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My career as a social researcher

Posted on 07 March 2019 by Fatima Husain, Director of Children & Families (interim) .

Fatima Husain was born in Karachi, Pakistan. She left at the age of six and moved from country to country, eventually arriving in the UK around 20 years ago – a long time for her, and breaking a previous record of eight years in the USA. She is a single parent with a daughter, a 20 year old undergraduate studying Physics, and a son, 17, who is supposed to be revising for his A levels. After over 20 years in social research, Fatima is now the interim head of the children and families team at The National Centre for Social Research.

A social research career is not what I had planned, I had finished my PhD (not in sociology or any related topic) at a Canadian university while living in Denmark and soon after moved to the UK (yes, economic migrant!). It takes one person to take a chance on you, to open the door just a little bit, and to this academic I am very grateful for taking a punt and offering me my first social research job as a Research Assistant. An 18 months contract- one cross-national project. Moving up and through the social research world has not been that straight forward. The next job – I was the brown researcher, researching brown things. I was told I was hired because the organisation had been criticised for not having any researchers from minority ethnic backgrounds. True or untrue - I wonder about this still.

I have slowly moved up – progressed – mainly by moving from one job to another – charity, social research organisation, charity, and so on. There have been some brutal reminders of who I am – a brown woman – Muslim – (the name a dead giveaway) in a sector which is predominantly white. The university where people assumed I was a student, the HR manager of a state funded body that fed back: “we are looking for someone young and enthusiastic”, the large organisation saying I had the right skills and experience but they didn’t think I would fit in “culturally”, or “we struggled to see how you would lead a team”. And here I am at NatCen – a 70% female organisation. The social research field is more female, but still brown and black women are largely absent.

Each workday is similar but different - the buzz of deadlines, the proposal puzzle, managing people, teams, projects – enjoyable, tiring, stressful. As a social researcher, I am mostly grateful for being a witness to the lives that haunt me - the mother and her children living in a damp mouldy house; the young mother barely surviving a cut to benefits after being fired, the parent trying to kick their addiction so they can have access to their children. Although the voices of women and the disadvantaged are included in research, the process of othering still happens.

I heard that a politician said the film, I, Daniel Blake, was fiction. It was on TV recently – I sat my teenager down, said you must watch this, but after 15 minutes I turned it off. I interviewed someone just like the main character – the struggles of those that things are done to, the ones who are ‘othered’ by policy and practice.

These glimpses into people’s lives is why I am glad I ‘fell into’ social research and not some other career.

Join for a stimulating afternoon celebrating women in social sciences on Wednesday 3 April 2019. Women in Social Science brings together academics from across the social sciences to consider the challenges women have faced over the past five decades and to celebrate their achievements. Find out more here.

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