Monthly Archives: January 2013

Gender and parent perspectives

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As time goes by, I’m discovering more and more research that presents parent and/or carer perspectives. Although many of these studies are essentially program-evaluative in nature (ie parents/carers are a source of data about a program, rather than being a focus of interest in their own right), at least there seems to be a move towards seeking their views first-hand and not using staff or others as a proxy voice.

But…are we actually hearing from ‘parents’, or from ‘mothers’? ‘Carers’, or ‘female carers’? How effectively is this question dealt with in research design and in data analysis? And what does it mean for my study?

It’s no secret that there is a gender imbalance in many health and community services, and that this is in evidence (with some exceptions) among both the front-line workforce and service users. Data on the informal carer workforce provides a similar picture. I have plenty of personal experience of working in female-dominant workforces and in primarily female workplaces, and have grappled with this issue for many years. As a manager in a past role, I tried hard to recruit male workers, but with little success apart from supervision of one male social work student on placement. The team I worked with ran parenting sessions using a range of program models, but with one exception these were poorly attended by fathers. The exception was a one-day session on paediatric first aid (very concrete and action-based in its content – hint, hint). Despite efforts to engage fathers and seek their guidance about service approaches, our achievements were very limited.

In the context of research into parent-carer perspectives, issues of gender have tended to lurk somewhere in the background, with maybe a passing mention but often drowned out by foreground ‘noise’ on other aspects of  methodology or data analysis. My own thinking has followed the same lines – while I couldn’t honestly say that I haven’t given gender a thought, neither has it been uppermost in my thinking, until recently.

It was an article entitled ‘Gender imbalance in pediatric palliative care research samples’, by Macdonald et al* that captured my attention and got me thinking about the relevance of this question to my own study. Macdonald et al’s literature review found a significant increase in the quantity of North American literature presenting ‘parental perspectives’ between 2003 and 2008, but noted that across the 45 studies that met their inclusion criteria ‘(m)others constituted 75% of the overall sample of parents’ and ‘in only four studies was the gender imbalance addressed as one of the limitations of the study’ (p.435). If fathers whose participation was in the context of a ‘couple’ were removed, the imbalance was even more marked (84% mothers, 16% fathers).  The only study that showed equal representation of mothers and fathers was a study of couples.

Macdonald et al discuss the dangers of assuming that maternal viewpoints can represent parents in general, particularly in the context of grief and bereavement. Considerations of gender need to be incorporated at every stage of the research design, not least at recruitment. Data collection methods, similarly, may unwittingly engage or disengage according to gender. I’ve decided that it will not be enough to simply discuss gender imbalance as a potential limitation in my study; my research design will need to include recruitment and data collection strategies that enable (as far as possible) an equal representation of male and female perspectives. Of course, gender is itself a complex concept, and as Macdonald et al also warn, ”(r)esearchers must be attentive to the nuances and complexities of gender identities and roles; not all parents will identify with or conform to gender patterns, which also vary cross-culturally’ (p. 440).  They note the risk that researchers can, even inadvertently, further reinforce stereotypes in their handling of this issue.

The other aspect of gender is my own – am I, as a female researcher, possibly influencing the engagement of participants and the data they provide (or don’t)? I think the answer has to be yes, and while there may be some strategies I can use to minimise the impact of this, as a post-grad research student these will be limited. I can’t, for instance, work with a male co-researcher or research assistant, although I might seek out a male researcher to advise on some aspects of my design. I’ll need to anticipate that this is a feature to be considered in my data analysis and discussion, and ensure that it is addressed when the time comes.

In thinking all this through, it occurred to me that in terms of my particular research question (exploring parent-carer interactions with complex service systems), there is a specific additional area of exploration that I could follow, which is the role of gender on parents’ self-identity in relation to service systems and on their system interactions. Is the gender of the parent-carer a factor in the parent’s conceptualisation of self as ‘co-client’, ‘co-worker’, ‘resource’ (as per Twigg and Atkin**) or ‘protector’ (my own addition)? Is it a factor in services’ perception of the carer? Mind you, to explore the latter question I would need to collect data from services, and this hasn’t been part of my plan to date…

*Macdonald, M., Chilibeck, G., Affleck, W., & Cadell, S. (2010) Gender imbalance in pediatric palliative care research samples. Palliative Medicine. 24(4) 435-444.
**Twigg, J. & Atkin, K. (1994) Carers perceived: Policy and practice in informal care. Philadelphia, PA: Open Press.

On combining work and study

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I was reading an article about genetic testing recently* through two lenses: the implications for my work practice, and themes that could be relevant to my research project. This happens quite often; I use email alerts through both my work and uni systems, with different but overlapping purposes, and not infrequently an article that comes up in one context is equally or more applicable in the other. It was through one of these alerts that I became aware of the article, which sat firmly in the ‘overlapping’ area.

Way back when I had my first conversation with my supervisor, while I was still planning how I might embark on my new study phase, she commented that one of the benefits of studying part-time is the opportunity to immerse yourself in your reading, and take the time to process it effectively. There’s obviously no universally correct decision about whether to study part-time or full-time, as so much depends on individual circumstances, but this has definitely been the right decision for me. My weeks are composed of two threads of activity (work and study) but I’m able to weave the threads together in a way that strengthens and adds value to both. I find I’m reading and considering everything in both contexts, and it’s amazing how often my experiences in one area help me to make sense of (and even renew my enthusiasm for) what is going on in the other.

Emerging from this, there are two points that I want to highlight in this blog reflection: the importance of passion, and dilemmas in boundary-setting.

Having made it through my first year in quite good shape, I’m convinced that undertaking research on a topic that I’m not only interested in but passionate about will be one of the keys to maintaining my energy through the long haul ahead. Already, if I was feeling at all ho-hum about my research topic, it would be feeling like a grind…and there’s a long way to go yet. I hear myself talking about my research topic to other people (a kind of out-of-body experience!) and realise that (apart from needing to shut up before I see their eyes glazing, not after) it doesn’t take much to get me started on an enthusiastic explanation of what I’m doing and why.  That signifies to me that I’m still passionate about it – I can feel the passion as I talk about my research. See previous comment about eyes glazing over.

The passion is closely linked with the relevance to my area of work. It’s a two-way process, with each reinforcing my commitment to the other. I find similar themes coming up in my conversations with families or other services providers, and in my academic reading (where I’m discovering both new information and ongoing gaps).

Like so many things in life, though, there is a flip side to this, and that’s the need to consider where the boundaries need to be drawn, so that the passion is channeled effectively and appropriately. When I mention boundaries, I’m talking about boundaries on two different levels. Firstly, there’s the boundary that needs to be drawn between work and study. Although there’s value in these being complementary and mutually beneficial, they also need to have some separation. Ethically, they need to be appropriately separated so that (for example) the privacy and confidentiality of families I work with is protected. Philosophically, I need to be conscious of different contexts so that my analysis is effective, and my respective roles as Family Advocate and researcher strengthen rather than undermine each others’ validity. And, finally, logistically I need to keep them separate to some degree so that I focus on tasks and divide my time in a way that hits a suitable balance between work and study, and don’t become overwhelmed or immobilized.

The other dilemma about passion (and the containment thereof) is specifically relevant to my role as a researcher. As a social work researcher, my intention is that my research will lead to real change and a better service environment for families who have a child affected by a genetic degenerative neurological disorder. However, unless I approach this reflexively, I run the risk of straying into ideology and leaving the outcomes of my study open to (justified) claims of bias and analytical weakness. Somehow, I will need to find a suitable balance between passionate involvement in my topic and acknowledgement of my own perspective, and enough ‘distance’ that I am able to hear what others tell me, and to allow myself to be ‘surprised’ by unexpected (and maybe contradictory) findings. I think this is a common dilemma for social researchers. Depending on the researcher’s situation of herself/himself ontologically and epistemologically, different degrees of personal involvement will be appropriate..to bracket or not to bracket, that is the question… I suspect it’s also a common source of criticism by positivist researchers who would strive for objectivity and would find any degree of personal perspective to be anathema to strong research.

As you can tell by the ramble above, I am still untangling my tangled thoughts about all this, but writing them into this post has been a starting point.

* Vento, J. and Schmidt, J. 2013 Genetic Testing in Child Neurology. Seminars in Pediatric Neurology. 19:167-172.