Today is (probably) the last of my interviews for 2023. Over the last 6 months I have interviewed over 25 women in executive and board roles of Australia’s largest companies from the 1990s to now. Some have been in person, and some have been virtual. In each instance, we have spoken about their life, career, pathway to, and experience in corporate leadership roles. Each conversation has provided a rich picture of the way women have navigated the joyful, infuriating, lonely, traumatic, energising and fulfilling world of corporate leadership. I consider it complementary to my other research methods – including collective biographies, quantitative data, and qualitative media information – contextualising the ‘typical’ experience with an understanding of how it feels to be a woman in corporate leadership, making the best decisions possible in an imperfect world.
I am experienced with interviews. For my PhD research, which became my book, I interviewed over 30 members of Australia’s economic history field. Many were conducted in the time when Skype was ok, but not great. I drove and flew to the cities where my interviewees lived, and was able to experience a little or a lot of their daily life. It was a nice entry to research interviews. Interviewees were also researchers and so were generally indulgent of my nervous energy and meandering questions. Many were retired, with an abundance of time, and were happy to host me in their home or at a local coffee shop or restaurant. Over the course of the interviews – which spanned close to 5 years – I grew in confidence. I was less tied to my schedule of questions, and more equipped to actively listen, and have a genuine, informed conversation.
This experience has certainly informed my current interviews. Time is often short – corporate leaders are incredibly busy – and although I have themes I would like to discuss, I let them steer the conversation rather than whip out a set schedule of questions. Self-narration has been a guiding principle, and I have elected to not necessarily ask about particular topics, but rather actively listen and address things as they come up. A good example is discussing parenting. Although I am critical of the incessant discussion of this with, and about, working mothers (“how can she do it all?”), childcare is undoubtedly crucial to the experience of many women in corporate leadership. My approach with this has been to listen for if, and when, interviewees mentions parenting, rather than ask about it outright. This allows the story to progress on my interviewee’s terms, allows for a more natural flow between topics, and prevents distress or discomfort around a topic that can be difficult for some. There are lots of reasons why someone may not want to discuss a particular topic, and that, in itself, is an important piece of the empirical puzzle.
This experience has also required me to reflect on my role as a researcher. A few months ago, my Dad asked me, sardonically, about the difference between my interviews and journalism. (If you’ve read my book, you know that my family, while supportive, know little about what I do, and don’t really care to learn.) Truthfully, I think I would have made a good journalist. I don’t have a particular story to write. I don’t really consider my role – in the interview at least – to be combative; critiquing every decision and opinion that doesn’t align with my own. I think I am there to try and understand, to try and see the world the way they see it. As researchers, we are often very good at seeing things from multiple perspectives; and historians are perfectly attuned to placing ourselves in another time and place; respecting it as different to our own context but equally real. Empathy and curiosity, in this as in all things, prevents defensiveness, allows folks to relax and, ultimately, produces an interview that captures their thoughts in a (relatively) authentic way. My role as a researcher, I think, is to represent their experience, not to find the ‘story’. Perhaps it is more like writing a profile of someone, over and over again.
Of course, I have an impact on the final product. I am ‘in’ the interview, not just an observer. Interviews are co-produced, and the conversations we have together is different from the one they may have with their parent, partner, children, friend, or colleague. In practical terms, I have focussed on creating a feeling rather than claiming impartiality. I want interviews to feel relaxed. I want to create an environment where interviewees feel safe to be themselves and offer their opinions freely. Often conversations are very vulnerable – several have commented that it is better than therapy! – and I want to them feel seen in that vulnerability. In practical terms, this has often required my own vulnerability. I have looked for small moments of relatability or connection, in order to establish rapport and make it seem less like an interview, and more like a conversation. Perhaps we both grew up in the country, or enjoy the same sport. While this relational approach is certainly less ‘objective’ than if I had 10 questions that I asked every interviewee, it has been very successful at fostering authenticity.
My two disciplinary ‘parents’ would probably approach this very differently: the social scientist would search for objective truth and control as much of the outside circumstances as possible; the humanist would recognise that objective truth cannot exist in this realm and seek instead to capture the subject’s version of it. In this context, for this project, I have increasingly favoured the latter.
All this to say that I feel incredibly grateful for the opportunity to share brief windows of time with some very interesting women. What a joy to be able to capture their stories.