ON BEING A WOMAN ETHNOGRAPHER IN INDIA

I am usually the first one to cringe at people calling someone a ‘woman’ pilot or a male ‘air hostess’. In today’s fast progressing world which aspires to be gender neutral, it sounds primitive. Having said this, I believe that using ‘woman’ as prefix is a lingual left-over of what goes on in mind but is not spoken. Indian culture is not egalitarian; you will find vast differences in the way men and women are treated and treat each other. In the traditional societies, women do not address their husbands with their names, men and women do not hang out in the same circles. I have, like other entrepreneurs, senior surgeons and yoga instructors faced the brunt of it. This article is about how I made the most of the cards dealt to me.

Design research is a domain agnostic field, which focuses on the user to make or improve products/services/experiences. A design researcher, he or she, but in this story she, goes where the wind takes her. The wind recently took me to various rural areas of India as a part of an agriculture related project. Like we usually do, we traveled and conducted interactions in a group of 2: one person to carry out the interaction, other one to document, handle equipment and support when needed. For this particular project, I went with a man older than me. I would head interactions, he would support. What I realized in the first half hour of the first interaction is that, being a good ethnographer is not enough to have a good interaction. The fact that I was a woman, probably younger than most of the farmers, was not going to help. Every time I asked a farmer a question, he would look to my partner and answer.

For a different project, which was technology related, I went to Delhi with a male colleague of my same age. Our target demography of the party-going, elitism-seeking, middle-class users also refused to address me while answering questions. I felt transparent; people would talk over me. The other extreme on this spectrum is being given the wrong kind of excessive attention. I have, along with other female colleagues, been stalked by some users. On other instance, a female colleague in Chennai for a kitchen-interior based project was the only one being talked to or let into the kitchens, and not her male colleagues, despite her lack of comprehending their language.

All these things affect a research interaction. If an ethnographer cannot build a (fairly) good rapport with a user, the interaction cannot lead to unearthing of deep thoughts; hereby losing you half the battle of designing a world-class product or service. But there is no need to lose heart yet. There are some steps that can help to have a fruitful interaction, and here is an additional list of things to do that have specifically helped me being taken seriously “in spite” of being a woman ethnographer:

  1. Do as the Romans do
    Wear clothes that make you fit right into their habitus. Talking to them in their language helps.
  2. Be the host of the show
    Introduce yourself and the colleague; be the talker from the start; take the control in your hand.
  3. Pitching the tent
    Giving users your visiting card, introduce yourself and company as ‘we’. These acts help build a strong ground to anchor your professional identity and help users take you more seriously.
  4. Birds of a feather
    Talk about something in their work life that you are well versed with, draw parallels from your life. Let them know you are not there to ONLY learn, you come from a background of knowledge and experience.
  5. Eye-to-eye
    Do not break eye-contact, maintain a straight posture, nod reassuringly and smile. Women are typically viewed to be less threatening than men, use that to your advantage.
  6. Partner-in-crime
    Talk to your partner; ask him to look at you when the user talks. Humans tend to follow gaze. This would help redirect the user’s attention to you. This must be done slyly, without seeming rude.

Following 1 or all of these does not guarantee attention, seriousness or even respect. This can be infuriating. The biggest challenge of an ethnographer is to not lose calm in the face of these challenges. You cannot beat prejudice, at least not successfully, with offensive words. You are losing the plot if you make your user feel uncomfortable or offended. If you have a successful interaction, you are leaving the user with a clearer image of women and the world with an easier path to follow. So tread carefully and subtly. Persistence is the key.