Participatory Research and Design

Much knowledge is divided between women and men because labor (both formal employment and uncompensated domestic and caring work) divides along gendered lines. These divisions of labor also lead to differences in the tools and resources women and men use. For example, most commercial drivers are men, and these men may have valuable insights for developing technologies related to ground transport. Analyzing sex- and gender-specific experience can serve as a resource for knowledge production and technology design.

Participatory research methods are used in a wide range of fields, from industrial product design to epidemiology to software engineering. Although specific methodologies are diverse, participatory research involves users or research subjects in tasks such as setting research objectives, gathering and processing data, and interpreting results (Gonsalves et al., 2005; Leung et al., 2004; O’Fallon et al., 2002; Greenwood et al., 1993). Participatory research typically seeks to balance interests, benefits, and responsibilities between the users/subjects and the research institutions involved. Further, participatory research seeks to make the entire process, from planning to reporting, transparent and accessible to all parties (WHO, 2011).

Practical Steps for Incorporating Sex and Gender Analysis into Participatory Research&mdas;Researchers should:

  1. Identify the area of work or everyday life they wish to address: Investigate gendered structures in that area and make sure to consider subareas that may have been overlooked. Note that:
    1. Women may have specific product needs, such as for menstrual hygiene products or sports brassieres (Vostral, 2008; Faulkner, 2001; Maines, 1999; McGaw, 2003; Cowan, 1983); men too may have specific product needs, such as male birth control (Oudshoorn, 2003).
    2. Women or men may have specific knowledge to contribute.
  2. Identify potential target groups: Conduct surveys or literature reviews, assemble focus groups, send out questionnaires, and so on. What are the characteristics of target users/communities (these may include sex, age, socioeconomic status, ethnicity, native language, etc.)? Questions include: How will different groups of people (defined by sex, race, age, geographic location, etc.) be affected by this project/product? What are their particular perspectives and interests? Whose practical knowledge or experience is relevant to this research or design project? For example, seatbelt designers could partner with pregnant women to design a seatbelt that works better for them (see Case Study: Pregnant Crash Test Dummies).
  3. Seek user or community input: Engage users/communities in defining problems, requirements, and solution and design alternatives (Oudshoorn et al., 2003: Oudshoorn et al., 2002). Interviewing users—both men and women—allows researchers or engineers to gather information about how a technology, a product, or a public health measure will affect their everyday lives, assist their work or enhance their leisure. How do gender roles influence the data collected or the outcomes of a project? For example, because of historical gender divisions of labor and women’s role as primary healthcare givers, women are often the holders of traditional knowledge about medicinal plants (Voeks, 2007). Conversely, men are often responsible for gathering plants for use as building materials and are likely to be the primary holders of traditional knowledge about them (Camou-Guerrero et al., 2008). Seeking input from the most knowledgeable user may be important in conservation projects.
  4. Observe workers or users: Observing people at work allows scientists and engineers to access “tacit” knowledge—knowledge that is self-evident or “taken for granted” by workers themselves and rarely articulated. Capturing tacit knowledge may bring new perspectives to formal research and design. Researchers might ask: How do sex and gender influence how the work is done, how an artifact is used, or how a process works? How may this differ in a single-sex versus mixed-sex context? Engineers ad designers can probe their understanding in interaction with users. For example, to develop new software for customer-service call centers, ICT researchers observed, interviewed, and worked with call center employees—a majority of them women—to understand their needs. Analyzing the gendered nature of the work and gathering user input produced software that better captured previously unrecognized needs (Maass et al., 2007).
  5. Evaluate and redesign: Researchers can cooperate with users/communities in all steps of project evaluation, from defining goals or measures of success to determining whether these goals have been achieved in the design, implementation, and monitoring steps (WHO, 2002). User and community input can also help to guide product redesign and further research.

Related Case Studies 

Exploring Markets for Assistive Technology for the Elderly
Housing and Neighborhood Design
Information for Air Travelers
Video Games
Water Infrastructure

Works Cited

  • Camou-Guerro, A., Reyes-García, V., Martínez-Ramos, M., & Casas, A. (2008). Knowledge and Use Value of Plant Species in a Rarámuri Community: A Gender Perspective for Conservation. Human Ecology, 36 (2), 259-272.
  • Cowan, R. (1983). More Work for Mother: The Ironies of Household Technology from the Open Hearth to the Microwave. New York: Basic Books.
  • Faulkner, W. (2001). The Technology Question in Feminism: A View from Feminist Technology Studies. Women’s Studies International Forum, 24 (1), 79-95.
  • Gonsalves, J., Becker, T., Braun, A., Campilan, D., de Chavez, H., Fajber, E., Kapiriri, M., Rivaca-Caminade, J., & Vernooy, R. (2005). Participatory Research and Development for Sustainable Agriculture and Natural Resource Management: A Sourcebook, Volume 1: Understanding Participatory Research and Development. Ottawa: International Development Research Centre (IDRC).
  • Greenwood, D., Whyte, W., & Harkavy, I. (1993). Participatory Action Research as a Process and as a Goal. Human Relations, 46 (2), 175-192.
  • Jiang, F. (2008). The Problem with Patents: Traditional Knowledge and International Intellectual Property Law. Harvard International Reviews: Global Education, 30 (3), 1-4.
  • Leung, M., Yen, I., & Minkler, M. (2004). Community-Based Participatory Research: A Promising Approach for Increasing Epidemiology’s Relevance in the 21st Century. International Journal of Epidemiology, 33 (3), 499-506.
  • Maass, S. & Rommes, E. (2007). Uncovering the Invisible: Gender-Sensitive Analysis of Call Center Work and Software. In Zorn, I., Maass, S., Rommes, E., Schirmer, C. & Schelhowe, H. (Eds.) Gender Designs Information Technology (IT), pp. 97 - 108. Wiesbaden: Verlag für Sozialwissenschaften.
  • Maines, R. (1999). The Technology of Orgasm: "Hysteria," the Vibrator, and Women's Sexual Satisfaction. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.
  • McGaw, J. (2003). Why Feminine Technologies Matter. In Lerman, N., Oldenziel, R., & Mohun, A. (Eds.) Gender and Technology: A Reader, pp. 13-36. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.
  • O’Fallon, L., & Dearry, A. (2002). Community-Based Participatory Research as a Tool to Advance Environmental Health Sciences. Environmental Health Perspectives, 110 (2), 155-159.
  • Oudshoorn, N., Saetnan, A., & Lie, M. (2002). On Gender and Things: Reflections on an Exhibition of Gendered Artifacts. Women’s Studies International Forum, 25 (4), 471-483.
  • Oudshoorn, N. (2003). The Male Pill: A Biography of a Technology in the Making. Durham: Duke University Press.
  • Oudshoorn, N., & Pinch, T. (Eds.) (2003). How Users Matter: The Co-Construction of Users and Technologies. Cambridge: Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) Press.
  • Voeks, R. (2007). Are Women Reservoirs of Traditional Plant Knowledge? Gender, Ethnobotany, and Globalization in Northeast Brazil. Singapore Journal of Tropical Geography, 28 (1), 7-20.
  • Vostral, S. (2008). Under Wraps: A History of Menstrual Hygiene Technology. Lanham, Maryland: Lexington Books.
  • World Health Organization (WHO). (2011). Indigenous Peoples and Participatory Health Research. Geneva: WHO.
  • World Health Organization (WHO). (2002). Gender Analysis in Health: A Review of Selected Tools. Geneva: WHO.