No (wo)man’s land: Finding your voice in male-dominated field settings

Today’s post is about how to approach field work in a male-dominated world, which is something to which many of us can relate. And while there are varying degrees of this, I’m sure you’ll agree that Kim’s story falls on the extreme end of male-dominated. She provides some excellent tips and tricks for those who find themselves in similar situations.

By Kimberly Riskas (@KimberlyRiskas)

Field work for my PhD took me to the wharfs and fish markets of Malaysia. In a country famed for its rich biodiversity and world-class diving, I chose instead to spend two months inhaling the fragrant potpourri of fish guts and cheap cigarettes at the local ports. Why? I was trying to learn about illegal fishing: who was doing it, where, why, and how they were getting away with it. The plan was to gather knowledge by interviewing fishermen, with a couple of local university students serving as translators. Illegal fishing is a touchy subject, but I was thrilled by the challenge and fully prepared to encounter some resistance from my interview subjects.

What I wasn’t prepared for was how awkward and intimidated I felt at the ports. This was particularly pronounced on my first trip to Malaysia, where I spent five weeks in the conservative Muslim-majority state of Terengganu. Every time we arrived to conduct interviews, before I had even explained the purpose of our visit, I felt hundreds of pairs of eyes on me. Wherever I looked were groups of staring men—they peered out from behind crates of fish, moved boxes of ice while keeping their eyes locked on me. There were no women to be seen. Some sneakily took my photograph on their phones; others didn’t bother to hide. There was an intensity to it that was unnerving, and difficult to ignore. I had a hard time focusing on the surveys and always felt relieved when we left—not the most productive or enjoyable attitude to have during field work.


Fishermen cleaning and repairing trawl nets at a port in Sabah, Malaysia. ©Kimberly Riskas

Now, it isn’t fair to designate a single factor as being the reason for my discomfort—most likely it was a mixture of cultural differences, wariness, and my own introversion that turned me into a deer in the headlights. However, it is undeniable that I was uncomfortable partly because I was one of only two or three women present (and the only non-Malaysian), and surrounded by hundreds of staring men.

I later reflected that I couldn’t really blame the fishermen for staring, though. It must have been a strange sight: a twenty-seven-year-old foreign woman wandering cluelessly around the port, dressed like a grandpa and taking pictures of fish. (Yes, a grandpa. I had bought drab, loose-fitting thrift store clothes to maintain a modest appearance in conservative Terengganu. I probably looked ridiculous, but it made me feel safer to minimize my femininity. More on that in a minute.)

We all know that field work is hard. Doing it alone in a foreign country is that much harder. And being a young woman trying to collect sensitive information from a suspicious and strictly male crowd is exceptionally hard. To any female researchers seeking to do some variation of this, here are some of the lessons I learned about overcoming real or perceived gender-based discomfort in the field:

  1. Act confident, even if you don’t feel it. You know the whole “fake it ‘til you make it” thing? It’s true that projecting confidence is key to developing some of the real stuff. Remember, you are an intelligent woman doing important research, and you may never have this opportunity again—this is the time to take ownership of it. Not sure where to start? Stand up straight, avoid crossing your arms (this makes you look closed or defensive), and make eye contact when speaking to people. I found that the fishermen were less likely to stare at me if I looked straight back at them.
  2. Speak up. When facing groups of unfamiliar people, my introverted self desperately wants to curl up in a ball and not say a word. But if you’re leading your own field work, as I was, then this isn’t an option. When working at the ports in Malaysia, I quickly realized that if I stayed quiet, I could be perceived as timid or unapproachable. I forced myself to make a comment of some kind right away at the start of each interview. With the fishermen, it was as simple as learning how to say “Good morning” or “How are you” in Malay. There’s no doubt that I butchered the pronunciation, but I made myself heard and showed that I wasn’t afraid to engage with them, which is a huge step towards building trust and rapport.
  3. Make a connection. The fishermen were intimidating as a group, but individually they were just people with hearts, minds, and senses of humor. Once I had accepted feeling like an alien being greeted with intense stares, suspicion and disbelief, I figured I may as well use it to my advantage. I got them laughing by mimicking a kangaroo (to explain that I lived in Australia). I posed for photos and asked the fishermen if I could photograph them, and got a few Facebook friends out of it. One grim-faced boat captain taught me how to count to ten in Malay while my translator interviewed one of his crew members. Another fisherman drew pictures of sea turtles in my notebook. I really believe that being able to laugh at myself and show a bit of personality was key to setting the fishermen (and myself) at ease.

My new Facebook friend shows off today’s catch. ©Kimberly Riskas


He’s smiling under that balaclava, I promise. This is one of my favorite photos from field work. ©Kimberly Riskas

  1.  Dress comfortably and appropriately. Jokes aside, my grandpa getup allowed me to feel confident and less self-conscious while interacting with the fishermen. It had the added plus of keeping me protected from sunburn and mosquitoes. I realize, though, that the grandpa look may not be for everyone. Each woman is different, and there are times when it feels good to preserve some femininity while working in the field. For me personally, this was not one of those times. Not only did I want to respect the local culture and dress modestly, but I did not want to draw any more attention to myself than I already had. In any case, the most important thing is that you are mindful of your surroundings and wear clothing that allows you to stay comfortable and focused on your work.

Modeling my grandpa getup at the northernmost point of Borneo (the rocky ledge on the right). ©Kimberly Riskas

  1.  Above all, your safety is more important than your data. No project is worth jeopardizing your personal safety and wellbeing. Most intimidation and awkwardness can be overcome, but threats or physical harm is an entirely different matter. Use your judgement and trust your instincts, and don’t be afraid to remove yourself from a situation if need be.

By the time the second Malaysia trip rolled around, I had internalized a few of these behaviors and had a much smoother time. It was still intimidating being the only woman at the ports, and walking up to a group of staring fishermen and introducing myself in terrible Malay. Doing all these things took a great deal of emotional energy, but paid off immensely.

Perhaps one of my favorite memories from my field work is when we made a special trip to Mabul Island (Pulau Mabul), off the southeastern coast of Malaysian Borneo. We were interviewing some fishermen at their family home, a wooden hut perched on stilts above the turquoise lagoon. As the interview concluded, more men arrived in a boat and climbed up to join us for coffee and fried bananas. We chatted and watched the sun drop into the dazzling Celebes Sea, and suddenly fishermen weren’t so intimidating after all.


Paradise found at Mabul Island (Pulau Mabul). ©Kimberly Riskas

Did you love Kim’s story and/or have something to add? Please do so in the comments or on Twitter @FemFieldSecrets and #FemFieldSecrets.  Interested in telling your tale? Check out this link.

One thought on “No (wo)man’s land: Finding your voice in male-dominated field settings

  1. Pingback: Another tale of (re)productive fieldwork | Field Secrets

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