Conducting the interviews: do not make the assumption that your interviewees see the world through your lens

When approaching the interviews I was as interested to find out about how these women’s experiences as women in the workplace as I was to hear about their experiences at Beechams. The list of questions I had prepared included questions about the treatment of women, career aspirations, and their memories of the ‘feminist movement’. However, the more interviews I conducted the more I realised I had mistakenly assumed a shared world-view with these women.

The questions I asked, such as ‘do you remember much about the feminist movement in the 60s and 70s’ were met with little response, and possibly a lack of understanding about what the term even meant. A couple of my interviewees explained that they were married with children by the time that all came about and so had little to do with it, or avoided the question by changing the topic. In retrospect this was probably not the right question to ask, as it is too much to expect a woman who had lived through the feminist movement without actively being involved to have considered it an important part of their lives.

I was approaching their lives from a different lens, belonging to a generation which values gender equality and which sees the feminist movement as a piece of history.

Other questions I asked on this topic received a better response, such as questions about whether the interviewees felt that their gender had affected their career. Nonetheless, I did not tend to get the answer I expected, or at least the one that fitted with the traditional historical narrative. While I imagined the women would have felt limited or held back in some way by being a woman (not based on anything I had heard about Beechams I might add, but about the general treatment of women in the workplace during the 60s and beyond), my interviewees did not express this sentiment. It was nice to hear a fairly unanimous sentiment that Beechams/GSK appoint and promote on merit and merit alone, so the women felt that, even though all of the bosses were men, they did not feel that they couldn’t be one day. In fact, I actually had one interviewee say that women were treated better in the 50s and 60s.

These were not the responses I was expecting, but then again that is often a trend in oral history and makes for a very interesting analysis. Whether their perception of how women were treated is distorted by nostalgia, or they truly didn’t perceive themselves to be limited by their gender, it is interesting to hear accounts that go against the mainstream historical narrative.

Asking these questions also taught me a lesson in phrasing questions, and to not expect interviewees to see their lives as examples of historical trends as perhaps I did.

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