When a variable becomes the question: The changing role of gender in present-day research.

Sergio A. Silverio
Psychologist & Research Assistant in Qualitative Methods, Institute for Women’s Health UCL

Gender is becoming an increasingly common aspect of both academic debate and empirical focus across the globe. It still, however, remains a great privilege and pleasure to attend a conference where each and every delegate dedicates their energy, creativity, and intellect to addressing the big (and the small) questions about gender that persist even today. I have spent my so far relatively short career as a qualitative researcher focussing on women’s mental health in relation to gender identity and lifecourse transitions. To receive an invitation to attend the Gender Summit in London this year, and to have been invited as the first person to talk so directly on mental health in the Summit’s 15-conference history, was a great honour and opportunity.

For much of the past year, the time outside of my academic posts has been dedicated to reflecting on my role as a male researcher in the field of women’s studies, and the certain privileges this affords me. In undertaking this critical assessment of my research, I slowly developed and refined the message I was actually attempting to drive home: We do mental health poorly, and we do women’s mental health even worse. Let me clarify this statement.

Mental health research is often relegated to two boxes – the first, highly stringent randomised control trials of drugs and/or therapies for severe mental health disorders (for example: Dittner et al., 2018; Priebe et al., 2016); and the second – often online, questionnaire-based research – insights into low-level/common mood disorders and their associations with pretty much anything you can think of, from food preference (see Sagioglou & Greitemeyer, 2016), to sexual intimacy (see Brewer et al., 2016). Whilst there is nothing at all wrong with advancing our knowledge of psychopathology and psychological health in these ways, what we – as academics, educators, clinicians – often fail to detect is the everyday mental health issues which present as neither severe psychological distress, nor as a part of normal fluctuations in mood which do not require mediating and remedial intervention.

In terms of gender and mental health, in-depth assessments and studies of how mental health can wax and wane over the lifecourse in relation to gender are ostensibly lacking but are crucially required to replace the simple assessment of mental health by gender. Questions such as: “How does long-term medication of psychological distress effect a woman’s sense of social identity and social network?”; “Are there lasting psychological effects of childlessness and if so, do they differ by sex?”; or “Do significant life-transitions such as education, moving into a career, parenthood, or loss have specific mental health implications?” provide much more stimulating conversations about how pervasive mental health issues can be. Furthermore, moving away from a: “…depression is more common in women and suicide is a leading cause of death in men…” approach to one where we explore how different lifecourses are gendered, and how they may cause different mental health outcomes allows us to explore how we can intervene to hopefully prevent acute, critical, or crisis-level psychological distress long-before it manifests and becomes increasingly deep-rooted and complex. My response to this for women’s mental health has been repurposing the branch of ‘Female Psychology’ to facilitate these discussions and promote better ways of undertaking research into gender and mental health (Silverio, 2018).

The first public outing of this work was at the Gender Summit in London and in my opinion the conference was a tremendous display of the diversity of gender research. The two-day conference drew an international delegation with speakers from a wide range of academic fields – and whilst often the audience did not hail from the same discipline, each talk was accessible to the audience and was facilitated by enough time to ask questions and generate much conversation. From speakers on leadership and structural inequalities (Rana Dajani), to the (mis)interpretation of forensic science (Ruth Morgan), fascinating computational mathematics (Jonathan Dawes), and reports on FGM (Bola Grace), to the perils of not having women crash test dummies (Elizabeth Pollitzer), we even learnt how the oceans are affecting the sex of our marine life (Robert Ellis). The work reported at the Summit was not only thought-provoking, but vitally important to academia’s continued understanding of how the world works, because let there be no mistake – whether wanted or not – gender has an impact on every research question and all research outcomes, and is completely indiscriminate of discipline. In doing so, this showcase of gender research demonstrated that gender was not only the central tenet of the talks, but the driving force behind why the research was being undertaken in the first place.

References

Brewer, G., Abell, L., & Lyons, M. (2016). Machiavellianism, pretending orgasm, and sexual intimacy. Personality and Individual Differences, 96, 155-158.

Dittner, A., Hodsoll, J., Rimes, K., Russell, A., & Chalder, T. Cognitive–behavioural therapy for adult attention‐deficit hyperactivity disorder: A proof of concept randomised controlled trial. Acta Psychiatrica Scandinavica, 137, 125-137.

Priebe, S., Savill, M., Wykes, T., Bentall, R., Reininghaus, U., Lauber, C., Bremner, S., Eldridge, S., & Röhricht, F. (2016). Effectiveness of group body psychotherapy for negative symptoms of schizophrenia: Multicentre randomised controlled trial. British Journal of Psychiatry, 209(1), 54-61.

Sagiolou, C. & Greitemeyer, T. (2016). Individual differences in bitter taste preferences are associated with antisocial personality traits. Appetite, 96, 299-308.

Silverio, S.A. (2018). A man in women’s studies research: Privileged in more than one sense. In B.C. Clift, J. Hatchard, & J. Gore (Eds.), How do we belong? Researcher positionality within qualitative inquiry. An edited volume of the proceedings of the 4th annual qualitative research symposium (39-48). Bath: University of Bath.

Gender Summit 15 Talks Referred to Above:

Rana Dajani (Department of Biology and Biotechnology, Hashemite University): Leadership in Open Science: Overcoming gender and structural inequalities.

Jonathan Dawes (Institute for Mathematical Innovation, University of Bath): Understanding the role of SDG5 within a network of SDG interactions for best use of resources.

Robert Ellis (Biosciences, University of Exeter): Does sex really matter? Explaining intra-species variation in ocean acidification responses.

Bola Grace (Institute for Women’s Health, UCL): Knowledge, attitudes and practice of FGMC among women.

Ruth Morgan (Centre for the Forensic Science, UCL): The (mis)interpretation of forensic science evidence.

Elizabeth Pollitzer (Portia): Why the perils of not having female crash test dummies epitomise the Gender Summit mission.

Sergio A. Silverio (Institute for Women’s Health, UCL): ‘Female Psychology’ – A New Vision for Women’s Mental Health.

More from the event

” Thank you for a most engaging and stimulating conference, I really enjoyed it and have already started to correspond with some participants I had not met before “

” Thank you for a great Gender Summit 15.  I learnt a lot and we would need to translate some to an Africa context “

” Thanks again for the invitation to this brilliant summit. It was a great occasion to meet some very inspiring speakers “

For full talks, please visit the Gender Summit playlist on YouTube. For presentations, please visit the Gender Summit website.

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