The use of opposite gender moderators in traditional subject matter

By Nancy Siller and Dave Pyke

Typically, in qualitative research on traditional gender-specific topics, a moderator of the same gender conducts the groups. In some cases, such as intimate products, there may be some justification for this practice, however, there can be real benefits to using opposite gender moderators for “traditional” female or male subjects.

In the case of fashion, cosmetics or other traditionally female products, the use of a female moderator may lead to an unintentional bias in the results based on images conveyed by the moderator’s dress or appearance. The same holds true using male moderators for traditionally male subjects such as sports products or alcoholic beverages. In both cases, assumptions may be made by both the respondents and the moderator that cause one or both sides that lead to biased results.

It is important to note that in all research, researcher bias is inevitable. To some extent, it may be inherent in the process. “[The] qualitative research paradigm believes that the researcher is an important part of the process. The researcher can’t separate himself or herself from the topic/people he or she is studying, it is in the interaction between the researcher and researched that the knowledge is created. So, the researcher bias enters into the picture even if the researcher tries to stay out of it.”1 By beginning with a moderator that is partially removed from the issues at hand, the assumptions made by both researcher and respondent can be minimized.

Some might argue that using same gender moderators eases communication within the group (i.e., women will warm faster to a female moderator and vice versa). The ease in communicating, however, is more likely a factor of the skills of the moderator than gender association. If the moderator is able to work within the group without causing strain due to personal limitations, the ease of communication flow is not affected.

For qualitative research to be effective, it is most important for the moderator, regardless of gender, to have the following qualities:

  • Competence: Does he or she truly understand the issues and have the basic skills?
  • Flexibility: The ability to change directions as the discussion evolves.
  • Rapport: The ability to establish a connection with respondents so that they speak honestly about their beliefs.
  • Interest: Can the moderator keep the respondents involved and working even if the topic bores the group participants?

If a moderator has these basic skills, gender becomes less important. Some moderators may be limited in their ability to establish rapport or maintain re spondents’ interest if dealing with opposite gender respondents. A good moderator will be able to establish a working group under almost any circumstance.

The primary benefit of opposite gender moderators is the ability to remain detached and external to the subject matter. In this case, respondents will not make assumptions about the knowledge level of the moderator. As example, a male moderator interviewing women on the topic of cosmetics will have no or limited personal knowledge of the use of the product being discussed, thus is required to ask questions that might be assumed by one with personal knowledge of the category. A female moderator conducting a group or interview on a traditionally male topic such as power tools might find it easier to elicit more detailed explanations and advice, since respondents will not assume a higher level of knowledge.

In consumer research studies, a moderator is needed to remain external to the community or target group to allow for unbiased review of the issues. If a moderator makes assumptions based on personal knowledge or belief, the information gained can be incomplete or limited to the moderator’s current understanding of the topic at hand, especially in areas where he or she has extensive personal knowledge of the topic area.

In these situations, most moderators will feign ignorance of the topic to allow free flow of expression from the respondents. However, respondents may omit details due to their assumption that the moderator has sufficient understanding or the belief that such detail is “common knowledge” among the gender. With an opposite gender moderator, these assumptions are far less likely to be made. If the moderator states a lack of knowledge, the statement is more likely to be accepted.

For cultural studies, the use of a member of that culture to research the topics is often assumed. However, studies have shown that this research is often flawed. Data are overlooked or misinterpreted due to the cultural biases of the researcher conducting the study2. The findings apply to gender topics, products and services as well. If the moderator is close to the topic or has strong beliefs, an issue may be overlooked or be given undue influence, whether overtly or implicitly. While use of an opposite-gender moderator may not eliminate issue bias, when applied to “traditional” topics, the moderator’s ability to draw out deeper information can be enhanced through respondents’ assumptions on the level, or lack, of knowledge an opposite-gender moderator is likely to have.

It is imperative that companies looking for a researcher to collect information review their assumptions on the appropriate individual to conduct the study. In cases where research has consistently confirmed their beliefs or shown issues as consistently important or unimportant, it may be advisable to have the research conducted by an opposite gender moderator. The result shows that issues are given different priorities, new issues might be uncovered that were previously hidden by assumption.


  • 1.   Mehra, B. (2002, March). Bias in qualitative research: Voices from an online classroom. The Qualitative Report, 7(1). Retrieved November, 2006.
  • 2.   Lea Kacen and Julia Chaitin; “The Times They are a Changing”: Undertaking Qualitative Research in Ambiguous, Conflictual and Changing Contexts; The Qualitative Report, June 2006; pp209- 228

~Nancy Siller, CMRP, is a life long moderator and a founder of Research Dimensions. She can be reached at or (416) 486-6161.