecting or analysing quantitative data — is something I spend a lot of time thinking about.

‘Gender’ seems to be one of those terms where everyone fills in their own meaning, which makes interdisciplinary conversations somewhat tricky. For some, it appears to be simply a synonym for sex. For others, it seems to be the socially prescribed roles and behaviours that are attached to sex categories, or perhaps a combination of the two. But even when gender is treated as a social construction in the sense of social expectation, power often seems to slip out of view.

To draw on Jill Williams’ (2010) argument for ‘feminist-demography’, which I think has wide application for much quantitative social science,

the importance of gender to social processes is its relationship to power. Feminist-demography requires attention to how gender as an organising principle bestows differential power and how that power affects demographic outcomes.

I agree, but I wonder how accessible this was for her intended audience — which I presume was mainstream demographers — the gender-studies-uninitiated, if you like.

An example might help illustrate what I mean: A while back I had a conversation with a former colleague, we were catching up on her work and my studies, and I shared that I had been posed a question in a seminar about how my project could capture how gender has changed over time. I was prattling on about how exciting this question was to me and how it had cut straight through to the importance of context. My friend looked thoroughly perplexed: Gender changing over time? I don’t even understand what that means. And so, a question that made a lot of sense to me, after a year or so in a gender studies department, made no sense at all when encountered through the lens of survey data, categorical variables and quantitative measurement of change.

The idea of a threshold concept provides an apt explanation for these very different ways of understanding. I first learned about threshold concepts last year in the training for new class teachers. This was in the context of teaching quantitative subjects but I remember being struck by how well it seemed to capture my experience of coming to gender studies. To quote Erik Meyer and Ray Land:

A threshold concept can be considered as akin to a portal, opening up a new and previously inaccessible way of thinking about something. It represents a transformed way of understanding, or interpreting, or viewing something without which the learner cannot progress.

In addition to being transformative, the process of getting to grips with threshold concepts have been referred to as ‘troublesome’, ‘liminal’ and ‘irreversible’, which also feels quite fitting for coming to gender studies. The irreversibility is key here, because it means once we have this transformed way of understanding and interpreting — whether we come to it through formal education or through lived experience — we lose sight of the previous or alternative view. The transformed way of understanding seems common sense (even if not as common as we would like). And so understandings can quite easily begin to diverge in interdisciplinary conversations, sometimes without us even noticing that we’re not on the same page. We use the same words but with different meanings.

I’m dwelling on this because is communicating findings and interpretations from gender studies so that the reader is ‘on the same page’ with us not at the core of feminist research that is speaking to mainstream social science or to policy or practice? Why does it matter if my friends and colleagues outside of gender studies do not understand these struggles? My research aims to speak to mainstream social science and policy – this is where I see its effects on the world. Which leaves me with the question of how to produce research that is both feminist and legible to a broader audience?

What makes research feminist was a central and recurring theme at the one-day conference I co-organised last week, with fellow PhD student Rose Cook at UCL IoE. The conference was aimed at launching a network for PhDs and early career researchers who are combining feminist research commitments and quantitative methods. The central commitments of feminist research methodology might be summed up as the need for theoretical underpinning and insistence on social and historical context, reflexivity about the researcher’s social position on the knowledge they produce, the commitment to minimise harm in the research process and the political commitment to social change, to tackling gender injustices in various forms. However, as both our keynote speakers emphasised, much of this ought to be essential commitments to good practice in all social science. One of our speakers, Maria Iacovou, in particular emphasised that the key to feminist research is the way that results are discussed and the way that their implications or potential applications for policy or practice are phrased, stressing that a feminist researcher’s job is not done at publication. Activism outside academia is needed to try to bring about the social change that motivates our research as well as challenging misrepresentations or harmful applications of research.

In the context of quantitative analysis, which lends itself well to describing and generalising patterns, I think it’s not just about being clear about stating that the individual-level male/female categorical variable in the survey analysis is understood as a proxy, however imperfect, for the subtle and amorphous gender. But there is also an inherent tension between describing patterns and general associations and reinscribing and reinforcing the patterns of inequality by naming them. This is what I think is often left unspoken in some of the less critical quantitative analysis that includes gender as a variable; if we find a difference between men and women in whatever outcome we are investigating, why is that? It’s that silence that permits everyone to fill in their own meanings.

And yet some silences might be strategic. Participants at the conference also talked about choosing words carefully when presenting evidence in order to be persuasive in pushing for change when they had the opportunity to influence policy. There are some parallels here with Sara Ahmed’s discussion in Living a Feminist Life of institutional diversity work as strategic and pushy.

I’m aware I have just raised a lot of points, some of which are quite contradictory and I’m afraid I’m not about to offer any resolutions. I think that is also in the nature of feminist research; the embracing of tensions. I was once asked if I consider myself a feminist researcher. I remember being caught a bit off guard; you pose that question as if it’s uncomplicated. So let me answer with this: I aspire to be a feminist researcher for sure, for my research to be recognised as feminist, but I don’t think that’s for me to decide. I think feminist research has to be recognised and ascribed as such by others, on the basis of the work. A bit like if one is Prime Minister one’s feminist credentials are judged on the basis of policies and parliamentary voting records – not on whether one has ever been pictured wearing a T-shirt proclaiming ‘This is what a feminist looks like’.


Jenny Chanfreau is a PhD candidate at LSE Department of Gender Studies and a member of the Engenderings editorial collective. For her research, which looks at how gender and class differences in work-family life courses have changed over time in the UK, she is analysing life history data from large-scale surveys. Prior to starting her PhD she worked as a quantitative data analyst at the independent social research institute NatCen. She tweets as @JenChanf.