Notes from the top: Women as Leaders – Making an Impact

Ten days ago, I had the great privilege of being given the opportunity by Edwina Dunn, founder of The Female Lead, to attend the Institute of Directors’ conference ‘Women as Leaders 2016: Making an Impact.’

It was one of the most inspiring of days. With seriously inspiring speakers.

In this blog post I’m going to share what I heard. It was hard to make notes fast enough during the day, so things aren’t verbatim, however, I have done the best I can to replicate the words of the speakers. My notes are restructured into a narrative that will, I hope, be maximally helpful for you.

I’m going to share what the speakers had to say about:

Where are we at?

We’ve got a problem
We have rising indebtedness and there’s nothing we can seem to do about it – it’s a structural not a political issue. There’s increased devolution, shrinking of the public sector, and lowering of taxes – the UK has the lowest corporation tax in Europe. We have non ring-fenced government departments like the Department for Business Innovation and Skills and the Department for Culture, Media and Sport. We’ve got a problem and we’ve got to think of a better solution to this long term. – Yasmina Siadatan

We are far from having parity in the workforce, and it’s costing us
How much economic gain do we lose by not having equal numbers of women and men at the same levels in the workforce? Globally, 28 trillion dollars in additional GDP. Globally,  workforce parity is worth the entire economy of the USA and China; it’s a commercial imperative. In Europe alone it’s 200 billion dollars. If we don’t start to change things, on our current trajectory it’s calculated that it will take over 100 years to reach parity. We need intervention and a step change. Edwina Dunn

There’s an imbalance in business too
Only 18% of firms are majority run by women in the UK.- Yasmina Siadatan

Women aren’t progressing
What’s holding women back in financial services?
Women identify three main areas: 1) the company’s culture; 2) their own line manager; and 3) inflexibility. – Jayne-Anne Gadhia


Women-owned firms excel
Women-owned firms outperform those owned by male counterparts, with 13% higher revenue.- Yasmina Siadatan

And diversity is good for business
Companies prioritising diversity see a significant lift in profits. A 10% increase in gender diversity leads to a 3.5% increase in pre-tax profits. Greater diversity leads to richer discussions, more conversations and less hierarchy in companies. – Juliet Morris

We need balance, representativity of everyone, full vibrancy of diversity, views and cultures. The more we encourage diversity of thought and expression, the better. – Jayne-Anne Gadhia

There’s a new kind of capitalism emerging
Traditionally the worth of a business was measured by its revenue, but this traditional capitalism no longer serves people’s needs. 80% of millennials want to work for companies that care about having an impact. There’s a new way to measure a business’s worth and its impact: the triple bottom line. This measurement takes into account: 1) social, 2) environmental and 3) financial factors. There’s a new kind of business organisation framework: the B corporation. It’s a business that creates its value in these three dimensions. – Yasmina Siadatan.

So what does all this mean?

It means we need to get out there, be leaders with a capital L and change things. Here’s how…

How to be a leader with a capital L

Sacha Romanovitch on changing the leadership paradigm

Think about the next and the new
So much of life is focused in the now, but if we want to create a future for our children, we also need to think about the next and the new. Look around. The world is reaching its limits in resources. Things that once seemed esoteric are now really important.

Change the leadership paradigm
The prevailing paradigm of leadership in the world has been that leaders are heroes who save the world. The old view was: I’m perfect; I have all the answers. In the old days we held our hands tightly. If we open our hands to others, we can do something together, something better. Let’s have leaders where it’s okay for them to ask questions, it’s okay for them to think about how to bring things together in different ways. We need it to be okay for leaders to say I got it wrong, and yet for those leaders not to then be mullered. We will get the leaders we deserve.

Create meaning for people, build community
For me it’s all about creating the environment for others to do their best thinking. It’s brave leadership, trying to do something different. Creating a community to do something different, possibilities emerge; strength emerges. How do you create meaning for people? By enabling people to bring their best, whole selves into the office. You have to create space for people to ask at work: why am I on this earth? What is important to me? How does that connect to what I do every day? When you go into the world of possibilities, people won’t step forward straight away. It takes time. You’ve got to create a space for them to shine. You have to believe that people are good.

On instigating change
How do you carry people with you when instigating change? By creating time and space for them to express what they are uncomfortable with. By not necessarily waiting until you’ve got everyone onboard. Sometimes you’ve got to get on and do stuff and show people it works rather than wait for them to approve the theory.

Love and encourage
We need to bring love, kindness, thoughtfulness, mindfulness. With leaders like that we can change the system. I want to be a leader who is progressive and changes things. I know I won’t always get it right. Through community we can encourage each other, pick each other up and create the world we deserve.

On the language of leadership
So much of our language in business and leadership is to do with fear and destruction. What does that do to your brain? In that place of fear you aren’t set up to think, to be creative and constructive. When our toddler falls over we don’t tell them they did a rubbish job, we support and encourage because that’s what we do. We need to bring that language into leadership.

Challenge assumptions
The world puts assumptions on you and you have a lot of assumptions in your head. The assumptions we make? We create them in our head; we write that narrative. We can rewrite them. You’ve got to start with yourself. Once you can challenge your own assumptions, it equips you to work with others.

Chose what to fail at
You can’t do everything. I never buy clothes that need ironing. I outsource things I don’t have to do.

Make choices, pause and be clear
For you to make wise choices, you need to create those pauses so you are making a choice, rather than life happening to you. A minute sitting, breathing, thinking ‘what’s happening to me right now?’; in the world where it’s so relentless it’s a lost skill. It’s hard to pause. When you’re clear you can make things happen, you can change the world.

What else?

Make your company better through its personality
If you get a company, institution or business to think a bit differently by coming up with something innovative and creative, not just talking about it, but delivering and getting everyone to come with you, you’re adding brand worth. If you’re making your company better through its personality, then you’re improving it.Kim Winser

Be a leader with a capital L
Sometimes people say “it should be that women are leaders because we are softer, nice touch, collaborative” Ehhh? We are competitive, dammit! It’s perfectly respectable to compete. I don’t accept the softer thing. It’s incorrectly placed to suggest that women as leaders are softer. It’s really important that when we are leaders, we are leaders with a capital L.Kate Roberston

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How to achieve

Kim Winser’s five tips for achieving

1) Knowledge
When Marie Curie started in the world of physics, she wouldn’t have been saying I want to change the world and break records. She would have been passionate about what she believed in – physics. It was more about her knowledge and expertise and talent. Whatever field you’re in, make sure you’re really good at it, because that’s how you’ll get to the top. Learn from others. Watch different people doing different things and learn from them. Look at people that are so good in their space. It’s knowledge and expertise that will get you to the top.

2) Energy and determination
If you’re going to do anything, really do it. If you’re really do it. If you’re really determined, that will drive you.

3) Delivery
If you’re going to have thoughts and you’ve got energy and talent, then deliver it.

4) Gut
If you’ve got knowledge, experience, and a team, if you have a feeling for something, you have to follow it. Sometimes people are nervous of that. The chances are if you’re knowledgeable and up to date and are really thinking, listening, watching, reading, your gut is going to be pretty good.

5) Confidence
Dressing is so important because of what it does for you. It does say something about you, but that’s secondary to what it does for you. If you’re well dressed and confident in a meeting, the rest of the day you’ll focus on business, your talent and your gift to the meeting. If you feel confident, everything flows from there. 

What else?

Take opportunities
It’s not a question of nature or nurture; it’s being brave enough to take the opportunities that you are faced with. Never run away from an opportunity. Grasp it and make it yours.– Jayne-Anne Gadhia

Be yourself
You have to be genuine, truthful, authentic and honest. You shouldn’t change personality just because you are leading a business. Every personality can fit. Be honest to who you are. It’s about being giving. Be generous; give more than you take and then you’ll stand out. Don’t worry if someone else takes the credit for something, just give, because you will stand out and more and more people will see that.– Kim Winser

Be yourself
The most important thing is to be yourself; be proud of who you are. If it can happen to me it can happen to anyone. In this difficult world, be yourself; be brilliant take your opportunities and make a difference because we can definitely do that. It’s important to know what you believe in and stick to that and not change your principles. – Jayne-Anne Gadhia

Learn to let go
Figure out how to let go. When you ask someone how to do something and then they don’t do what you want, ask yourself ‘is this going to crush my business?’ No. You’ve got to learn how to pick your battles – so that you can make your business run without you. If you want to go on holiday you have every right to.  – Tara Mei

Learn to love guys
I’ve learned to love men because I spend all my time with lovely, lovely men. If you’re going to be a CEO, you’re going to end up with lots of guy friends, so just get used to loving them. – Celia Francis

Plan to scale up
Put scaling up into your strategy right from the start, so that where you are now is just part of a bigger picture.– Tara Mei

Talk to the market
It’s about education, talking to the market. Get out there and talk to people: show them the value of something, show them the problem, then show them the solution.Emma Clarke

And finally

Be a girly girl full of swagger
Why do we get lots of women managers, but fewer CEOs? Because girls don’t have quite the same swagger. You have to be able to feel and be confident if you are going to attract great people to work for you. The winning combination for the future leader? A girly girl full of swagger. – Celia Francis

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And when adversity, insecurity or fear strikes?

Starting and picking yourself up
I didn’t know what a business plan was when I started. I had YouTube videos on, working out my finances. I wanted to raise money, went to meetings to get money, they listened to me, then said no. I felt stupid. Today the business is a success. My business thrives because of me. I have a strategy, a plan. My Sat Nav is set to go where it’s going to go and everyone is going that way. I had no self-belief. I didn’t understand that I could do it and had no one telling me that I could do it. I’m bloody-minded and bright as hell, but there were places where I was scraping myself off the floor.Geeta Sidhu-Robb

Asking the stupid question and feeling things
When I was young, asking the stupid question, I realised that half the room didn’t understand either. I learned that lesson, and I realised that asking that stupid question was how I was going to learn most. Sometimes I think we have a desire to find the answer that’s intellectually right. Sometimes when I get stuck I think about how I feel about something. Rather than intellectualise, I feel things. I’m instinct first and analysis second. If you can work out what you’re feeling it’s sometimes much more powerful.– Jayne-Anne Gadhia

Staying calm
Advice I would give to my younger self? Try to find a way to stay calm. There are a lot of times in my career where something seemed like a total disaster. Things that seemed terrible, but ultimately turned out to be good. I think you have to go through it a few times before you realise that if you get through it it’s fine; as long as no one’s dead, you’re fine.– Celia Francis

Being in the right environment
As women we set our sights and boundaries at a particular level, whereas men do it differently. It’s about surrounding ourselves with the right environment so that we are enthused and inspired to do more. – Yasmina Siadatan

Taking risks
You have to be a bit more confident with taking risks than a girl might be. Boys are better than this. You’ve got to be able to say: it’s a high risk, but we are going to jump. You have to be able to do that and be okay with it.
Every week I secretly do something that scares me. It’s about getting used to the idea of risk and ‘the fear factor’. If you can think of something to do that’s low risk but that will give you the experience of getting over your fear, something you normally wouldn’t do, then you do it and it works out okay and you realise you’re fine, if you can do that you can do anything.– Celia Francis

You will shine
The thing about developing your own business: everything that’s weak about you will emerge, but everything that’s strong about you will shine. Geeta Sidhu-Robb

This too will pass
In moments full of doubt I’ve remembered: this too will pass.– Sacha Romanovitch

You will make it work
If you’re desperate enough and hungry enough you will make it work against adversity. – Emma Clarke

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How we can change things?


We aren’t fighting hard enough. – Kate Robertson

Things haven’t fully changed. It is our responsibility to make the change; for ourselves and our daughters.  -Jayne-Anne Gadhia

Edwina Dunn on changing perceptions and surfacing new role models

What can we do to achieve parity in the workforce? Two things:

1) we can change the perception of STEM subjects for girls; and

2) we can change girls’ perceptions of who they can be.

If you talk to people in the UK, you hear comments like “I’m not very good at maths.” People wouldn’t say that about English. It’s not like that elsewhere. The government says we are going to be the number 1 economy in the world in a digital future, but we are currently number 21.

We need to change perceptions and we need role models. Girls need to aim at somewhere and know that they can be successful. Having role models is imperative in helping us drive future success. Looking at social media, we see that boys follow a diverse collection of people, individuals, groups and organisations, whilst girls follow singers, actresses, models and celebrities. If we keep gazing in the same direction, at the same people, we aren’t going to change anything.

How can we celebrate, enjoy and learn from people who have amazing skills? By surfacing them and creating new role models.

ACTION points:
Get involved with The Female Lead – a non-profit project that celebrates women’s achievement, endeavour and diversity, it aims to make women’s stories more visible.
2) Get involved with  Your Life – a campaign inspiring and informing young people about the transformative power of studying maths and physics.
3) Offer yourself up as a role model – this is awkward for women, but we have a responsibility to tell our story, to share it.

What else?

We need to teach girls to be comfortable as leaders
We need ways to teach girls to be comfortable being confident and having swagger whilst being able to retain their core femininity. – Celia Francis

We need to encourage young women
It’s really important we go out of our way in our own communities and networks to encourage young women to be the best we can be. – Yasmina Siadatan

We need to pay attention to young leaders. – Kate Robertson

ACTION point: get involved with One Young World  a UK-based charity that gathers together the brightest young leaders from around the world, empowering them to make lasting connections to create positive change.

We need to get the media using different words
If we can get the media to start using different words, replacing ‘pretty, kind and likeable’ with ‘ambitious’ ‘clever’ and ‘strong’, then we have a chance.– Edwina Dunn 

Ambition shouldn’t be a dirty word
We need to get over this issue where girls think ambition is a dirty word. – Edwina Dunn

Send your daughter to coding classes. – Celia Francis

We can’t sit within our own boundaries
We are starting to see a global movement; there is an erosion of physical boundaries. No longer can we conform to a particular idea in one nation. People are so interconnected; ideas are shared from one to the next. We can’t sit within our own boundaries. In emerging economies there is a rise in the middle classes. We have connected cities and educated, informed, moving populations.  –Yasmina Siadatan

We need to invest in training line managers in building relationships
If we do nothing else we should invest in the training of line managers to understand the people they are managing, not just the businesses they are managing. The most important thing in any business is the relationships you build. With strength of purpose, together we can help each other to succeed. People want to be more flexible in the way they work. Richard Branson said the most important thing is for people to work where they are happy. Do we do that enough for our people? It’s a hugely empowering thing enabling this. – Jayne-Anne Gadhia

Hire both men and women
This is the most powerful outcome for your company. Celia Francis

Sometimes you need the help of people already there
All barriers that have been broken down for me have been helped by the support of a more powerful man. In our lives there continue to be men who are very powerful. In my experience the support now for women exceeding in business is better than before. In particular it’s men who have daughters. Sometimes you need the help of people already there. But none of that would have happened if I hadn’t taken the opportunities with both arms open.– Jayne-Anne Gadhia

We need leaders with a capital L across sectors
In business you will find more leaders with a capital L than you find in government and elsewhere. I wish that the leaders in government were of the calibre of the ones in business. In the global business we change things; 12 months later? Oh my god it’s changed!– Kate Robertson

So, ladies and gents, are you up for it?

To help us begin, I’ve made a wordcloud of some of the verbs the conference speakers used. We can use them to be inspired, and to drive our actions.

I’ve also made an inspirographic with some of the conference highlights – do feel free to refer to it and share.

WaL wordcloudIoDwal3

pdf here.

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10 reasons you should start a new hobby in the middle of your PhD

In the past few months I’ve taken up two new hobbies: making sourdough bread (at home) and dancing (in classes). I am so so glad I’ve done this.

If like me you’re right in the thick of your PhD, I would totally recommend starting a new hobby. Here are 10 reasons:


  1. The anonymity

Ever get tired of the “how’s the PhD going?” question? Taking up a hobby where you meet new folk means you get to meet people who don’t know that you’re doing a PhD. And if they don’t know they can’t ask about it. Even if you do tell them, it’s still fine because you have something else to talk about: your hobby.

  1. The learning satisfaction

If you’re doing a PhD then you must love learning and getting better at things. When was the last time you started learning something new, then? What’s more, when you’re a beginner you see progress really, really quickly. How different to a PhD, eh? So satisfying.

  1. The liberation

Have you been told that when you do your viva you’re supposed to be the world expert in your topic? So, no pressure then. When you begin a new hobby, though, unlike with your PhD, you are a total novice. The people around you have no expectations. You are legitimately allowed to be totally rubbish, and that is so freeing and refreshing.

  1. It’s an Impostor’s Syndrome antidote

Following on from the previous point, seeing how rubbish you are at your new hobby and being okay with that (you’re a beginner – it’s expected!) does make you realise how much you know and can do in your own area of doctoral expertise, and realising this can help keep the Impostor’s Syndrome under control.

  1. It’s good for your sanity

A person could go insane thinking about the same thing all the time day in day out. But we PhDers often do, don’t we? It’s hard to stop thinking about the project sometimes. But if you’ve got something else to think about, like for example how to improve on the last loaf of bread you baked, it gives you a break from PhD thoughts, which can only be a good thing for your sanity.

  1. It gives you perspective

Further to the last point, there have been times when my entire world has been PhD shaped. And I usually don’t realise it at the time. However, when you incorporate your new hobby into your world, suddenly it can’t be PhD-shaped anymore. The perspective makes the PhD seem smaller. Always nice.

  1. It helps creativity

Having just suggested that a hobby will give you a break from thinking about your PhD, I’m going to do a 180. Sometimes when you’re sat at your desk trying to have intelligent, creative thoughts they just don’t come. Maybe because you’re trying too hard? A hobby will put you in a completely different space (in your mind as well as geographically, perhaps) and if the ideas won’t come at the desk, there’s a good chance that when your PhD brain is switched off is when you’ll get a breakthrough.

  1. It’s a productive distraction

Everyone needs downtime and distraction, and websites like Facebook or Buzzfeed are perfect because there’s usually something new, they are mindless, and quite simply they are there. However, I don’t know about you, but I do kick myself when I think about the time I waste on websites like those.

But if you’ve got a hobby things are different because you have a topic or activity or sport to research. So you can read about that. And since it’s going to help you get better at your hobby, it’s not wasted time at all.

  1. Life is short

PhDs are so naughty, aren’t they? They spread through your life an hour at a time, and before you know it Saturday is in the library, Sunday is just finishing a bit on this, oh and I’ll have to work late next week.

I could really do with working more on the weekends and in the evenings, but if I do that my whole life will become my PhD. Life is too short for it to equate to a PhD. It’s time to start living now, not when we’ve got our PhDs.

  1. It’s a back up career!

Three risks I’m glad I’ve taken as a researcher

I was bricking it right up to the moment I heard the first reactions to my audacious behaviour. As soon as the room erupted, though, I knew taking the risk had paid off.


Have you ever found yourself thinking, “oh, I’d love to XYZ, but I’m not sure I’m daring enough?”

About a year ago I was invited to lead a discussion seminar at Cardiff University. In advance, one of the conveners emailed me with the instructions: “you’re welcome to use any format you wish…”

What would you do faced with that information?

Amazing I thought to myself, for once I don’t have to prepare a standard PowerPoint-And-Paper-Combo; I can do something different!

But what?

I’d been asked to talk about my first experiences of ethnographic fieldwork, and I felt like I had a story to tell. Hmm; a story. One idea sprung to mind, but it seemed a bit outrageous. It was logical but was so far removed from the PP-A-P-Combo. I grappled with it for a few days then decided I’d take the risk.

Fast forward to that cold, grey Wednesday afternoon. People start filing in. It’s not my institution, so I’ve really got no idea who anyone is: that chap coming in with the stripy jumper, for example, could be a PhD student or lecturer or dean of faculty.

Everyone is finally installed: It’s showtime.

Thump, thump, thump: I can hear and feel my heartbeat. Why did I ever think this would be a good idea?

No going back. I begin:

“Hi everyone, for those of you who don’t know me, I’m Sarah, and for today’s discussion I’ve drawn a cartoon…”

Cue: excitement, amusement, surprise, interest, laughter, recognition, engagement, questions, tangential thoughts, and animated discussion…

Like I said, as soon as the group reacted I knew the risk had been worth it. Just because we are scholars and are used to traditional forms of delivery doesn’t mean they’re the only ones we should use. I’m so glad I didn’t play it safe, because five awesome things happened as a result:

  1. I got a great reaction to my presentation
  2. I got to consider my research in a completely different way
  3. I was able to contribute in some small way to diversifying the appearance of academic research (cf. the ocean being made up of drops of water)
  4. I got to bring my creative skills into my research
  5. People remember me (a year down the line, the convener emailed me asking if she could use my cartoon to illustrate a blogpost on the discussion group)

Maybe cartoon drawing isn’t your thing, but I bet this next risky situation is one that has been – or could be – on the cards for many of you: the interdisciplinary conference.

An opportunity recently arose for me to submit an abstract for an interdisciplinary conference. I thought to myself:

Interdisciplinary? Hmm, risky: I’d be out of my comfort zone, I might look stupid. Though that probably is the worst thing that could happen. 

But lets be rational: it’s interdisciplinary; everyone will be a bit out of their comfort zone. People sort of expect you not to be an expert.

And what about the best thing that could happen? It’s interdisciplinary: people will have very different research backgrounds to mine; they could give me really great input and insight.

So shall I take the risk? Yes.

And so what happened on the day?

Well, I went to the conference and ‘confessed’ to my audience that I wasn’t an expert and that I wanted to learn from them. Then this happened:

  1. I felt liberated because no one expected me to be an ‘expert’: I could legitimately be a ‘learner’
  2. Others imparted their wisdom to me
  3. I met people from really different disciplines, and diversified my network
  4. I got to enrich the minds of my audience by sharing theories and ideas from my discipline

Now finally, some reflections about the biggest risk I think I’ve taken, and a risk I imagine at least some of you have contemplated: tweeting data, results or research as an expert.

This summer an article appeared on i100 listing the top ten baby names for boys and girls.  Something linguistically interesting appeared to be going on . So I did some basic data analysis and visualisation.

The patterns that emerged were fascinating (we have a gendered alphabet: boys names favour consonant letters and sounds, whilst for girls it’s vowels). The thing is, the patterns were so striking, I wanted to share what I’d spotted with the wider world.

But there was a problem. I’m a PhD linguistics student: I’m supposed to be (becoming) an expert. What if I’d miscalculated something or made an error?

Putting my calculations into the public domain felt quite risky.

But the data was astonishing.

So what did I do? I checked my calculations a zillion times, scrunched up my eyes and clicked tweet.

In came the likes and the retweets. I was beaming; others had found the linguistic patterns equally fascinating.

I was loving seeing the retweets, then suddenly I got a notification of a reply: someone had said I’d got it wrong; I’d done my vowel analysis wrong.

What you have to know is that my PhD is all about vowels.

Ground swallow me up.

Not good. Not good.

I looked again at the data; I was sure I hadn’t made a mistake.

And then salvation came: another linguist pointed out that I’d analysed the data with a British accent in mind and, since it was British data, I hadn’t made a mistake. They supposed my accuser had had an American accent in mind, which would explain their confusion. Big sigh of relief.

So what did I learn?

Well, it was a high risk, but, because I went for it:

  1. I got to use my skills and expertise to analyse data not related to my research
  2. I was able to share some remarkable linguistic patterns with experts and non-experts
  3. I strengthened (virtual) links with my research community

Will I do it again?

Yes. But I’ll continue to look at my calculations a squillion times, which, let’s be honest, is no bad thing.

And so to conclude:

Dear Friends,

Take risks:

with presentations, conferences, social media, whatever.

If nothing else, it makes life more interesting!

This Christmas give yourself the gift of audacious behaviour, and make it next year’s resolution to be more outrageous!

What’s the worst thing that could happen?

But what’s the best thing that could happen?

Love, Sarah


What they don’t tell you about ethnographic fieldwork

Two weeks ago I returned to the UK having spent six months in Belgium doing ethnographic fieldwork for my PhD. It was my first experience of ethnography and was one of the most amazing and enriching experiences of my life. But it was also one of the hardest, most challenging things I’ve ever done. And I really wasn’t prepared for it.

I wish someone had told me about the isolation, the pressure, the vulnerability, the guilt, the pragmatic challenges and the Club. Once you’ve done ethnography you’ll realise that you’ve become part of a club: the Ethnographers’ Club.

I wish someone had talked to me about it. I wish I’d known that there was a club, and that others had experienced what I was going through, but no-one told me that. And because doing ethnographic fieldwork is like nothing else, whilst I was doing it there were few who could meaningfully empathise with me.

So today I’m writing this for those of you who will soon or one day embark upon your first experience of ethnography. I want to prepare you, reassure you, and encourage you. I’m going to share some of the things and thoughts I went through and some coping mechanisms.


“I’m trapped, and surrounded”

When you do ethnographic fieldwork everything is potentially significant: every place, interaction, event, comment, news article, whatever. This means that for as long as you are in ‘the field’, you’re at work. Such a feeling affected me in two ways: it exhausted me, and it made me feel trapped.

I found two ways of combatting these feelings: 1) from time to time I went to a near-by city. There I couldn’t observe and so could switch off; and 2) I made friends in that city, who I spent time with. Because they didn’t meet the demographic criteria for my research, they couldn’t be a part of it; they had to just be friends.

“I feel so vulnerable”

However small they might be, as we go from one place to another – be it from county to county or continent to continent – we are met with different cultural norms. I’ve lived in several European cities and I don’t know about you, but I always feel slightly more vulnerable when I’m abroad. I think this is because I just don’t have the same cultural insight as a resident, which in turn marks me out as different and this makes me feel vulnerable. In the early stages of my fieldwork I felt quite vulnerable as I wasn’t familiar with the research site and its cultural norms. With time, and through participating in the community, my insight grew, I felt less like an outsider, and consequently less vulnerable.

 “Who’s doing the observing here?”

I did two lots of fieldwork, and in the first stint I had a constant feeling that everyone (be it the man walking the dog or the lady buying milk) somehow knew I was ‘observing.’ I felt like they knew, and that they were looking at me: a whole town was observing me. It wasn’t a very nice feeling.

In my second stint I didn’t have this feeling really, and I think this is why: in phase one I felt like my entire identity was ‘researcher-observer’. In contrast, in phase two I felt it was more like ‘human who does research.’ By getting some perspective on who I was in the grander scheme of things, I felt less conspicuous, more normal and better.

“This is beyond my control”

Although ethnographic insight feeds into my research, the data for my PhD comes from interviews with inhabitants from the region I lived in. I was principally living in the field in order to interview people. To interview people, you have to find people, ask them if they will participate, then, if they agree, organise a time, a place, and finally interview them.

However hard you try, if someone ultimately says no, or changes their mind, or cancels on you, there’s absolutely nothing you can do: it is entirely beyond your control. Being dependent on other people was quite stressful; however, eventually I learnt to go with the flow, which reduced the stress level.

“No-one understands what I’m going through”

As I explained right at the beginning, doing ethnographic fieldwork is like nothing else. At times when I was really struggling with the feelings above, I did what I think most people would do in that situation: I rang friends and family in search of comfort and support. They did their very best, and they were supportive. But they just couldn’t quite understand what I was going through, and sometimes that made me feel even more alone. However, I have a friend who has done ethnographic fieldwork and, before I left for Belgium, he told me to call him if I needed to. It’s like he knew what was going to happen: of course he did; he’s part of the Club.

So, when things got really tough, I rang my friend, and we chatted through what was going on. And I knew he understood. And that was a great comfort and encouragement.

“I only want you for your data”

This is a weird one, and it’s only now as I’m writing this that I realise how I overcame one of the most unpleasant feelings I had in the field. In the early days I had this slightly horrible feeling every time I spoke to someone: as we were chatting I couldn’t help but size up their potential to be a research participant. And this made me feel quite calculating.

But I’ve realised now how I overcame it: I started doing what I do in any non-ethnographic situation and showed interest in them quite simply as human beings. My engagement in the conversation was honest. Then, as they reciprocated with showing interest in me, my research became quite naturally a topic of conversation.

“But no-one likes a nagger”

As my leaving date got closer, and I was still lacking research participants, my supervisor encouraged me more and more to chase up people (which I read as ‘nag them’). As someone who doesn’t like to ask people for help, or put people out, I hated this idea. No-one likes a nagger. But, when it came down to it, it was a case of nag, or not get my data. So I nagged; or rather, I chased people up and I was honest: I told them I was struggling to find participants and that my departure date was not far off. I hated nagging, but it was justified. And the thing is, people are good, and they are compassionate, and so, in the end, my honest nagging paid off.

“Oh these demography-tinted glasses are turning me into a terrible person”

My project requires data from men and women of all ages and from all socio-economic backgrounds. Inevitably, it got to a point in my fieldwork where I’d done a number of interviews, but was lacking participants of certain demographic criteria. Time was finite and so I didn’t have time to waste interviewing people who didn’t meet the right criteria. Resultantly, towards the end of my research, I found myself thinking about people I knew, wondering if they met the right criteria, or if they were likely to have anyone in their network who would.

I started to see people in terms of their age, sex and socio-economic background, or rather, I started to make judgments about their identity according to these criteria. It felt horrid judging people in that way. But, I had no choice but to do that; I had to be pragmatic about it. As soon as the fieldwork was over, though, the glasses got shelved.

“It’s all take take take”

It’s hard to write about this now as I really don’t feel this way anymore, but in the early days of my PhD I struggled with the feeling that when I did my fieldwork, I would go into the community, take from it for my own benefit, then leave the community. It all felt wrong to me.

When I arrived in Belgium, I set about trying to do as much to mitigate this feeling; looking for ways to participate in the community and give to it. In the end I managed to get involved in several different organisations and groups and share my teaching and artistic skills. In the early days this helped me feel better about ‘taking’ from the community. It also helped me to integrate, and feel more like a human and less like a researcher. So I would totally recommend getting involved in networks that interest you as a human.

However, and this is a big HOWEVER, with time I started to realise that the community were interested in my research. I realised that when I’ve completed my thesis I will share my findings with the community. And so, with time I stopped seeing my research as take take take; I saw it more as a co-production of knowledge. And since I’m going to share the research with the community, rather than me taking from them, ultimately I will be giving them something.

“I just want to go home”

When you’ve spent the previous X number of weeks stepping out of your comfort zone to try to pull off this ethnographic study, you’re on tenterhooks to see if you’re going to get cancelled on, your fieldwork isn’t going as you hope, you’re tired, you’re routine is different; in fact everything is different, be prepared to be hit with the thought “I just want to go home.” It happened to me from time to time, but I got through, and you will too. Try to get some perspective: it’s just research, it’s not your life; call your friends and family – they are rooting for you, even if they don’t fully understand; and stop to congratulate yourself on all that you’ve achieved. So to conclude:

Ethnographic Fieldwork Top Tips

  1. Find yourself an ethnobuddy: someone who has already done ethnographic fieldwork who you can ask if they will be prepared to take your calls when you’re really struggling. I can’t honestly imagine that someone would say no; we’re a small empathetic club, and we know it. If you can’t find anyone, email me. If you’ve got time before you head out, look around for ethnography research communities you can get involved in – you are certain to find an ethnobuddy there.
  1. Find your sanctuary: a place away from the research site where you can’t do ethnography. It is really important for your sanity that you find a place where you can take a break, and ideally people to spend time with who can’t be involved in your research.
  1. Congratulate yourself: we are so quick to focus on what we’ve not achieved, and that takes our mood down. So make sure you celebrate your achievements, no matter how big or small they are. Whether it is going into a shop and talking to someone, going to an event, or asking someone for an interview.

It will be challenging, but it will be amazing. Be bold and brave and know that we can’t wait to welcome you to the Club!


Making an entrance with a sombrero…

This morning I arrived at the train station a couple of minutes early so decided to try a different route into work: as opposed to the usual mainline to Victoria followed by 20-minute walk down to Westminster, I took the mainline to Blackfriars. From Blackfriars it was just three stops on the Underground to Westminster. The best thing about taking this route was that it meant I could take The Secret Entrance into the Palace that I had spied from within the week before. I followed the signs to Exit 3 in Blackfriars, having noticed them next to The Secret Entrance during my first week, and felt smug as I looked around to see few commuters heading the same way.

There’s no way to describe this entrance into the Palace other than it being pretty cool. You go from standard Underground ‘décor’, through the security-enabled revolving doors which are illuminated by distant light coming through the far-off glass ceiling of Portcullis House and some low lighters, and then through into a crypt-like space. From there, you can either turn right and take the escalator up into the modern concourse of Portcullis House, or turn left. To the left, which was the option I took to head through the Houses of Parliament down to my office, you walk through the half-lit stone corridor and between a human-sized lion and unicorn taken from the royal coat of arms. The corridor is set on a gentle gradient, which means that as you pass through these majestic beasts, you resurface.

Having resurfaced, I knew I needed to follow the covered path along the side of the Houses of Parliament, then make a right through a courtyard, crossing through a couple of heavy doors and onto Millbank. As I crossed through the courtyard, I realised the heavy doors were missing; there was no way out. Mild panic set in as I realised that I didn’t know how to get out and was probably going to have to unsettle a policeman in order to escape; I was aware that I looked like I didn’t quite know what I was doing and thus like I probably shouldn’t be there; I was looking guilty in the Houses of Parliament!

Before panic could set in properly, I flagged down a lone worker and asked how to get out. It turns out the Houses of Parliament are longer than I thought they were and I’d crossed across the first courtyard, when I should have crossed the second. As I crossed the second, I was relieved to spot the sombrero I had remarked the week before; in fact, it wasn’t a sombrero at all but an up-ended red carpet which had been rolled up and shoved in a corner in such a way that it looked like a sombrero on a plinth. Its incongruity had caught my attention the week before and I was happy to see it again this morning. I crossed the corridor and, sure enough, there were the big wooden doors, through which I crossed onto Millbank. A few more paces and I’d arrived at the office having reduced my commute from 55 to 35 minutes!

Dear Friends…

Dear Friends,

I’m now three days into my fellowship at the Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology and have come to the conclusion that a blog might be a good way to go about sharing with you all the interesting stories and mini adventures I hope to clock up over the next three months.

For those who haven’t got a clue what I’m talking about, here’s the explanation: I’ve moved up to London and put my PhD in French Sociolinguistics on pause to undertake a three-month fellowship with the Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology (henceforth POST!). It’s a project-based fellowship, and my project entails writing a briefing paper -called a POSTnote – for MPs and Peers on the topic of forensic linguistics.

It’s been a hectic three days getting together the first draft of a scope paper – this is the one-page overview I’ll send out to academics, stakeholders and relevant parties that I hope to interview as I research the briefing paper. Nevertheless, today, guided by several fellows who’ve been at POST a couple of weeks longer than me, I finally got my first glimpses of some of the hidden corners in the Palace of Westminster: the secret entrance into the Palace from Westminster tube station (think Ministry of Magic), the rooftop garden on the Houses of Parliament, and the Chapel of St Mary Undercroft. More on these places to follow…