POLICY BRIEFING: Gender Matters in Research

POLICY BRIEFING: Gender Matters in Research

Di McNeish and Sara Scott (DMSS Research)


Recently we have been working on two projects – both fundamentally concerned with gender and women’s oppression and which threw up two rather different issues about the role of research in identifying/explaining/evidencing gender inequality.

The first project was an evidence review concerned with women and girls ‘at risk’ of the poorest life outcomes. It was commissioned by three charitable trusts (Barrow Cadbury, LankellyChase and the Pilgrim Trust), to inform the development of a new cross-sector strategic alliance focused on women and girls with complex needs. We were asked to explore the evidence on the risk factors associated with negative outcomes and on potentially effective interventions for women and girls, including: those in contact with the criminal justice system; experiencing homelessness; involved in sexual exploitation/prostitution; experiencing severe mental health and/or drug/alcohol problems.

It will come as little surprise to many that women and girls at greatest risk of poor outcomes are found across all these areas – women in prison are also at greater risk of homelessness, drug misuse and sexual exploitation. Yet, research is all too often carried out in silos- as indeed are many service responses. However, this was not the only limitation of the available research.

The evidence we reviewed fell into three main categories: research on presenting needs and problems and their consequences; research on underlying cause and correlates, and research on what works in tackling causes and ameliorating negative outcomes. Our conclusion was that – in terms of women and girls at risk – there were considerable gaps in all three kinds of research. For example, some of the best evidence about risks and consequences across the life course can be provided by longitudinal research but publications from the UK cohort studies pay little attention to gender. Indeed, a recent analysis of the relationship between childhood deprivation and adult social exclusion based on BCS data specifically notes that ‘the gender dimension has not been analysed in this study’. It therefore represents an important issue that needs to be further investigated’.[1] Also the Nuffield Foundation’s otherwise excellent briefings on time-trends in adolescent well-being have little analysis of gender, or the potentially different impacts of social change, on the well-being of young men and young women.[2]

Similarly, the value of much evaluative research for understanding the impacts of interventions on women and girls is seriously undermined by its lack of interest in gender. The most robust evaluative evidence tends to be largely undifferentiated by gender or, in relation to some topics such as conduct disorder or offending behaviour, relates largely to interventions and outcomes for men or boys. Some of the most thoroughly evaluated interventions have been those in the early years (for example parenting education, home-visiting and pre-school programmes). However, a striking feature of this research is how little reference is made to gender. It is as though the pre-fives are somehow also ‘pre-gender’. Despite this there are suggestions from long-term follow-up work that such interventions may differentially impact on boys and girls. For example, at age 19 the well-evidenced positive effects of the Family Nurse Partnership appear to be maintained for girls but not for boys[3].

It is also the case that services or interventions specifically aimed at women and girls at risk have been subject only to very limited evaluation, very little of which has been published[4].

Consequently, we completed this review positively fired up with the conviction that more needed to be done to put gender on the agenda of researchers and research funders. In our report to the new alliance we recommended that it should create a demand for gender to be more routinely analysed and reported in research findings, encourage funders of research to give a higher priority to studies that explore issues of gender and risk and advocate wider use of feminist approaches to evaluation which measures what matters to women and girls and enables greater reflection of the realities of women’s lives.

We retain this conviction – but soon after completing the review, another project we’re involved with raised a research dilemma which gave us pause for thought. We are currently evaluating a programme in Scotland which aims to prevent sexual violence by providing educational workshops to young people via schools and youth groups. The programme is being delivered through nine Rape Crisis centres across the country and in the first nine months ran workshops attended by over 2,000 young people.

Our evaluation was intended to explore differences in participation and impact – particularly by gender – and included small group interviews with participants and teachers and youth workers, observations and pre and post questionnaires designed to capture any changes in knowledge and attitudes amongst those attending blocks of three or more workshop sessions. Challenging gendered attitudes to sex and relationships are a key element of the intervention and analysis by gender has produced some interesting early findings – including some that give grounds for optimism about the views of many Scottish young people towards sexual violence and sexual double standards.

Gender is so fundamental to the Rape Crisis Scotland project that it would have seemed absurd to us not to collect and analyse data by gender. But our questionnaire was challenged by some young people who objected to answering the question:

Are you:

a boy

a girl

Some of these young people identified as transgender, but others wished to reject gender as a categorisation. And who could blame them? Given that traditional gender roles are the source of so many problems, what could be better than for young people to reject them entirely? And who are we, a couple of middle aged feminist researchers, to tell them that they have to tick a box so that we can measure the very differences that they (and we) would like to eliminate?

But we do argue that the gender boxes matters. Despite greater equality of opportunity between young women and men, gender inequalities persist. Girls are born into a world structured by inequality where by virtue of their gender they are likely to earn less money than men, have less freedom than men, undertake certain kinds of work and spend more time looking after other people than men[5]. And when it comes to experiencing violence and abuse, prevalence research shows that girls are at greater risk of most kinds of interpersonal abuse[6].

The most disadvantaged women are also most likely to suffer the most extensive abuse across the life course[7]. However, even for the more advantaged, the attitudes and behaviour of young men towards young women remains seriously problematic (as amply illustrated by the recent media reports of the extent of sexual violence experienced by women students during fresher’s weeks).

In our evidence review, we argue that gender is critically important to both understanding and addressing violence and abuse. Viewing it through the lens of gender helps us to see how being a girl not only increases the risk of victimisation, it also shapes what violence and abuse means and how it is likely to be responded to both by those assaulted and those around them.

The concept of gender socialisation is well out of fashion: the idea that children simply ‘absorb’ and internalise gender norms through socialisation has been criticised as entirely too passive a representation of how gender identity is formed. However, what we learn as we grow up about what gendered behaviour and attitudes are expected of us remains relevant to an understanding of inequality. Gendered expectations are one of the ways in which gender inequalities are maintained among children, teenagers and adults. By shaping beliefs and attitudes about what it is to be a man and a woman, gender ‘socialisation’ normalises inequality – it makes it simply the way things are[8]. The pressure to conform to gendered expectations remains pervasive in children’s lives. In a recent UK study girls in primary school identified the gendered limits on ‘how they feel they can be’ and the difficulties of dealing with everyday sexism and sexual harassment[9].

At the same time we wanted to take the personal-political issue of gender identity seriously as a research issue and find out how other researchers had addressed these concerns. We consulted some who had undertaken research specifically in the trans-community as well as in sexual health and equalities more widely but encountered no easy answers. The small amount of research that has been undertaken with trans/gender independent people suggests a very diverse set of identities. For example, analysis of trans data collected in Ontario, Canada showed that while most trans people had either a male/masculine or female/feminine identity, about 1 in 5 identified in some way as both, neither, or gender fluid. In other words there is no theoretical basis to support the idea that trans/GI people are a group whose attitudes can be analysed collectively[10]. There is also no consensus on how to identify gender independent/trans participants in research. Items that add an option in addition to “male” or “female” to a sex or gender question may provide an expanded space for those who do not identify as either male or female, but it also seems that an “other” box is literally ‘othering’. In addition, no questions have been developed or tested specifically with young people.

You may be either relieved or disappointed to hear that we eventually reached a compromise. We have kept the boy/girl categories but added a space for young people to comment or insert their own preferred identity. This is not a very empowering change of course – we’ll count the young people who opt out of a gender categorisation and report on their numbers and the identity ‘labels’ they use, but we won’t be able to include them in our analysis. This is a pity because this small but articulate collection of young people may be in the vanguard of change.

So, yes, we still think gender counts and should be counted a lot more in a lot more research. But let’s hope that some of those young people in Scotland are right and that their challenge to binary categories might be part of making our tick boxes redundant.


[1] Peruzzi A (2013) From childhood deprivation to adult social exclusion: Evidence from the 1970 British Cohort Study, Institute of Education working paper 2013/5, London, UK: Institute of Education, University of London.

[2] Hagell A (2012) Changing adolescence: Social trends and mental health, Bristol, UK: Policy Press; Hagell A (2012) Changing adolescence: Introducing the final report; Nuffield Foundation (2009) Time trends in adolescent well-being: Update December 2009, Nuffield Foundation, http://www.nuffieldfoundation.org/sites/default/files/Time%20trends%20in%20adolescent%20well-being%202009%20update.pdf.

[3] Eckenrode J et al (2010) Long-term effects of prenatal and infancy nurse home visitation on the life course of youths, Archive of Pediatric and Adolescent Medicine, 164 (1) 9 – 15.

[4] There are some exceptions from the US where a few specific gender sensitive, trauma-informed interventions have been implemented and substantially evaluated in a number of service settings (mental health, substance abuse, criminal justice). See for example: Covington S et al (2008) Evaluation of a trauma-informed and gender-responsive intervention for women in drug treatment, Journal of Psychoactive Drugs, 5 387 – 98.
Messina N, Grella C and Torres S (2010) A randomised experimental study of gender responsive substance abuse treatment for women in prison, Journal of Substance Misuse Treatment, 38 (2).
Fallot RD, McHugo GJ, Harris M and Xie H (2011) The Trauma Recovery and Empowerment Model (TREM): A quasi-experimental effectiveness study, Journal of Dual Diagnosis, 7 (1) 74 – 89; Harris M and Fallot RD (eds) (2001) Using trauma theory to design service systems, New Directions for Mental Health Services, San Francisco, US: Jossey Bass.

[5] Equality and Human Rights Commission (2010) How fair is Britain? First triennial review; Johnson P and Kossyk Y (2008) Early years, life chances and equality: A literature review, Equalities and Human Rights Commission; Gershuny J (2004) Time, through the lifecourse, in the family, in J Scott, J Treas and M Richards (eds), The Blackwell companion to the sociology of families, Oxford, UK: Basil Blackwell, 158–77

[6] Radford L, Corral S, Bradley C, Fisher H, Bassett C, Howat N and Collishaw S (2011) Child abuse and neglect in the UK today, London, UK: NSPCC; Finkelhor D (1986) A sourcebook on child sexual abuse, Thousand Oaks CA, USA: Sage; Kelly L, Regan L and Burton S (1991) An exploratory study of the prevalence of sexual abuse in a sample of 16–21 year olds, London, UK: University of North London: Child Abuse Studies Unit.
Guy J, Feinstein L and Griffiths A (2014) Early intervention in domestic violence and abuse, Early Intervention Foundation.

[7] Scott S, Williams J, Kelly L, McNaughton Nicholls C, Lovett J, McManus S (2013) Violence, abuse and mental health in England, London, UK: NatCen,

[8] Fine C (2010) Delusions of gender: The real science behind sex differences, London, UK: Icon.

[9] Renold E (2013) Girls and boys speak out: A qualitative study of children’s gender and sexual cultures, NSPCC and the Children’s Commissioner for Wales.

[10] Coleman, T., Bauer, G., Scanlon, K., Travers, R., & Kaay, M. (2011). Challenging the binary: Gender characteristics of trans Ontarians. Trans PULSE E-Bulletin, 2(2), 1–2.


Di McNeish and Sara Scott are co-directors of DMSS Research, specialising in research and evaluation in the social care field.