Research that Matters Transcript, Episode 9: Economic and Social Benefits of research

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Find out how design can be a powerful force for breaking down gender stereotypes, how diversity has evolved in the past decade, and whether technology is displacing or augmenting labour markets.

Research that Matters, Episode 9: Economic and Social Benefits of research

Research that Matters is a 9-part podcast series featuring researchers from Torrens University Australia, who are working towards solving complex global problems and propelling innovation. For more information, and to access all other episodes in the series, click here.

In this episode, our researchers discuss how research can help champion social justice issues and bring about cultural change.

Host:          Clement Paligaru (in bold)
Dr Sarah Baker (SB)
                   Professor John Burgess (JB)

Full Transcript

In 1993, Western Australia's first female plastic surgeon, a little-known researcher at the time, started searching for a new method for burns treatment.  It wasn't until 2002, in the wake of the devastating Bali bombings, that Professor Fiona Wood became a household name in Australia and grabbed the world's attention.  That year, 25 bombing victims were treated using her patented invention of spray on skin.  It changed the lives of survivors forever. 

Picture a world without research.  It would be a world without the cathode-ray tube, which would mean a life without television, image monitors, or x-rays.  A world where we'd never know that the universe is expanding at a much faster rate than previously realised, and a world where the way we eat and live would be dramatically different without the discovery of how to make things cold using history's greatest invention, the refrigerator.  Research can also help put social justice into action. 

SB:  If we want to build a society or a world where there's less inequality, where we deal with issues like climate change, where we're actually able to live on the earth, I guess, in that instance, we need to understand the place where we're living and we need to be able to make changes in the way that we want to, and that's when research really matters.

Research fulfils our inquisitive nature.

JB:  It's a way of making what's really natural, a bit more systematic and focused.  I think research matters because, you know, as human beings, we have an inquiring mind.  We always want to find out why does something happen, and what explains it, even if we're watching movies, TV series, we want to find out who did it, why did it happen?  Who's the good person, who's the bad person?  We want to find out why and we want to understand the world around us.

Research can galvanise change.

SB:  For me it's the potential for activation and I guess that's always been my interest in design research.  That for me, is the real power in design research.  Once you set the ball rolling, designers, those amazingly skilled people, can make it happen.

Research opens doors to a global community and prepares the next generation of problem solvers.

JB:  Another area where research is important is establishing international recognition and being part of international collaborative projects, which bring together different researchers, cross-disciplinary research groups, so there's new research domains, which are opened up. Through research, you can provide a process for supporting your own students and early career researchers by bringing them into research projects and providing them with research training.

This is Research that Matters.  I'm Clement Paligaru.  This series explores the work of researchers from Torrens University Australia.  We'll take you behind the curtain to hear what drives their passion and the impact their work has on all of us.  In this episode, we uncover the social and economic benefits of research.

SB:  I see the potential for design to make change in terms of social justice, and that might be something very small, but it could also be something really big.  In terms of something small, that could be changing, say, the way that objects are gendered, so that could be toys for children, or it could be something really big like governmental systems.  I really see design as having a really central role in creating change. 

My name's Sarah Elsie Baker, and I'm a Senior Lecturer and Research Fellow at Media Design School and I’m based in Auckland, New Zealand.

My research is focused on gender justice in design.  There's been an increased awareness about gender in design recently, I think on top of the MeToo movement.  For me, I think, what's happened is there's a kind of critical discussion of how design reinforces gender norms, but actually there aren't many resources for designers if they do want to change their practise, how they do that.  And so, the book that I'm writing brings together, gender theory and queer theory with design research.  And my hope really is that the book can be used in design education, but with designers too, to try and reinvigorate their practise, really to challenge gender hierarchies.

Design plays a central role in our lives, and if you take a quick peek into our past, you'll find that it's littered with designs that reinforce male dominated gender norms.  Like the fact that when Edith Cowan became the first woman to be elected to Australia's Parliament, she had to rush home to use the bathroom because women's toilets did not exist in the WA Parliament.  That was back in 1921.  So how far have we moved the needle on gender design?

SB:  When Siri was first launched onto the market, obviously they'd done some user testing, but really not enough.  So, if you said to Siri, “You're a slut”, then Siri would reply “I’d blush if I could”.  If, as a user, you said to Alexa, “You’re hot”, then Alexa would reply, “That's nice of you to say”.  Obviously, these are not the models of gender relations that we want everyone or young people, especially, to model.  And I think it really demonstrates that the testing that creative technologies go through, or at least in that case, didn't include teams of people who would pick up on those issues.  It's more likely, say, that a woman would be able to pick up on those issues with Siri, but there's no reason why a man working on that team, wouldn't be able to, if he had a diversity of experience; if he knew about feminism and understood why those statements were problematic.

I would like us to think in terms of a diversity of experience.  I think also though, just having a diversity of experience on your team isn't enough either, there needs to be processes and systems and values that really help us to create gender justice.  There is a kind of an emerging history of female designers, but it is very patchy and that's part of the challenge, I think, in terms of when you're writing about gender in design, is that the women have always been designing.  If you think of design with a kind of small ‘d’ so not in a professional sense, but in terms of craft practises in the domestic sphere, women have always been doing that, but it's not very well documented. 

Design historians have started to try and map the design work that women have been involved in and that's linked to awards as well, so if women are receiving, in New Zealand, at least women are receiving less of those prestigious awards, that means less of their work is being celebrated and documented and put in museums and galleries, for instance, so there is this kind of gap in terms of gender.  At the moment in New Zealand, and this is the most recent statistics that I can find, about 65-70% of design graduates are female, depending on the discipline, but actually only about 45% of those get jobs in industry.  And then when you move onto more senior positions, creative directors, and this is a global figure, it's an estimate around 10-20% of creative directors are female.  There's a real disparity there in terms of workforce.

Dr Baker's research is around method.  The central question she set out to answer is what are the ways that we can help designers to challenge gender inequality?  She's currently working on a book that explores feminist design methodologies, as well as a feminist design toolkit to be used in workshops.  It breaks down the issues like a step-by-step guide.

SB:  Because I've got a young baby, I've been looking at packets of nappies and they're some of the most gendered products that you can imagine actually.  One brand of nappies that is a unisex brand that I bought, it had “for girls”, very small, lower-case letters “AND BOYS” in huge letters.  And that seems like a very small design decision but if you're thinking about how we interpret that in terms of importance, okay, it's much more important that these nappies fit boys than girls.  You can see just these small examples and you think, okay, well, if the designer had reflected on their own gender experience of other people, then maybe we could go some way to changing that design decision. 

In the first instance, there's creating tools for a reflection around gender.  It might be then how you sell those decisions to your client, for instance.  Maybe you need some more specific skills in how you do that.  But I guess the book especially is about creating those tools.  Each chapter has a discussion of the issue.  For instance, there's one chapter on non-binary design and how we might design without reinforcing the binaries of male/female and masculine/feminine and so there's a discussion around that and then there'll be some tools to help designers to activate that really in their practise. 

In general, I would say that other academics are surprised that discussion of gender is relatively new in design, especially academics from humanities or social sciences.  I think that they're really surprised that a book like the one I'm writing doesn't exist already.  It shows how those patriarchal norms are so embedded in design and normalised that actually there hasn't been much research around gender in design already.

Closing the gender gap in design is still a massive work in progress.  That's across many products and services, but by adopting co-design principles, Dr Baker says we can start bringing in real diverse perspectives.  And the impact of that is likely to have real benefits for society.

SB:  In design thinking, one of the stages is empathy with users.  And I think quite often in that process, you produce a user persona it's called, where you think about the person who's going to use the product or service, and you create a narrative around who they are and what they do.  And what that means is quite often, you're not actually engaging with real people, so you're making assumptions about their behaviour.  And one of the ways that design can really bridge that gap is in terms of, okay, let's be much more participatory.  Let's, co-design some nappies with new mums who want to raise their kids in gender neutral ways.  At the moment, I don't think design is participatory enough, so it doesn't do that enough to really diversify the ways in which we’re designing when we're thinking about gender.

From a social perspective, the kind of binaries of masculinity and femininity, so how as people, we're supposed to act in terms of gender and this influences men as much as women and non-binary people too, so you know how you're supposed to be and how you're supposed to act, influence lots of people quite negatively and so actually freedom from those binaries could be really wonderful.  Each chapter really, I've been working with designers and thinking through some of the methods.  I just held a systems mapping workshop with designers who identify as women in Aotearoa and we mapped the barriers to gender justice that we could see together, and that's really helpful for me because it gives me a sense of what designers are experiencing in this context.  And then we can map that and then potentially the map that we've created, we can then use with other groups and get people to discuss the issues that emerge. 

This research is a bit different in the sense that it's come from experience from teaching too, as well as primary research with designers.  Each chapter has two tools that have been created with students, or most of them have been created with students, to help them to reflect or address the issue that's been introduced in the chapter.  One of the chapters has a game that starts to get people thinking about gender stereotypes and norms and how they relate to design, so there's a kind of toolkit there that's really been developed with students.

By focusing on design futures and thinking about gender in the future, Dr Baker has come to a simple conclusion.  Consumers nowadays expect better design outputs.

SB: For industry, I mean, if you do put a product to market that reproduces these problematic stereotypes and ideals, it doesn't look good.  I think really business and industry needs to catch up, especially with the attitudes of young people around gender.  I plan on having more workshops with practising designers because I want to co-design the methods that are in the book.  It's partly a checking kind of process, kind of thinking about, okay, if we design this tool for reflection, how's it working and does it do the job for the designers or design students that I'm hoping?  There are designers who are more on the side of art practise and critical design is one of those disciplines, and I do touch on critical design in the book.  And I think there's a gap between commercial design practise and the type of design work that can happen in academia.

What I hope to be able to do in the book is really address both of those.  For instance, in commercial design practise, you know, it's very much client driven.  So even if a designer wants to really challenge gender equality, if the client is not going to be receptive to that, then that's a really difficult place to be in.  The realities of commercial design practise are quite different from say, a designer who is creating work in a more academic context.  So there is that kind of disjuncture there, but I hope to be able to address some of those issues in the book.

This research project takes an interdisciplinary approach, bridging cultural studies and design, which feed into one another.  It also pulls into sharp focus one of the UN Sustainability Development Goals, which is gender inequality.  Dr Baker's ultimate goal is not only to smash gender stereotypes, but to see the proliferation of gender identity.

SB:  Quite often in humanities or in cultural studies, what you get is a really wonderful analysis of the world around us and a really powerful critique of what's going on, and then it stops.  And for me, working in cultural studies, I was always thinking, okay, that's really amazing and I now understand this phenomena, but what's going to happen?  That's where the place of design is really amazing because design can create that change.  

The issues with design sometimes it's not very well informed in terms of analysis of the world.  It makes assumptions, it jumps to solutions before understanding the problem properly.  And so by combining one, cultural studies, that's really good at understanding the world and understanding problems, and design, that's really good at producing solutions or interventions.  When you put those two together, I think it's a really fruitful place to be. Modernist aesthetics, that kind of very hard modernist aesthetics still have this higher place in the design hierarchy as good taste.

Whereas what is seen as more feminine aesthetics tend to be seen as decorative, yeah, having less value.  And actually, I think design students when they come into study design quite often, they experience that; they don't often vocalise it, but they feel it.  So even if I could just help students to think about that, think about judgements of value in design and to understand that and become more confident in their own kind of aesthetic, then that would be really amazing. 

I guess in the long term, I really just want to see the proliferation of gender identity.  And so then ultimately if you have a proliferation of something, it becomes meaningless in a way; gender doesn't really matter in the end because there's so many different versions of who you can be.  In the book there are case studies with each chapter of good practise in terms of gender and design drawing from examples from around the world.  I've tried to be as global with that as I can.  One example around indigenous women and craft in Mexico, and another example about design futures and a scientific fictional product that's been created by a Chinese American.  I'm trying to use a kind of real diversity of examples to illustrate how there's really amazing work going on in terms of design and gender.  

Design has so much potential in terms of putting ideas around social justice into action.  If you're creating change and you're making it seem appealing and desirable and attractive and people want to be involved in it, then awesome, you’re already there.  And I think that's what designers are really good at doing.  Not only can they create change, but they can make people want to join them.

When it comes to putting social justice interaction, it's an area that's also piqued the interest of Professor John Burgess, as part of his role at the Centre for Organisational Change and Agility, one of his research projects centres on a field guide to equity and diversity management.

JB:  This is a research field guide.  So the focus is on trying to inform researchers about doing research on diversity and equity and what are some of the problems and some of the challenges of conducting research in this area.  It also looks at, are there examples of best practise organisations when it comes to implementing programs to encourage and support diversity and equity in the workplace?  It covers our range of both research issues and public policy issues and has relevance to research public policy and of course, to organisational practise.  And the focus is largely on the organisation, the workplace, to what extent is equity and diversity incorporated into workplace practises?  What sort of support mechanisms are in place?  Are these practises encoded through regulations, agreements, so forth? 

I guess the issue of diversity and equity has really expanded.  Maybe 10, 15 years ago, I did some research when I was at the University of Newcastle with some colleagues and the whole diversity issue then, was largely around gender.  We conducted our research, looking at gender in the workplace and equal employment opportunities for women.  And that was largely the extent of research on diversity at that time.  Since then, of course, it's expanded recognising that there are many more aspects of diversity across individuals and within the workplace.  The fundamental starting point is that as a nation, we signed up to various international codes of practise, including human rights.  And under those codes of practise, we recognise that individuals shouldn't be discriminated against on the basis of personal characteristics, such as age, gender, ethnicity, and religion.  If you start with the covenants that we've signed up to, then you've got to consider how can those particular international obligations be encoded and put into place within everyday living, including work and the workplace?

Closely aligned to this research project is another where equity and diversity take poll position.  Professor Burgess' focus this time is on female entrepreneurs in Indonesia and the various barriers that women face within the Indonesian labour force.  This research project is largely grounded in regional parts of the Southeast Asian nation and involves a partnership between the Australian and Indonesian governments.

JB:  There are two teams, there's an Australian-based team, which includes researchers from Torrens University and the University of New England at Armidale and an NGO organisation in Indonesia, which is responsible for designing and delivering training programs for small businesses which are owned by females.  The whole purpose of the project is to try to develop online training packages for female business owners, largely in rural areas of Indonesia and to provide skills which these business owners require.  It's really the world of business and commerce opens up because of the internet and apps, et cetera.  Indonesia's one of our largest neighbours.  There's a strong economic, social, political relationship between the two countries.  This is part of a partnership program organised by the Australian government.  Part of the process is to demonstrate that the researchers can provide a process which leads to some positive outputs for rural women in Indonesia.  It's also providing skills which are suited to the contemporary environment of the internet with applications, online learning, online commerce and so forth.  So there's relevance to a number of the social development goals within our program.

At any one time, Professor Burgess can be found working on four or five different research projects, all across fairly diverse areas and all looking at the big issues with the intention of either wanting to inform public policy, influence other researchers, or provide a fertile training ground for students.  One subject area that holds his interest firmly is the workforce and labour markets.

JB:  First of all, it's central to most people's lives and being, in identity, working, having a job gives purpose, creates an income and also it maybe takes up to anywhere from two to 14 hours a day for most people.  The second issue is that the labour market and the workforce is constantly changing in terms of the work people do, the way they do it, where they do it, the skills they need, the training they need, so there’s always change and there’s always issues to discuss and research.

Professor Burgess' current research zones in on disruptions to labour relations due to technological change.  As part of this project, he's one of the editors of the book, The Fourth Industrial Revolution:  What does it mean for Australian Industry?  The book is a collection of chapters by separate authors.

JB:  Each chapter looks at a particular industry and asks the question well, how has technology affected this industry?  The issues around the Fourth Industrial Revolution, such as robotics, artificial intelligence, technological displacement of work.  To what extent are these important in this industry and is technology labour displacing or labour augmenting?  Is it really just improving the skill requirements of existing workers and asking them to do work in different ways?  Or is it actually displacing workers? 

I think we were just trying to understand the process and whether it was uniform across industry, whether all jobs were equally affected and occupations equally affected, and as it transpires, why were some industries more prone to the effects of technology in terms of work displacement, augmentation, than others?  What were the defining features?  Because of the technology, we’re seeing many jobs transformed and of course, this has been facilitated by COVID through working from home requirements for many industries.

Technology in a sense is speeding up this disconnect between work and workplace and even customer and retail side, et cetera.  We're shopping online, we're working online, so there's a major transformation in our lives, but this doesn't necessarily affect all industries.  You still need Defence personnel you still need Police, you still need health workers, you still need doctors, et cetera, to deliver face to face services, so it's a very uneven process.  There are quite profound differences across the sectors and the book was really just trying to work out what is happening.  What is the impact on work and workplaces on skill requirements, on training?  That was the main focus of the research.  The benefit of this particular research was also to give a guidance to what some of the research questions and potentially areas of future research to guide other researchers and then maybe also, the usefulness of the book was to inform students who are doing courses linked to artificial intelligence, the Fourth Industrial Revolution, and so forth.

But the attention that's afforded to Australia and the Australian labour markets specifically within this book, has not always been the case.  In fact, that's one of the main motivators that dragged Professor Burgess away from his lecturing job, towards a career in research in the first place.

JB:  I guess the issue which got me into research was that a lot of the textbooks were mainly US or European-based and there didn't seem to be much about what was relevant for students in Australia, whether it be management or economics, labour economics, et cetera.

This is the last episode in this series.  I'll leave you with the words of perhaps the most famous researcher of all time, German physicist, Albert Einstein, who said, “If we knew what we were doing, it would not be called research, would it?”  

At Torrens University Australia, our task is to enable a better future with formalised curiosity.  If you loved listening to this series, please share our passion for poking and prying with purpose and tell your friends to follow our show.  Research that Matters was produced by Written & Recorded.  This is a Torrens University Australia podcast, and I'm Clement Paligaru.  To hear more, search for Research that Matters on the Torrens University Australia website, or wherever you get your podcasts.

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