2 October 2016

My PhD Proposal: What and How?

As mentioned in my introductory piece, I was lucky enough to be awarded a fully-funded Masters and PhD by the Economic and Social Research Council's Welsh Doctoral Training Centre (DTC). This post will explain a little bit about the process of applying for the 1+3 award and will briefly outline my proposal.

The Process:
The application process was rather lengthy and involved the writing (and extensive editing) of a 500-word research proposal, a cover letter, and an interview with the Director of Postgraduate Studies and my prospective PhD supervisor.
Deciding one's PhD thesis before you've even ended the final year of your undergraduate degree is, admittedly, a daunting task. I found myself constantly aware that what I chose as the topic for my PhD had to both persuade the DTC that I was a good choice of studentship recipient, and remain something I would still be interested in after 4 years.

The Inspiration:
Whilst trying to decide on a topic this important, I decided that it would be sensible to choose an area or phenomenon to study which is of personal interest. As I explained in my previous post, one of my main areas of interest in terms of academic study is inequality. Having previously written, as part of a module in the second year of my undergraduate degree, a 5000-word project on gender inequality in small left-wing meetings, I decided that this was something I would like to explore further for my PhD. Additionally, my third year module Power, Politics and Policy helped to drill down my broad topic area of gender inequality further to focus on the substantive representation of women in legislative settings, considering Critical Actor Theory and Critical Mass Theory.

However, whilst the content of this module focused almost entirely on the legislative settings of Westminster and the Welsh Assembly, there was very little focus on the representation of women in local-level governance i.e. local councillors. This, in my opinion, was extremely concerning and surprising given that local governments, although they may have a poor reputation, also have a lot of power. House of Commons statistics show that, despite local government being judged as ‘more accessible’ to women, only 32% of local authority councillors in England are female. This percentage further drops to 26% in Wales. Given that local government spending accounts for 1/4 of all public spending, this means that a high number of important decisions are made at a level where women’s voices are not being heard.

         Furthermore, recent cuts to local government spending across England and Wales, are hitting women especially hard with cuts to key services including childcare, social care and services such as domestic violence protection. Recent House of Commons analysis has found that 86% of the savings in the 2016 budget will ‘have come from women’s pockets’ (Women's Budget Group, 2016). Having few women around the table in local level political settings will mean, therefore, that the decisions about which services to cut, and how severely, will be made without consulting those who will be disproportionately impacted by any changes.

The Main Aims:
        Being highly concerned by the issues outlined above, I decided that my research should analyse the impact that gender has on the substantive representation of women in local government, addressing the relative lack of attention this is given in current research. I aim to explore the role different political parties and the structures and processes of local government play in facilitating or, more commonly, frustrating the substantive representation of women. In contrast to existing research, I will also explore the ways that the female councillors themselves mediate or seek to involve their own feminist concerns with their other ideological or party-political views.
Another lacking in the literature that I wish to address is an analysis of how successfully the substantive representation of women at local government level is shaped by positive action measures such as the All-Women Shortlists used by the Labour Party in 1997.

The Method:

Inspired by the methods used by West and Zimmerman (1983) in their Small Insults study of how men and women hold conversations, I will conduct in-depth qualitative interviews with the female councillors to discover whether they feel encouraged to speak in council meetings and discover if women’s views and issues are side-lined during discussion. In addition, I intend to use participant observation to analyse the nature of discussions at local government meetings, and uncover how gender inequalities are reproduced through the linguistic techniques and conversational style of male and female councillors.


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