By Tamsin Hinton-Smith, University of Sussex; Fawzia Mazanderani, University of Sussex; Nupur Samuel, O.P. Jindal Global University; Anna CohenMiller, Nazarbayev University; and Ruth Goodman, University of Sussex
In January 2021 as an interdisciplinary team of feminist academics from participating universities in five countries, we embarked on a research project seeking to interrogate and increase gender inclusion and sensitivity in the focus and approach of higher education teaching in universities across five participating countries: India, Morocco, Kazakhstan, Nigeria, and UK. Set against the backdrop of the Covid-19 pandemic and with technology as the only bridge between us, our journey as a research team was not always smooth. In this blog we reflect on the challenges faced as a research team and our developing learning from being part of the research process. Gender on the Higher Education Learning Agenda Internationally is a 2-year British Academy funded research project funded as part of the Global Challenges Research Fund, with a central focus on equitable collaborative partnership between global north and global south countries to advance the Sustainable Development Goals.
Reflections on the research journey
The formal research design from the outset focused around online survey and interview data collection with university students and staff across partner institutions. However, as we undertook this research underpinned by principles of equitable collaboration, as feminist researchers we became increasingly aware of the need to focus more on reflecting on the research process and challenges within this, alongside the substantive focus.
Through our mutual reflections on our research journey, four themes emerged: communication styles and expectations, our sense of connectedness, the embodied and emotional dimensions to carrying out the research, and ethical considerations in terms of where power sat across countries and individuals.
We hope this blog provides interest to anyone concerned with the promotion of more equitable ways of researching collaboratively across intersections of gender, ethnicity, country context and academic seniority.
The research took place during the Covid-19 pandemic and so communication, and the majority of data collection, took place online. With all aspects of the research being conducted remotely, the ‘digital divide’ became apparent with inequalities arising both in access to internet but also confidence and experience using technical tools. Internet access and power outages compromised some colleagues in participating fully in all online meetings resulting in frustration and compromising opportunities for people to have their voices heard.
Research outputs were translated into local languages to support equity of access of research insights. However, reflecting colonial legacies, English was the first language of two of the partner countries (UK and Nigeria), the language of academia in India, and third language after French in Morocco, and after Russian in Kazakhstan, and so was the common project language shared by all research team members. The use of English as the project language represented uncomfortable communication inequalities, placing additional burdens on team members communicating verbally and in writing in a second or third language.
Beyond the need to translate languages there is also the challenge of translating cultural understandings. As the Morocco based research assistant expressed, ‘we don’t usually have the same interpretation, and this causes sometimes problems of understanding and problems of progress.’ For example, assumptions about what is meant by gender in different international contexts, for instance, whether ‘non-binary’ was a relevant and appropriate gender option for our surveys, resulted in difference of opinion and reinforced the need for clear and explicit communication and to create a space where clarifying understandings and reflecting together were encouraged. Differences in assumptions and understanding existed for research practices more broadly including frequency and conventions for communication.
Connectedness and humanisation of research process
Conducting international research as feminist scholars, connectedness and humanisation of the research process, was of strong importance influencing the way sought to carry out the research. Not all of the co-investigators had met each other in-person, and the research assistants were appointed specifically for the project and had no prior connections with any other team members, so actively creating online spaces to get to know each other was central to the success of the project as a collaborative endeavour. We met regularly as a Team via zoom, including space for informal as well as project management discussion within this, and made sure that all stages of the research process were developed as a team in a consultative manner.
Embodied experience and affect
Online research design brings the potential to disrupt the privileging of embodied presence that favours able bodies, geographic proximity and monetary access to education. Yet, working in this way brought with it challenges to managing time zone conflicts and pressures encompassed in the collapsing of work and home, that virtual communication brings about.
The pandemic required all team members to adopt new working patterns in terms of homeworking and researchers experienced intense experiences in the lifecycle of the project including childcare; illness of loved ones; and the emotional impact of fulfilling pastoral responsibilities for students in the context of the pandemic. The latter was particularly acute in India in Summer 2021 when pandemic conditions made continuing with the research in any meaningful way temporarily impossible. A humanising approach was vital to making sure that our continuation of the research through these challenging times took place in a way that recognised and supported what the research team and participants were negotiating in their wider lives.
Ethical concerns and considerations
Finally, we faced ethical challenges in moving beyond hierarchical approaches to knowledge production where research on the Global South is conducted by researchers from the Global North, to achieving equitable partnership in practice.
However diligently we sought to attend to feminist ethics around voice, power and collaboration; practicalities including technological inequalities around access, reliability and confidence continued to challenge the potential to meet the goals of equitable participation. Requirements to lead ethical approval, data storage, video conferencing hosting, and paying of budgets, all through UK lead organisations, provides a constant reminder of hierarchies of participation. One researcher expressed how:
‘Research, which is being done in the countries of Global South, it can be funded by international organizations or it can be funded locally, but what we have at the end of the day, the research outcomes, they are not widely circulated in the local communities. They go to the Global North…’ (Kazakhstan Research Assistant).
It is with this in mind that it has been particularly important in this project to ensure translation of key outputs and for the research team to support development of outputs identified by international team members as important to local agendas and audiences.
In this blog we have reflected on the process and experience of undertaking collaborative feminist research into gender equality in higher education, as an interdisciplinary, international research team. Through our reflective practice we hope to generate a wider understanding around the challenges of carrying out research equitably in practice, alongside our substantive focus on understanding gender (in)equality in higher education.
An in-depth reflexive exploration of the process and experience of undertaking collaborative feminist research into gender equality in higher education, as an interdisciplinary, international research team can be found in the forthcoming publication:
Hinton-Smith, T., Mazanderani, F., Samuel, N., and CohenMiller, A. (2022) ‘Co-creating cross-cultural approaches to gender mainstreaming in higher education: experiences and challenges in developing an interdisciplinary, international feminist knowledge-exchange research approach’, in CohenMiller, A., Hinton-Smith, T., Mazanderani, F., and Samuel, N. (Eds.) Leading Change in Gender and Diversity in Higher Education from Margins to Mainstream. Routledge: https://doi.org/10.4324/9781003286943