Researching Sensitive Topics: The Case of Sexism and Gender Discrimination at Turkish Universities

Researching Sensitive Topics: The Case of Sexism and Gender Discrimination at Turkish Universities

Fatma Fulya Tepe (İstanbul Aydın University, Turkey)
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-5225-9163-4.ch010


This is a methodological chapter, discussing various reasons why sexism and gender discrimination at Turkish universities might be a sensitive topic for research and how to overcome the obstacles associated with researching such a sensitive topic. The reasons why sexism and gender discrimination might be a sensitive topic for research include the research participants' possible identification with a victim position in a sexist environment and a resulting loss of self-esteem on their part as well as the university management's potential disapproval of having one of its faculty interviewed about perceptions of sexism. In this study various research methods are discussed and evaluated, ranging from various forms of snowballing to more randomized ways of finding participants. One tentative conclusion of the present study is that research on sexism and gender discrimination at the university requires the support of powerful academics willing to function as key persons.
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In many Western countries, there are laws to protect and secure gender equality in all spheres of life. In these countries many studies have also been made on gender equality at the university in the last 45 years (Lewin & Duchan, 1971; Jones & Lovejoy, 1980; Tripp-Knowles, 1995) and according to the recent literature, there is no overt gender discrimination in the academia (Roos & Gatta, 2009). Instead, the difficulties that women face in academia are expressed in terms of hidden or subtle discrimination (Roos & Gatta, 2009; Morley, 2006).

Pettigrew (1998) has elucidated the dynamics behind the transformation from overt to subtle discrimination in Western countries. He suggests that this transformation is related to the pressure coming from the public recognition that discrimination and discriminatory expressions and practices are not acceptable. According to Pettigrew, under democratic conditions overt prejudice turns silent and hidden but still survives. The same should be true for sexism at the universities. Since gender equality has become the norm and since it is also common that women defend their rights, it should be harder to discriminate against them overtly. Hence, whatever kind of discrimination that survives could be expected to be hidden and subtle. However, this does not mean that sexism has disappeared in a Western context. For instance, even in Finland, with one of the the highest rate of women professors within the EU, female academics report experiences of sexism and gender discrimination (Husu, 2000; Husu, 2005). As the Me too movement shows, and despite the dominant status of the gender equality norm in Western countries and especially in the Nordic countries, sexism is still a sensitive issue.

The situation in Turkey regarding this matter is not much different and even worse in some respects. It is a well known social fact that there are large gender inequalities in Turkey (Kağıtçıbaşı, 1986; Toprak, 1982; Toprak, 1999). When it comes to academia, there are only a few studies on sexism and gender discrimination and most of them have found no evidence of them. However, even studies that underline positive facts, such as that there is a higher percentage of women at engineering departments in Turkey than in the US, also reveal that female students in these departments “perceive lesser opportunities than their male peers” (Smith & Dengiz, 2010, p. 52). Likewise, it has been pointed out that discrimination against women in engineering departments may often come in subtle and covert forms, such as “the tendency to guide female graduate students into those fields of engineering which are viewed as more convenient for women, jokes made by the professors about women’s incompetence in engineering and the marginalising attitudes of male classmates towards female students” (Zengin-Arslan, 2002, p. 407).

Key Terms in this Chapter

Loyalty-Based Snowballing: A method for recruiting research participants according to which a key person is asked to suggest research participants who in turn stand in a personal relationship to the key person.

Coping Strategy: A way of dealing with adversities and obstacles that may include a variety of different approaches, ranging from denying and ignoring the obstacles in question to confronting and opposing them.

Sexism: Beliefs, attitudes, practices, and actions that derive from or encourage irrelevant distinctions between men and women.

Sensitive Research: Research that deals with topics that concern private and intimate aspects of people’s lives, that might be potentially stigmatizing and/or socially controversial, and therefore requires special methods.

Personal Interest-Based Snowballing: A method for recruiting research participants according to which persons who share the researcher’s interest in a particular topic are invited not only to participate themselves but also to suggest other participants sharing this interest.

Gender Discrimination: An unequal distribution of benefits and burdens among men and women because of their gender.

Key Person: A person who is well acquainted with the field of research and can suggest research participants to the researcher.

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