The relationship between researchers and their subjects of study has always been a source of curiosity within the field of social sciences. Working on sensitive issues can have permanent repercussions on both researchers and their subjects. To better understand the impact of sensitive issues on women researchers, I chose to take a closer look at the ways women can cope with conducting research on heavy or traumatic issues, and on violence against women in particular.

Violence against women represents any act of violence that results in physical, sexual or psychological harm to women.[1] As part of their work, women researchers are involved in listening to or analysing broader data on sensitive subjects and engaging with other people’s experiences. Being exposed to the traumatic experiences of others can illicit feelings of deep empathy and guilt or distress. Some researchers cope with this by increasing their workload as they feel like they need to do more to help. Self-criticism and a growing loss of self-esteem are common reactions of women researchers working in violence against women field, and are symptoms of ‘vicarious trauma’.

Source: Oxford University, 2016

Source: Oxford University, 2016

Vicarious trauma, as well as post-traumatic stress disorder and burnout, are all risks of working in emotionally taxing environments. Vicarious trauma is defined as a transfer of emotions and experiences from the survivor to the researcher. Among the many symptoms, researchers can experience emotional distress, depression, an overwhelming feeling of hopelessness and fear, nightmares, intrusive images and social disconnection,[2] which can be difficult to overcome and to separate from private life. Whether individuals are more susceptible to vicarious trauma depends on many variables including what they have been exposed to during research and whether they have been personally exposed to violence previously.

So, how can women address or prevent these various forms of trauma? The first step would be to realise that they are affected. Researchers need to have the opportunity and time for reflection, which can be done by themselves or with a counsellor, to recognise whether they harbour signs of emotional distress. Organisations should also work to set up supportive environments and services to help researchers cope. Regular discussion sessions and collective support are ways to encourage people to share their experiences so they are not having to deal with them by themselves. Measures can also be put in place to prevent vicarious trauma in the first place. Raising awareness of the issues that can arise from vicarious and other forms of trauma and conducting trainings in the workplace on how researchers can protect themselves can help. But there will always be risks associated with conducting research, and it is important to acknowledge what researchers are taking on to work towards the end of violence against women.


[1] United Nations. General Assembly, Resolution 48/104, Declaration on the Elimination of Violence against Women, 1993. Available at: Retrieved 15/05/2017.

[2] Guidelines for the prevention and management of vicarious trauma among researchers of sexual and intimate partner violence. (2015). Sexual Violence Research Initiative. Pretoria: South Africa.

Oxford University (2016). « Secondary trauma for researchers and supervisors ». Available at : Retrieved 18/05/2017.