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Women and the Liberal DemocratsRepresenting Women$

Elizabeth Evans

Print publication date: 2011

Print ISBN-13: 9780719083471

Published to Manchester Scholarship Online: July 2012

DOI: 10.7228/manchester/9780719083471.001.0001

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(p.157) Appendix 1 Research methods

(p.157) Appendix 1 Research methods

Source:
Women and the Liberal Democrats
Publisher:
Manchester University Press

Although frequent reference is made to the 2010 general election, the results of which are set out in Chapter 1, the empirical research undertaken for this book was conducted between 2005 and 2008. Interviews were undertaken with a wide range of women involved with the party (see Table A1.1 below). Throughout the book, where a quotation is attributed to an MP or PPC, this refers to their status at the time, and not following the 2010 election. The decision to solely interview women for the research reflects the aims of the research and also follows in the tradition of previous work on women and politics (Abdela, 1989; Childs, 2004; Sones et al., 2005). Moreover, by solely interviewing women politicians and aspirant politicians, the research provides an opportunity to consider differences in attitudes amongst women, rather than between men and women. However, it became apparent that it would be beneficial, if not necessary, to interview two male senior party officials, because of their role within the party and their personal knowledge of selection processes and election campaigning; their specific roles within the organisation placed them in a unique position to assess the various obstacles and barriers faced by women in the party.

The participating prospective parliamentary candidates (PPCs) generally reflected the population of Liberal Democrat PPCs in terms of

Table A1.1 Number of interviews conducted

Interviewees

Number

Women MPs

8

Women peers

12

Prospective parliamentary candidates (PPCs)

37

Senior party officials

5

Others (including SAOs and researchers)

9

Total

71

(p.158) region, age and ethnicity. Due care was taken to ensure that a range of interviews were conducted with women standing in winnable seats (those requiring a swing to win of 5 percent or less) target seats (those requiring a swing to win of 7.5 percent or less), ‘black hole’ seats, and newly created seats, and first-time candidates were also specifically included, in order to get a more accurate picture of women's experiences.

A semi-structured interviewing technique was adopted, thereby allowing the women to talk openly about their experiences and understanding of recruitment, the political culture of the party and attitudes towards positive discrimination. Examining the approval and selection processes, the interviews probed issues around discrimination and self-perceived ‘gendered experiences’ in order to explore to what extent the women had consciously thought about their gender throughout their selection and election campaigns. Additionally, the interviews questioned the relationships that the women had with their local parties in order to examine the varying levels of support and culture of the party at a local and national level.

There are, admittedly, known limitations regarding the validity of qualitative research. In short it is difficult to know whether what someone says in an interview is what he or she normally believes (Bryman, 2001). An attendant danger was to ‘over-read’ the responses of the women, particularly those who claimed to have been discriminated against. Accordingly, it is vital to treat interviewees' responses as perceptions of their experiences and claims, rather than as ‘facts’ (Norris and Lovenduski, 1995, pp. 14–15).

The interviews lasted between forty-five and sixty minutes and were recorded and fully transcribed. The location of the interviews varied. from the Houses of Parliament, to the 2007 party conference in Brighton, to various cafes and offices in interviewees' constituencies. The anonymity of the interviewees was guaranteed; where an interviewee might be identifiable through a description or quotation, specific permission was sought before inclusion. The selection data referred to in Chapter 4 include the full list of candidates fielded by the party. Given that the interviews conducted for this book were undertaken at least a year prior to the 2010 general election, this means that PPCs selected after November 2008 were not interviewed for this research.

In order to explore issues that emerged during the interviews, a survey of women on the party's list of approved candidates for selection was undertaken. Predominantly a fixed form of data collection with limited open-ended questions, the survey was designed to gather (p.159) information based upon answers to categorical and ordinal questions. The survey was also used to quantify responses to a series of statements relating to women's representation. Despite problems with measuring attitudes through the use of scales in surveys (Gorard, 2003), it was deemed important to extrapolate and quantify responses to some of the ideas that had emerged during the interviews.

The questionnaire was designed after a substantial amount of interviews had been conducted in order to extrapolate key themes. Following a pilot survey, the questionnaire was sent to women who had gone through the party's internal approval process but who had not yet been selected for a seat. Sent out in November 2007, the surveys yielded an initial response rate of 51 percent; a follow-up mailing sent out in January 2008 produced a final response of 68 percent. The survey contained three broad sections: personal details, political experience, and responses to statements on women's representation. The survey asked for personal details based upon census categories and standardised questionnaire tabulation.

Finally, in order to provide a detailed institutional analysis of women's symbolic representation and also of women's role within the history and organisation of the Liberal Democrats, the qualitative and quantitative data are complemented by document analysis. This research analyses a range of documents: newspaper coverage of women MPs, party manifestos, and magazines and newsletters produced by the internal women's organisation WLD. Studying these documents allows the book to address the research questions in a more comprehensive fashion. Document analysis was used predominantly to explore the role of women's organisations within the party and the symbolic representation of women MPs in the media.

The collection of media articles was undertaken in a systematic way, involving regular weekly monitoring of the coverage of women Liberal Democrats in the tabloid and broadsheet papers. Additional searches for articles or mentions of the women Liberal Democrat MPs were made using LexisNexis. This coverage was used to explore sex-based stereotypes, which had been evidenced in previous research (Norris, 1997b; Sreberny-Mohammadi and Roos, 1996). Traditionally, analysis of media representation of a specific group or issue would be subjected to a quantitative content analysis. However, the low number of women MPs meant that there was not sufficient coverage to undertake such a rigorous form of analysis. Instead, the articles were analysed depending on specific themes that emerged in previous research, such as the trivi-alisation of women politicians (Norris, 1997c).