This episode of Michigan Minds is part of a series produced by the University of Michigan Public Engagement and Impact Initiative and the Office of the Vice President for Research in celebration of International Day of Women and Girls in Science.
Anna Kirkland, PhD, is the Arthur F. Thurnau Professor of Women’s and Gender Studies and Director of the Institute for Research on Women and Gender (IRWG). Kirkland joined Michigan Minds to talk about her research, outline how scholars can impact change, and explain how she empowers others in STEM fields.
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“I do research because I’m really curious about things, and there’s a lot of things that we don’t know. I’m a social science researcher. So we have the whole world of human behavior, things that humans have created, organizations, politics, countries, laws—and these are enormously complex and the ways that they work are often mysterious and surprising,” she says.
Kirkland outlines the deeper meaning of her research, and how each of her projects have their own impetus. She expands on how the type of research she conducts must come from a special place that’s personal yet distant, as her work mainly focuses on how to change the world with laws and policies. Through her projects, she examines the ways that policy impacts people, how innovations can be implemented, and what can be done to create a positive impact.
As Director of the Institute for Research on Women and Gender, Kirland aims to provide a place for researchers and faculty from across the University of Michigan campus to come together and discuss their ideas on topics including sexual harassment in the sciences, diversity and equity, and transgender health rights. The institute offers faculty a place to connect with colleagues and collaborate on these issues through research.
“There’s just a lot of really great opportunities. And part of this is being driven by higher level research priorities….The research institute tries to be a place where, if you need to find somebody, we can help connect you. The environment here, the culture here is fairly relaxed, fast-paced and intense, but it’s the kind of place where people can reach out about ideas.”
She talks about her work focusing on transgender health rights, which she says has always intrigued her because she has always been interested in the way law “produces gendered performances” and the way that people understand what gender is. She says that when the Affordable Care Act was passed containing an anti-discrimination clause that applied to health care settings, she wanted to explore how it would be implemented and what the outcome of the recognition would be‚—and whether recognition brings justice.
“Does the law promote recognition in a way that stops the harm? Who in the organization is in charge of doing this? Because it’s all very complicated. We know that transgender people experience pretty significant rates of mistreatment and harassment in health care settings,” Kirkland says. “I was able to write an NSF grant and get that funded to do that research. It was based on a lot of things that I had been studying in my career over many years: civil rights, gender discrimination, [and] transgender rights in the medical system. I had background on these things, so when this occurred, I was able to get out there in front of it and get the proposal funded.”
Kirkland gets joy from helping others on their paths, whatever those paths may be — whether it is through mentoring, sharing ideas, or just having conversations with other people.
“As a researcher, you’ve really got to do a lot of mentoring and trying to make ways for other people. I try to give away a lot of ideas. I have way more research ideas than I can possibly do myself. It sounds corny, but it’s really true: the more you give away, the more there is.”