Can We Reduce Gender Differences in Qualitative Research?

As part of her dissertation for her PhD at Pennsylvania State University in 2011, Rebekah Young looked at “don’t know” (DK) survey responses, specifically how the incidence of DK responses varies by demographic segments.  Looking across 12 nationally-representative datasets, 354 questions, and responses from more than 23,000 respondents, Young determined that, among other things, men were less likely to give a DK response than women.

While Young’s findings are not news (i.e., they are supported by existing literature), her work left me wondering about gender differences in qualitative research.  Specifically, whether there is a propensity in men to voice informed answers to a moderator’s questions even when the simpler, more appropriate response should be, “I don’t know.”  Likewise, I wonder how often women cave with a DK rejoinder when they actually harbor knowledge or experience that could further insights from the research.

This gets more interesting when you consider the research subject matter because the likelihood of non-response in our qualitative research may depend on the topic of discussion.  Men, it turns out, are more likely to voice “don’t know” around “sensitive questions” (e.g., sexual activity) while women are less likely to give a DK response when the discussion topic is “family and friends.”  At least in the survey research Young looked at.  But do these types of gender differences exist in the qualitative arena as well?

I have plenty of colleagues who argue that mixed-gender focus group discussions never “work” because of the competing dynamics generated from the pure nature of psychological, emotional, and physical male-female differences.  Yet I have rarely hesitated to combine men and women in a multi-person qualitative session on a non-sensitive topic.  This makes my work more difficult – teasing out what someone really thinks, stripped of all possible gender-related sources of error – but it also makes it more real.  It is more real because, after all, men and women do live together in some context in the real world, and the gender dynamic is often an important sight to behold, lending a new dimension to our understanding of the research.

In consumer research, home improvement, do-it-yourself studies are a case in point.  Many years ago, this was primarily a man’s world but women quickly entered this market and, in my experience, have as much if not more to say about selection, purchase, and use of building materials than men.  These focus groups are typically very vocal and full of energy, with everyone (both men and women) sparked by their mutual interest in the topic (home improvement).  Are men more likely to contribute (less likely to say “don’t know”) in this traditionally-male topic of discussion while drowning out their female counterparts?  This is when the effective skills of a trained moderator come into play.

In the end, and in contrast to survey research, maybe the ability to reduce gender-response differences in the qualitative environment is a challenging but real benefit to our qualitative work.

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