Dr. Carrie Ann Johnson wins Karas Award for Outstanding Dissertation
May 05, 2023 - by Sarah Igram
Dr. Carrie Ann Johnson, recent Ph.D. graduate in Rhetoric and Professional Communication, focused her dissertation on a highly under-researched topic: whisper networks, or the informal communication channels that women use to keep one another safe from sexual harassment and other forms of sexism. Her work earned her the 2023 Karas Award for Outstanding Dissertation.
Every year, the Graduate College gives the Karas Award, established by retired former Graduate College Associate Dean George Karas, to students with exceptional dissertations in rotating disciplines. This year, students in the Biological Sciences and Social Sciences were eligible for the award.
“It is nice to be recognized for a topic that has been under-researched,” Johnson said. “Winning this award, I feel like, amplifies the fact that we need to look for underground communication structures.”
Johnson, who is now a postdoctoral scholar with the ADVANCE Midwest Project and serves as the interim coordinator of research and outreach for Iowa State’s Carrie Chapman Catt Center for Women and Politics, chose whisper networks for her dissertation topic after taking an organizational communication course with associate professor Stacy Tye-Williams. She explained to Tye-Williams that she was thinking of writing a paper about whisper networks for the class.
“She said, ‘That’s not just a paper for this class, this is the rest of your life,’” Johnson said. “That was really inspirational.” Tye-Williams became Johnson’s major professor for her doctoral program and nominated her for this year’s Karas Award.
To conduct research for her dissertation, Johnson conducted 20 interviews with participants who had participated in whisper networks and then used a thematic analysis to look for patterns and themes among her participants’ answers. From this analysis, she established three theories about whisper networks: they serve as protection in organizational cultures of harassment, they help women make sense of their harassment experiences, and they help identify harassers to women entering a new situation.
Conducting the interviews was the hardest part of completing her dissertation, Johnson said, because women were so vulnerable in sharing their stories of sexual harassment and assault.
“Once I got to the writing phase, I could put all the love I have for the people who are protecting each other into writing,” she said. “That was easier than the part where I was gathering data.”
Johnson added that she had a great deal of support from the people around her, including Tye-Williams and the rest of her dissertation committee, her family, and other students in her department.
“We underestimate the power of the team, but the team is everything. Nobody gets to this point in research without having a team,” she said.
Johnson’s research on whisper networks has been accepted to several conferences, is under review for publication in an academic journal on communication, and has appeared in The Conversation. She is grateful to have brought her interviewees’ voices to the forefront.
“[Whisper networks are] something that happens for us since we’re little girls, so saying the truth out loud and having participants thank me for saying the truth out loud was really beautiful,” she said.
In her postdoctoral role, Johnson will research the experiences of female STEM faculty with whisper networks and how those whisper networks maintain their ability to work in highly male-dominated spaces. She is also looking into how women use whisper networks in the political field, and she hopes to write a book in the future.
“I feel very passionate about amplifying women’s voices and communication structures, and the fact that I have professional positions right now that focus on that is a gift,” she said. “I’m just so thankful.”