A phenomenological approach seems suitable for the research questions because the purpose of this research method is to identify a phenomenon, such as the perception of gender inequality in the workplace, or the emergence of feminine agency in a cultural group, and to describe a common meaning for the group. It refers to perceptions of an event, as opposed to the existence of the event itself outside of a person. “Phenomenological research seeks essentially to describe rather than explain, and to start from a perspective free from hypotheses or preconceptions (Husserl 1970). It was important that the study participants were able to discourse freely about their career experiences, and that these discourses should then be analysed for patterns of experiences of gender inequality. The use of phenomenological studies in feminist research has been prevalent for the last thirty years or so, and was a novel form of feminist research in the 1980s. “While studying women is not new, studying them from the perspective of their own experiences so that women can understand themselves and the world can claim virtually no history at all.” (Harding 1987)
The next question to answer about the research approach was whether to take a positivist or an interpretive approach. A positivist approach assumes that only facts, which are measurable, are worth knowing. It depends on quantifiable results, which lend themselves to statistical analysis. It also demands that you are completely independent from the group you are studying: “if you assume a positivist approach to your study, then it is your belief that you are independent of your research and your research can be purely objective. Independent means that you maintain minimal interaction with your research participants when carrying out your research” (Wilson, 2010, p.10). As the group under study was a set of female academic staff that may or may not be experiencing gender inequality issues, I could not consider myself, as a female academic student and researcher to be entirely objective or independent of the issues.
It seemed that an interpretative design might be a good choice for the subject matter because this method allows ideas to emerge from interacting “in the field” and gives room for the researcher to make interpretations of information that comes from the study. This method is more subjective in its approach, and there was a need to consider the increased risk of bias with this method. The study would generate data that was highly valid due to its contextual nature but it would be low in terms of proven reliability. The information obtained from any dialogues with the female academic staff participating in the study would need to be interpreted to look for patterns and meaning. “The interpretative phenomenological analysis researcher will recognise the degree of interpretative work required to address the corresponding gap between personal account and underlying cognitions.” (Yardley 1997).