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Four recommendations to help female surveyors stay safe

Siobhan McDonough 26 March 2020

In this post we’ll share challenges female surveyors, supervisors, and field managers have faced and their advice for mitigating risks. In the first piece, we shared what a typical day in the life of a female field manager or surveyor in Nigeria looks like. In the third piece, we’ll focus on the experiences of surveyors on an all-female team in Delhi.

Abigail, an IDinsight surveyor, conducts a participatory wealth ranking exercise with community leaders in Nyatika, Migori, Kenya to identify community members for the survey

Our deepest thanks to the field managers, supervisors, and surveyors who shared their experiences for this piece. Experiences have been anonymized. Thank you to IDinsight’s Sipho Muyangana, Ritika Rastogi, Sarah Carson, Nhu Le, Philile Linda Shongwe, Sebastian Łucek, Kasamba Mukonde-Ngonga, Dinabandhu Bharti, Rajkumar Sharma, Heather Lanthorn, Emily Coppel, and Mallika Sobti for contributions to this piece.

For International Women’s Day we’re featuring part two in a three-part series on female surveyors. Surveyors form the backbone of IDinsight’s work. Our research would not be possible without them, but their contributions are too often overlooked. Surveying households can be difficult work, requiring surveyors to spend months in rural areas, far from home. This work brings with it health and security challenges. Yet, it can also be rewarding: surveyors gain in-depth knowledge on topics from maternal health to cash transfers. They travel to new places, and meet people with lives very different from their own. IDinsight’s team interviewed about 20 female surveyors, supervisors, and field managers across four of our global hubs to get a sense of their experiences and challenges.

In this post we’ll share challenges female surveyors, supervisors, and field managers have faced and their advice for mitigating risks. In the first piece, we shared what a typical day in the life of a female field manager or surveyor in Nigeria looks like. In the third piece, we’ll focus on the experiences of surveyors on an all-female team in Delhi.

In case you missed it, take a look at our last post in which our female surveyors in Northern Nigeria discuss challenges and opportunities presented by this work. But IDinsight survey experiences can be quite varied, for example: travelling in the Philippines to an unfamiliar state while riding a motorbike to remote flooded areas to observe handwashing in schools; living at home in a rural village in India and surveying mothers in five nearby villages with a male colleague, or taking public transport in a major city in Zambia to ask about sanitation in a peri-urban settlement. As you might guess, the cultural expectations, safety challenges, and team dynamics surveyors experience differ significantly across countries and projects.

Vaishali conducts an in-depth interview with an informal sanitation worker in Sinnar, Maharashtra. ©IDinsight/Ritika Rastogi

In this post, we share our female surveyors’ advice for organizations that are recruiting or considering hiring female surveyors. We also detail what we’ve learned as an organization through our work as project supervisors in India, the Philippines, Zambia, Nigeria, and other countries. IDinsight’s surveyors offer some universal advice (it’s always vital to know where to report security incidents), while others share context-specific challenges and mitigation strategies. We hire all-female teams when the project requires this approach (see our last post); but the majority of our teams are mixed-gender and most of our interviews reflect this dynamic.

When asked, many female surveyors highlight similar advantages of the job: learning about diverse subjects, meeting and building rapport with different kinds of people (particularly other women), and travelling to exciting places. IDinsight field managers and associates work with the same surveyors on different projects in the same country, and the long hours (and living in haunted houses) mean we often become close. But there are challenges women face everywhere, like work-life balance, safety concerns, and navigating team dynamics.


There are many practical and philosophical reasons IDinsight hires female surveyors.

  1. We want to draw from the widest pool of talented surveyors. In some places talented female surveyors might not apply as often as men1, so we run targeted recruitment efforts to find talented women.

That said, in most cases, a well-trained survey team should be able to do most surveys regardless of gender, and organizations should avoid making assumptions about which gender will be most appropriate for a particular survey. These decisions about staffing composition are best when locally contextualized and thoroughly tested. One of our India teams was doing both a maternal nutrition survey and an agriculture survey, and at first, assumed that mothers would only want to speak to female surveyors. But the maternal nutrition survey was shorter, so women got bored waiting for it to be over, and men complained they had more work than the women. The team trained everyone for both surveys: the project didn’t experience quality losses and everyone was happier and more efficient.

In some places, like the Philippines and Zambia, hiring female surveyors isn’t an issue; our teams and supervisors there skew female. An associate in the Philippines says: “there’s an assumption that women would make better [surveyors] here because the work is more detail-oriented.” Illustrating gender norms and stereotypes may play a role. In other places, like the Indian state of Rajasthan, we have difficulty hiring female surveyors because of cultural expectations around women working. One Delhi surveyor told us, “My family doesn’t allow me to take up assignments outside of Delhi because of safety concerns.”

Both personal connections and wider networks can be useful to hire and retain female surveyors. Our field managers in India have found that getting recommendations from other women can help with hiring2 — women might be more likely to accept a position if they know there is going to be another woman on the team they’ve worked with before. One of our India surveyors said our field manager convinced her parents to let her take up surveying. “Now that I’ve worked on a couple of projects,” she said, “my parents feel more confident.” Social media can also be a powerful tool for recruiting women to our teams, especially when leveraging large, well-known local networks like the “Females in Nigeria” Facebook group.

Surveying work can go beyond interviews. Here, an IDinsight surveyor inspects handwashing facilities in Camarines Norte. ©IDinsight


The biggest challenge women reported was safety, whether travelling, lodging, or interviewing. “We can be more vulnerable in the field,” a field manager from the Philippines said. “[…] It’s possible we could be a victim of abuse, especially if we’re riding a motorbike to an area that we don’t know.” We’ve also had concerns about women travelling alone (in rural areas or in cities at night) in the Philippines, Zambia, and West Africa. When they get to the household, female surveyors may be put in unsafe situations, particularly while interviewing male respondents alone. Sometimes women feel as if they must choose between safety and productivity, or safety and saving money on lodging. In a particularly harrowing incident in rural India, our female supervisor was not let into a hotel and shamed by the manager for being out after dark for a team debrief. A surveyor in Delhi reported, “when I and other surveyors went from our lodging to eat or buy essentials, we would face inappropriate comments and stares from men in the streets.” Women take different mitigation strategies to combat these risks. In Delhi, surveyors mentioned travelling together, taking transportation with a female passenger when possible, asking for directions from women or shopkeepers who can be more trustworthy and checking in regularly with the supervisor throughout the day. At the end of this piece, we further detail strategies the organization has taken to mitigate safety concerns.

An IDinsight survey team locates a household in Lusaka, Zambia to ask about sanitation. ©IDinsight/Jessie Press-Williams

Within-team dynamics

There are challenges to mixed-gender team dynamics that should be addressed up front. The most obvious is the risk of sexual harassment. Two supervisors we spoke with had had teams with consensual romantic relationships/breakups that had affected team dynamics. Female supervisors reported facing challenges with team dynamics. “It is easier to manage and earn respect from women than men,” said a female field manager in Zambia, “The men tend to be disrespectful because they think they can do better.” Female supervisors find different ways to deal with disrespect. One field supervisor in Nigeria explained:

“During a school survey […] this one guy in my group was always late. And then he always wanted to take charge at the school. He would say, Why would they give a woman the role of supervisor? I’m the only man in this team. I just ignored him completely. I would just write down what he had to do and give it to him. I told him, You are not the one to tell me what to do.”

Thankfully, problems like these don’t always arise. A first-time supervisor in Mauritania says: “I did not encounter any difficulties either in terms of welcome in the communities or in the way I exercised my authority.” A supervisor in the Philippines sometimes found it easier to communicate with women, but found no trouble working with others: “I don’t see any difference working with female vs male surveyors. It depends on the person I’m working with”.

The organizational response to this is similar to external safety strategies. Having a clear sexual harassment policy outlined during training is important. We discuss risks, mitigation strategies, explain the response and reporting channels if any incidents occur, and assure them they have our support. This is likely to be more effective if at least one of the associates, field managers, or supervisors is a woman, and also if there are multiple people (at least one woman) that surveyors can report incidents to. Supervisors suggested having a policy around romantic relationships can be helpful. Associates/field managers working directly with teams should be aware of the unique challenges female team leaders may face, and ready to give warnings and in worst cases dismiss male team members causing problems.

Work-life balance

As with any job, women often have to think about balancing work and life in a way men don’t. This was most explicit in our conversations with our India teams, where surveyors are often based in their home city or village for data collection. One surveyor said, “I get up early and stay up late each night to cook, even when I am exhausted from surveying.” Even within survey teams, women can get pressured into doing unpaid labour like cooking or making tea for the group. Sanitation is also an issue, especially when women are on their periods and might not have access to adequate sanitation facilities.

Some suggestions from Nigerian surveyors on sanitation have been for women to use health centers/schools/village chief homes/the bush, depending on context. For periods, surveyors across countries request teams to provide painkillers2. In terms of work-life balance, there’s only so much an employer can do given peoples’ varied situations. But an important role for a supervisor (particularly if there are male supervisors or surveyors who may not be as aware of gender differences) is trying to ensure that women don’t get stuck doing housework within the survey team. Good employment itself can be a long-term help to work-life balance: when women earn income, they are able to have more power in their homes. One of our field supervisors in West Africa simply recommends the best way to support female surveyors is “[to provide] good working conditions in terms of pay, housing, and transport.”

Sandhyawati and Rahil take notes in Jharkhand, India. They travel together on a motorbike to interview households about maternal health. ©IDinsight/Siobhan McDonough

Safety and Security Recommendations

To mitigate these problems, the IDinsight teams recognize specific safety and security challenges for women and take the following steps. We aim for every team to engage in every one of these suggestions, even if it’s not always possible in practice. These are best addressed up-front during trainings and before the survey begins:

1) Set up clear protection policies and reporting mechanisms for incidences of harassment, abuse, and sexual and gender-based violence. This includes having a clear policy on sexual harassment and consequences during trainings.

2) Create an environment where team members feel comfortable bringing up issues, and are receptive to addressing problems as they arise. We’ve found having female supervisors (either field supervisors, field managers, or associates) is helpful. The debriefs for one of our Zambia projects in an area where harassment was high specifically included a question about whether surveyors had encountered any uncomfortable situations. The team would not send a surveyor back to interview at a household where they felt uncomfortable, and in some cases we would resample the household.

3) Put practices in place at the beginning of the project so female team members will avoid risky situations. It is important to ask what the female surveyors are comfortable with, rather than operating on assumptions. Here are some suggestions:

a) In many of our projects, we will pair enumerators female-female or male-female instead of alone. In a Philippines project, for example, surveyors preferred traveling with a male colleague they knew to remote schools (certain India and Zambia projects also recommended this); whereas in other projects (other India projects) women may prefer traveling with other women. An India surveyor said,

“Field managers should be sure first-time female surveyors are not sent out alone at first to conduct a survey. Going in alone can overwhelm a surveyor and she might not want to continue this work, but some consideration and support from the team can go a long way in building her confidence.”

b) In Zambia, our teams stay in the same secure lodge so they are in a trusted place and don’t have to travel somewhere else after the evening team debrief. In cases where it isn’t possible to ensure everyone has the same lodging, e.g. our embedded data collection teams in India where surveyors stay at their own homes, we may take other mitigation strategies (see below).

c) We make sure data collection and debriefs wrap up before dark, have surveyors check in with supervisors regularly, and provide female surveyors stipends for public transport so they don’t have to walk home. One of our India surveyors appreciated the regular check-ins: “[we] called team leaders at different points like starting from point A, leaving for point B, so that the team knew that surveyors were safe, and [gave] alternate numbers so that the research team could reach to the alternate number and confirm surveyors’ whereabouts. We also used Whatsapp groups for this kind of reporting.”

d) Having a detailed survey/household location plan in advance so surveyors know what to expect. An India surveyor recommends “more detailed addresses should be given to surveyors so that they don’t have to ask for directions to others and can feel confident about finding the location.”

4) Work with communities to get support. When local leaders are aware of the upcoming survey and its value, they can ensure that the community is prepared for the arrival of surveyors and encouraged to show them respect and hospitality. This up-front effort can make a huge difference for the experience of female surveyors, as well as the quality of data collection overall.

With the correct measures in place, the surveying job can be a positive and exciting one. We welcome any further suggestions on steps your survey teams have taken to ensure equality and safety for women.

  1. 1. Studies from high-income countries show women and men differ in their job search behaviors, with men applying to jobs more aggressively even when they don’t have all qualifications. More research needs to be done on job search patterns and gender in low- and middle-income countries, although there is qualitative evidence illustrating that similar patterns exist.
  2. 2. There are some potential drawbacks to this approach: namely, if there are are potential issues of data fraud people may not want to report their friends; second, it may affect team dynamics if many people are friends and others are not.
  3. 3. There are some potential drawbacks to this approach: namely, if there are are potential issues of data fraud people may not want to report their friends; second, it may affect team dynamics if many people are friends and others are not.