qualitative research

What Makes Incredible Women Incredible?

Introduction

Interviews with Incredible Women (www.iwiwproject.com) is a series of thoughtful interviews with women who inspire me and the women who inspire them. I became interested in talking with incredible women after hearing some of the really cool stories about the lives of women I know, like the woman who owns an art studio or my friend, the geophysicist. At first, I just wanted to throw a giant party and invite all of these cool women, but I realized that they wouldn’t be able to hear each others stories unless it was written out. I had the skills to start the blog, so I did. After conducting and publishing 64+ interviews, I became curious about the themes that thread through the lives of “incredible women.” The research question was, “What makes incredible women incredible?”

I had some ideas about the themes that might emerge through a review of the data gathered through the Incredible Women interviews, but Brene Brown’s work made me wonder about the techniques of qualitative research. It was my good fortune that Dr. Heather Stuckey, from Penn State University, is a qualitative researcher who was willing to work with me to code and analyze the interviews, unearthing the themes that women mention as being intrinsic to an incredible life.

Women’s Studies, The Basics sets a good background for the complexities of the life women. But it’s The Evening Times of Glasgow where we find everyday women characterized as incredible. In the article “Six of the Best Who Inspired Our Voters,” The Evening Times talks about a woman with cancer who overcame long odds, women who wrestled with the death of their children, women who are passionate and compassionate about their work. It’s so interesting to see how the themes that I discovered throughout this research are relevant when you hear unrelated stories from other ordinary but incredible women.

One other inspiration for this project came from Composing A Life by Mary Catharine Bateson. Grove Press writes that this book is a “treatise on the improvisational lives of five extraordinary women. Using their personal stories as her framework, Dr. Bateson delves into the creative potential of the complex lives we live today, where ambitions are constantly refocused on new goals and possibilities. With balanced sympathy and a candid approach to what makes these women inspiring, examples of the newly fluid movement of adaptation–their relationships with spouses, children, and friends, their ever-evolving work, and their gender–Bateson shows us that life itself is a creative process.” (Bateson). For me, this inspired me to ask women about the creativity in their lives and work.

Methods

The interview data reported in this project were gathered over most of 2014. The plan is to continue collecting interviews to expand upon the stories of incredible women.

The Participants

The women held occupations that ranged from stay at home moms to Apache helicopter pilots, from attorneys to geophysicists. In line with snowball sampling, each participant was given an opportunity to recommend other incredible women. In general the participants were not limited to any particular demographic although, most of the participants were well-educated, predominantly white American women . The list of participants grow organically, without focusing on creating a representative sample.

The Interviews

Questions were tailored for each participant, based on the information that was available about them. The participants were identified using social media profiles including Facebook and LinkedIn, as well as personal websites to research participants prior to sending them an initial list of five or six questions. Topics centered around participants’ interests/passions, how they maintain balance, the role of pain in their life, and the lessons learned over a lifetime (what advice would you give a younger version of yourself, for example).

As the project progressed, the questions evolved to be more open ended. Instead of asking different questions for every participant, the questions were standardized and often included the following:

  • Q:  You’ve been identified by someone as being incredible.  What do people see in you that is incredible?
  • Q: What advice would you give to an earlier version of yourself?
  • Q: What is the most rewarding thing you’ve done?
  • Q: Life is beauty and pain.  Tell me about pain in your life.
  • Q:  What question did I miss?  What else should I know about you?
  • Q: Finally, can you recommend another incredible woman for me to interview?  Can you facilitate an introduction?

Interview questions were provided to participants via email with some introductory text about Interviews with Incredible Women and links to interviews that had already been published online. It was clear from the email that the interview would be published online and, at that point, some women declined to participate. There was no promise of privacy, since interviews are published under participant’s real names with easily identifiable data.

Some participants preferred to be interviewed orally and in these cases I recorded the interview, transcribed it, and sent it back to them for their approval. This builds credibility through member checking (reference). Most participants wrote their own responses, which I read and lightly edited for clarity, spelling, and grammar, again providing them a version to review prior to publishing.

The social media analytics on most of the interviews showed that the interviewed reached an audience from a few hundred to a few thousand, at least on Facebook. The response that I got from the community was overwhelmingly positive. Many women had never thought of themselves as incredible and expressed that the process of thoughtfully answering the questions was insightful.

 

The Analysis

We developed an initial code book with recognizable themes from about 20% of the interviews and then used NVivo software to assist in coding. Saturation was reached when no new data was emerging, such as there were no new codes being added to the codebook. Initial codes included:

  • Approach to life (gratitude, learning and openness, passion, mindfulness)
  • Collaboration/Group Work (creative solutions)
  • Internal locus of control (trust your instincts)
  • Outward focused (work that benefits others)
  • Overcoming challenges (hard work, creativity
  • Self care (travel)

After an initial round of coding, we cleaned our codes to eliminate unnecessary ones and to merge codes that demonstrated the main themes.

Please note, we used the edited, published interviews as the source data, which may provide a limitation to our study. Although it would have been standard to use original transcripts of the interviews for the analysis, especially in cases where deeper, more revealing details had been removed, the summarized text were available. The study is also limited in generalizability based on the composition of white women who were mostly well educated.

 

Findings

We found several themes that women repeatedly mentioned in Interviews with Incredible Women. These themes included:

  • Incredible women are valued and supported by their family or their loved ones and they in turn value and support themselves.
  • This self care gives them resources to focus outward, working to benefit others.
  • These women respond to life with gratitude, mindfulness, learning/openness, and passion.

 

Theme: Incredible women are valued and supported by their family or their loved ones and they in turn value and support themselves.

Family/ Loved One Support

Participants reported that the support of their family and loved ones was essential to their success. These participants tended to have a support network of people that includes friends, family, and colleagues. For example, Anna Crider Sharp said, “my family and loved ones have supported me throughout my life both professionally and personally. I would be nowhere without them.”

This theme closely ties to Approach to Life – Participants expressed gratitude for the support of others: “my colleagues were really supportive and respected my ability to do this job in a flexible way, even if it wasn’t the way everyone else does it.” Although gratitude isn’t overtly expressed, the tenor throughout the interviews was that these women deeply appreciated the opportunities and support that came through the people they love.

 

Theme: This self care gives them resources to focus outward, working to benefit others.

Self Care

Many participants discussed self care in their response to “what advice would you give to a younger version of yourself?” One participant put it pretty clearly in her response: “Do not forget to take care of yourself.” But others talked about being an introvert and needing time to “decompress and relax.” Taking care of yourself is “the real secret of getting things done; you have to nourish yourself to take care of others.”

Self care, according to these interviews, includes yoga, rest, meditation, backpacking, exercise, caring for animals, climbing, hiking. It’s worth noting that many of these activities are solo ventures. These women express a need for spending time with themselves, to refresh their spirits.

Outwardly Focused

Although incredible women take time for themselves, they are also focused on work that benefits others. They are deeply passionate about empowering others – whether it’s first-graders or inspiring those around them. For example, a theater professor wrote that she’s “in theater because we all need to take all these tools from theater so that women can step into authorship. Somebody needs to write the story. If we can use theater to get women to step into that authorship role, those qualities will carry over into life and leadership.”

Participants volunteer, teach, work in orphanages, prisons, with prostitutes, as shamans, as environmental activists. Participants champion causes like infertility and mental illness, giving a compassionate face for people who struggle. And they express wonder and gratitude at these roles: “I still love every one of my students, flaws and all…I often learn more from my kids than they learn from me.”

One of the women was the co-founder of Haiti Babi, a non-profit that teaches Haitian women to knit and crochet baby blankets for an online webshop here in the States. Haiti Babi pays fair wages and gives the women a means to support their family, a win-win in social entrepreneurship. She said, ”The most inspiring part of working on Haiti Babi is watching the women and their children’s lives change. We have watched as their lives have transformed. We have witnessed their personalities begin to shine in a way that simply can’t come through when [they’re] living in extreme poverty.”

Finally, when asked what her message would be to the world, Amanda Oliver responded, that people “have value, self-worth. People don’t realize their worth, what they bring to the table. Everybody has something unique and special that they bring. That’s part of the point of people-who-matter. Yes, YOU have purpose and value.” Incredible women deeply believe in the value and worth of both themselves and others and are passionate about helping others see their value.

 

Theme: These women respond to life with gratitude, mindfulness, learning/openness, and passion.

 Approach to Life

How do incredible women approach their life? They do it mindfully, with a ton of gratitude and a willingness to learn. Incredible women approach their life with passion, figuring out creative ways to do that they love. Mindfulness, gratitude, passion, curiosity are all facets of an incredible life. To understand your passions, you have to be curious and mindful. Curiosity and mindfulness lead to gratitude.

One participant said that “I want my life to be daring, ambitious, and impactful. There’s a sweet spot of inspiration when I feel a little bit afraid of where I am headed. If I feel entirely comfortable, I’m not in the right spot.” Being passionate doesn’t always mean being comfortable. Sometimes it involves overcoming huge challenges or getting comfortable with pain, being so mindful that you even come to be grateful for the uncomfortable moments.

Because of this mindful approach, participants are always learning; “I was constantly learning about myself – My abilities, my faults, my strengths, my weaknesses.” Another participant mentioned, “I have always been wiling to grow and learn as a leader, a woman, a mom, and a friend.” And from Judy Dillon, “education is the key for advancement and a successful future.” Learning is one of the key approaches that incredible women have towards their life and those around them.

What do incredible women mean by mindfulness? The traditional definition from John Kabat-Zinn is that mindfulness is “the awareness that arises by paying attention, on purpose, in the present moment with openness, curiosity, and acceptance.” (reference). To sum it up in three words, one of the participants said, “LOVE. ACCEPTANCE. DISCIPLINE.” Participants often talked about enjoying the small things, because “nothing lasts, which makes it precious each and every moment. And that life is impermanence and change, and we must learn to accept the incredible gift of time and not waste it in pettiness and fear. Live with your heart set on love.”

What is more incredible than living with your heart set on love?

A yoga teacher in Richmond wrote, “in the moment, if I really pause and just hover in the moment, I find that the bliss is right there. I know that sounds really simple and, perhaps a little cliché, but I really, really have found it to be true. Trying to get into the moment can be full of effort, but when you arrive in the moment, it is effortless, struggle-less, bliss.” Incredible women keep working towards the present moment, where they only response is one of gratitude and love. Like one participant said, “I have learned that there is no greater moment than the present, because in that moment you have it all.” Another echoed her, “I fill my heart, soul and mind with awareness by paying attention. Truly paying attention, to whomever I am with, to whatever I am doing, to what I am feeling.”

How does mindfulness lead to gratitude? “There is no guarantee of another day, let alone another moment, so that moment you find yourself should be embraced and celebrated.” When you’re settled in the present, you have the opportunity for gratitude about the extreme blessings in your life.

 

Discussion

It has been such an honor to work on Interviews With Incredible Women. I feel like I’ve learned some secrets to how to live an incredible life, like to take care of yourself so that you have an apply ample supply to give to others, like that mindfulness leads to gratitude leads to joy. I’ve seen that over and over in my own life.

I started this project from the premise that everyone is incredible, but I’m realizing that some women handle life with a grace that is really incredible. It’s been so inspiring to conduct these interviews and to hear the unique stories that each woman told, but it’s been incredibly interesting to see the themes that run through the data – and interesting to see how those trends apply to my own life.

 

References

Bateson, Mary Catherine. Composing A Life. Grove Press, 2001.

SIX OF THE BEST;The incredible women whose bravery and courage inspired our voters. Evening Times of Glasgow. June 4, 2004.

Smith, B. G. (2013). Women’s studies: The basics. Abingdon, Oxon; New York, NY: Routledge.

 

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Heather Stuckey

Heather Stuckey

Dr. Heather Stuckey is a qualitative research who focuses on improving the education, self-management support and psychological distress of people with diabetes and other chronic diseases. Using medical humanities-based models and problem-solving techniques, she works with qualitative methods (narrative, video, arts-based inquiry, observations, interviews, focus groups) to determine how adults make meaning of their illness and how the medical community can respond to support patients and their families. She has been the leader in developing interventions that are built to help people problem-solve by looking at strategies that have worked in real-life scenarios. Using her adult education background and creativity, she takes a systems approach in not only improving knowledge, but providing social and emotional support as part of her interventions. She has also co-edited a book on transformation and the arts, and has written several NIH grants to become an expert in mixed methods research applied to behavioral science.

Dr. Stuckey serves on doctoral committees, assists multiple students at Penn State Milton S. Hershey Medical Center with their Medical Student Research projects, and facilities problem-based learning courses. She completed a post-doctoral appointment at Penn State Harrisburg in the Office of Research Affairs and at the Hershey Medical Center in Endocrinology. She was a fellow at the Office of Behavioral Social Sciences Research Randomized Clinical Trials in 2010.

I love Heather because she is so passionate about compassionate care and authentic about her own experience with diabetes. When you talk with Heather, it’s clear that she’s listening so intently; she hears what you say and what you don’t say and that is a gift. I deeply appreciate her honesty, introspection, and inquiry and I love that she delivers all that with a broadly joyful smile.

Q:  You’ve earned a PhD as a single mom.  How did you do it?  How did you maintain balance between the demands in your life?

HS: I first had to set priorities and ask myself what was really important. I wouldn’t compromise my son and my health. So each day, I’d get my son breakfast and off to school then work out for an hour – a walk, a class, something to get moving. It was important for my mind, body and my spirit. Exercise allowed me to process what I was learning – it was something I wasn’t going to compromise. If someone asked to go to lunch, I’d see if they wanted to walk with me. It’s still my pattern.

Exercise has helped me maintain my health to where it is to date. Now I use fitness apps at home, yoga, walking. I had a personal trainer for a while to learn some new things for strength-building. I’ll try almost anything. I like to hike, bike, and be outside. Diabetes hasn’t restricted me and my gut feeling is because I keep exercising. I keep on schedule with doctor appointments, but it seems like the best prescription is to keep moving.

Q: Can you tell me more about your qualitative research?  What’s the coolest part about your work with Penn State?  How do you impact the world?

HS: I do international work with the psychosocial aspects of diabetes. I got into this because of my interest in the stories of people with diabetes. I felt like people’s stories were missing from medicine and that people weren’t being given the time or space to tell their perspectives. That’s when I became interested in qualitative research.

I get requests to be a qualitative researcher worldwide – India, Thailand. I impact the world by conducting research in psychosocial needs of people with diabetes and trying to discover what are barriers for people to manage their diabetes. I’m working on a NIH grant about how people successfully control their diabetes. (45:59). When we study the habits of people who are successful then we can create a tool that we can use to measure how well people are living with diabetes. Some of those characteristics include patients having a thread of hope about their disease. My research clearly demonstrates that patients who have hope and gratitude help patients cope with their disease. That means, they have also accepted having diabetes. If we can help patients find hope, in addition to the treatment, it’s a really cool thing. I also study how people were diagnosed and how they were told about having the disease. The diagnosis is a turning point for people and I’m looking at how we can make the diagnoses more patient-centered and more compassionate, so we can give them a little bit of hope. I’m trying to impact practice in that way.

Qualitative research has taken me all over the place. I’ve found it to be so interesting and you can get closer to the truth, since people lie about their numbers anyway.

Q: So much of your research is centered around diabetes.  What should people know about living with this disease or supporting those who have it?

HS: I’ll start with my diagnosis with diabetes when I was 12 years old. My mother knew the symptoms and caught it first. I was at a gymnastics event for Olympians where you watch gymnasts perform, and I was so thirsty, drinking out of the fountains, the sink. My mom took me to the doctor the next day and they said my blood sugar was off the scale, which means it was over 600. At that time, you were admitted to the hospital for observation. My parents didn’t visit and I was frightened of being in the hospital. I didn’t know what it meant. All I knew was that I couldn’t have chocolate milk any more.

Diabetes management at that time was diet based. I did a good job for a couple of months. But then I went the opposite direction – Raisin Bran for breakfast, candy bars, for lunch chocolate milk, then I’d have more candy, dinner with my family, maybe more chocolate. My blood sugar was so out of control. At that point there wasn’t a measure of blood sugar over time (A1C measures it now – it’s a serum blood that allows you to see what your blood glucose is) so basically I could eat whatever I wanted. Right before the doctor’s appointment, I would manage my diet and take a ton of insulin. Then I’d go right back to my crazy diet.

While I was a young person with diabetes a few years after diagnosis, the A1C was developed and tested. I went for my appointment and the doctor said the A1C couldn’t be read. I pretended the test was mistaken. So the doctor asked to see my glucose log at my next appointment. The day before the appointment, I made up a glucose log and I gave it to him. Of course my numbers didn’t reflect the A1C test results. I pretended not to understand. My doctors didn’t know what to do with me. It was like a game. Each appointment, I just felt like I was doing an ok job. I didn’t want to disappoint the doctors, so I kept doing what I wanted to do, literally drinking liters of soda each day.

It occurred to me that no one had every really asked me how I felt about having diabetes. They were only concerned about the numbers and what the numbers meant, but they weren’t worried about my story or me. At that point, I was taking graduate classes about systems thinking and learning how to change the system. So I started to pour my energy into changing the medical system.

But I was still not controlling my own blood glucose levels. I was getting a little better and the A1Cs were closer to acceptable. My work fueled my passion: people were being seen as numbers, instead of real people with a story. I talked with others who had Type 1 diabetes. Their stories were similar to mine; I found that they made up their numbers. When doctors focus on numbers instead of patients, it’s easy for patients to lie.

Finding this common theme took me down this path of medical humanities research. I started to write about my own story of my path with diabetes. I kept journaling, because I love to write and read. There was this one piece that I wrote specifically – called Dry Bones – I’m no longer a religious person, but I had heard the phrase “valley of dry bones” in my childhood. The story started, “Nobody’s asked me how I feel about diabetes, so I’m going to tell them.” Diabetes was suffocating. It’s something that never goes away. It felt like I was going through a dark tunnel with bones around me. I saw people dying. I saw people having complications from it. I didn’t have any hope. From day one of my diagnosis, I was told you have to control your blood sugar or you’ll lose your legs or go blind. All the language was based in fear. So I started to write about it and I got depressed. It felt like a wave of overwhelming sadness.

“Can these bones live?” The response is that god speaks to the bones and brings life to them. And I found my hope – I could breathe life into these bones.   To make these bones live, I decided to use creative expression. The arts weren’t used in the medical system. So as part of my doctoral dissertation, I asked people how they felt about having diabetes. They all said, “ no one’s ever asked us that before!” The patients had answers, but they weren’t really deep answers, so I wanted to use creative expression to get people to show how they feel about living with diabetes. For the research, I did a meditation with diabetes patients, asking them to think about their body. Then, I asked people to draw a simple shape, characterize it. Then we wrote a simple sentence. “Diabetes is like a ________.” Some people had a huge red X (keep diabetes away), some had a circle with dots (problems with vision). The next session, we took pictures of those shapes or anything that looks that looks like that shape that you created. The women with the circle with dots – it reminder her of a clock – diabetes kept her on a regimented schedule, she felt like a robot. I really listened to their stories and found out WHY they felt that way. Working with others gave me insight into why I was having trouble managing my diabetes, so I’ve been on that journey and I’m starting to understand the process of managing the psychosocial aspects of diabetes.

If you know someone with diabetes and want to support them, just ask what they need. Some people don’t want support. Some people need someone to remind them to check their blood sugar or take medication. Some people just need someone to listen. If you just ask people, “what can I do to support you?” they will usually let you know. It’s not helpful to tell people what they should or shouldn’t eat, unless they ask you to do that.

Q: How does your expertise in adult education shape the way you approach relationships?

HS: Adult education is one of my roles at work and I have a few core values. One is that we are co-learners; we learn from each other and that everyone’s expertise is different. Even though I’m an expert in qualitative research, I value what I can learn from others. When I teach, I teach from the principle that we are learning together. I try to teach the big picture and then create activities that enhance or expand on these ideas.

For me, adult education is about really paying attention to the student. My adult education background has helped me to understand how to educate people where they are and that sometimes it’s not about education at all, it’s about getting more experience. Sometimes education is about moving out of your head and into your heart. In my current work, this applies to the patient, and to the health care professional who is caring for her.

Q: What would be your advice to a younger version of yourself?

HS: I would say, “Question authority. “ I was so worried about following the rules and looking right that I wasn’t going with my heart and having a voice. “That’s what I’d say to a younger version of myself – Speak up!”

Q:  What question did I miss?  What else should I know about you?

HS: I’ve had a difficult time with accepting religion as an establishment. I had a few childhood experiences with evangelical “Christians” that have really made it difficult to love the church because it has damaged people by twisting verses and determining what is right and wrong. Please understand that this is only my opinion, but it has built anger inside that I believe comes from the abuse of power. This power differential can also be found in medicine, which is why I want to challenge the system, sometimes by “speaking softly and carrying a big stick.”

Anger is why I still find it difficult to managing my blood sugar. I keep the anger inside and take it out on my own body. Over the years, I’ve begun to use the skills of creative expression and writing that I use with patients, to help my own body, mind and spirit. Talking to someone who understands what it’s like to have diabetes and isn’t perfect is also helpful. By controlling my blood sugars in a negative direction, it was just a way for me to be angry without looking non-compliant or out of line. I could be angry at myself and my body without visible external consequences. I am trying to help other people who feel angry at life, or depressed about having diabetes, by showing my understanding, even though my situation may be different than theirs. It is time to let go of the anger, while still keeping the story alive.