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.