Ashleigh Rushton: Feminist Geographer

Ashleigh Rushton: Feminist Geographer

Today we are excited to share an interview with another awesome researcher, Ashleigh Rushton. She is a Ph.D. candidate currently studying at the Joint Centre for Disaster Research at Massey University in Wellington, New Zealand. Originally from England, she moved to New Zealand for her Ph.D. project. She is a feminist geographer (such a cool title, right?!). Read ahead for more about Ashleigh’s inspiring work.

Can you share a bit of background about yourself?

My background is in Geography and I undertook a M.Sc in International Disaster Management in 2014. Following my M.Sc I decided I wanted to continue learning within the field of disaster, so I began looking for Ph.D. opportunities. I wanted to move to a country that experiences disasters first hand. Not saying that the UK doesn’t, but the daily threat of natural hazards in other parts of the world is much higher.

When did you first become interested in disaster management?

I’ve been interested in disasters for as long as I can remember. When I was young, I was always fascinated by other people, cultures and countries and I recognized that some countries would get a lot more flooding, storms and snow than the UK and I found that very interesting. While at school, I loved geography classes and I often wondered if there was a related job I could get but I was told no, the only job you can get is as a geography teacher but that didn’t seem to fit into what sort of interests I had – specifically disaster and development issues. When I went off to Northumbria University at the tender age of 18, I enrolled in a Human Geography course and soon realized that I’d found exactly what I’d been looking for. I took classes on disaster and development topics and tailored my third year thesis to cover natural hazard events.

What inspired you to study gender in relation to disaster management?

In all honesty, I didn’t know much about gender and disaster until I visited Hambantota in Sri Lanka. It was the second time I had visited Sri Lanka following the Indian Ocean Tsunami and I had decided that for part of my thesis I’d like to speak with locals about their experiences and how the community had changed following the disaster event in 2004. While speaking with people, a common theme emerged – the main change in the community was women. People told me that because the majority of people who perished during the tsunami were women, it changed women’s perspective – women wanted to work, they wanted an education and so many women that I spoke to changed their lifestyles. So that is how I became interested in studying gender in the context of disaster. It’s a fascinating topic, not many people realize how gender can influence our day to day behaviors and thoughts, and then when a natural hazard event gets thrown into the mix it can heighten these distinctive behaviors.

Can you share a few insights or findings from your current project?

My Ph.D. research looks at the strengths of and challenges for men following the Kaikōura earthquake. This was a 7.8 magnitude earthquake that was centered in the South Island of New Zealand in 2016, but affected both the South and North Islands. For my research, I wanted to talk and listen to men who experienced and were impacted by the earthquake. There is an assumption that men cope well and aren’t affected by natural hazard events and yet there are worrying mental health statistics that would state otherwise. I wanted to look at how/if masculinities and the traits and characteristics associated with masculinities influence men’s experiences (both negative and positive) of the earthquake.

What I found was that men bottled up their thoughts and feelings related to the quake. Some of the men I spoke with disclosed that I was the first person since the earthquake (which was over two years ago) that they’d spoken to about their experiences. Some men displayed emotions of anger, sadness, fear and shame. Some men worked long hours helping their community get back on their feet while others stayed enclosed within their homes. My research has indicated that men were and still are affected by that 2016 earthquake.

What has been the best part of your Ph.D. project? The most challenging part?

The best part of the Ph.D. has been the interviewing. I had the privilege of driving around and staying in some of the most beautiful places in New Zealand. I was welcomed into people’s homes and workplaces where we would sit and chat, often in buildings that were still damaged from the quake. People’s stories of the earthquake are incredibly personal, therefore when the men I interviewed opened up to me, a stranger, about their story it was a privilege. The most challenging part, and where I’m currently at in my Ph.D., is ensuring that I capture the stories and narratives correctly. I want to write about the stories in the way that they were told, thus I try to minimize misinterpretation and bias in my work which can be challenging. Also representing and writing about as much as I can that came out of the interviews is important to me too. People gave up their time and their personal stories for my research, therefore I want to use as much of it as I can – however a Ph.D. is limited, therefore the challenge is that some things will need to be left out. I'm finding that making hard decisions is part of the Ph.D. process.

What do you hope to accomplish after you finish your Ph.D.?

The main hope I have for myself post-Ph.D. is to have developed essential skills in social and feminist research. I want to be able to confidently continue researching in the disaster space knowing that my knowledge and skills are sound. I would like to extend my learning and look at sexual and gender minorities’ experiences of disaster.

Do you have any advice for someone who is interested in pursuing a Ph.D.?

Haha. Sooo much advice. The most important piece of advice I can give to anyone wishing to pursue a Ph.D. is to be organized. Organize your time, your papers, your laptop, your workspace and dare I even say it, your supervisors. I am lucky, my supervisors are amazing and super organized themselves, but I hear and have witnessed some horror stories of supervisors not replying, not returning work and just generally being absent. You could be the most intelligent person in the world, but if you’re not organized and don’t know how to manage your time and work then you’re going to really struggle doing a Ph.D.

Ensuring you take breaks is paramount. I cannot stress this enough. I’m afraid to say as humans we don’t work productively for 10-15hours a day, 7 days a week. I have found I work best for 3-4hour stints, I then take a break and do another 3-4 hour stint. I also take weekends off. Your mind needs time to rest and think. Some of my best ideas have come to me during a day off.

The pomodoro technique should become your new best friend. Using this technique within a group environment is incredibly effective. It uses 25 minute stints of working followed by 5 minutes of rest. There is something about working in a ‘strict’ environment with other people also hard at work that makes you work even harder.

Ph.D. work requires a lot of time management skills. Do you have any advice related to this?

I treat my Ph.D. like a job. I literally mirror my partners work hours (when she’s at work I work). I also give myself pretend deadlines. I tell myself that I have to finish writing X by the end of the month. This works really well for me. Planning ahead is really helpful too. Use a diary, calendar whatever works and map out what the year ahead looks like – ‘I want X, Y & Z completed by Christmas for example.'

We have seen a growing number of weather related disasters related to climate change. What are your thoughts on this? Is this something you address in your research?

This is a really interesting question and super relevant today. Weather related events are increasing at an alarming rate due to the changes in the climate, or what we like to call the climate crisis. It isn’t something that I specifically look at in my research, however the communities and people I spoke with during my data collection are predominantly from rural and coastal communities. Already these communities are dealing with climate related challenges whether it be coastal erosion, flooding, sea surges, crop failure and then for the ground to start shaking and add to those climate related issues makes it extremely challenging for some.

You cannot separate climate, disaster and development. Everything is so intertwined. The climate is changing and sadly many of us struggle with making significant changes – the main challenge is for people and communities to adapt quick enough to the changes. As you may have seen last week with hurricane Dorain, people just do not have the money or resources to build strong, safe housing as sadly it is more likely that people who are the least privileged that will be impacted the most.

Is there anything else you would like to add or promote?

If anyone is interested in hearing or reading more on the topic of gender and disaster there is an online network – the Gender and Disaster Network. There are regional hubs, so I am working on the Pacific-Oceania hub but the network is great for keeping up to date on the research that is happening in the gender and disaster space across the world.

A big thank you to Ashleigh for taking time out of her busy schedule to talk with us. It is so interesting to see the intersection between gender and disasters, something we certainly hadn’t considered before. If you want to stay connected with Ashleigh you can connect with her on LinkedIn here.

*Some responses have been edited for length/clarity

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