How to make research more inclusive

In 2020, equality, diversity and inclusion – or “EDI” for short – shifted from being an initiative of HR departments to a more broad-ranging conversation in all types of organisations, prompted in part by the international Black Lives Matter movement. Dr Marie Claude-Gervais (Director of Research, Versiti) helps organisations, their products and their services become more inclusive through research and insight. She sets out some of her takeaways from 25 years specialising in research with minority groups. 

Black Lives Matter and COVID-19 have both shone a light on structural inequalities, and that has triggered a whole raft of reactions. We have seen some organisations jolted into action because they suddenly became aware of the nature and the scale of racism. We have also had some organisations who came to us because they were under pressure from their own staff. Their diverse workforce approached them and demanded that they do something to respond meaningfully to Black Lives Matter. With a solid body of evidence now showing that brands that embrace diversity and inclusion perform better - COVID-19 and Black Lives Matter provided an even stronger and more urgent moral case for taking EDI seriously. 

For 25 years, I found it incredibly hard to talk with clients about discrimination, sexism and racism because people were very defensive and pushed back against any charges of discrimination. But now they see that it’s not necessarily, or primarily, about individual attitudes and prejudices. It is also about how systems and organisations operate. It can be that your customer segmentation is biased in favour of certain customers and not others, that the agencies you work with lack any diversity and cross-cultural competencies, or that you simply don’t know about the experiences, needs and desires of diverse people, therefore leaving many underrepresented and underserved. That awareness is making it much easier to have different and more productive kinds of conversations with organisations. 
Before embarking on research to support an organisation’s DE&I journey, there are some key concepts to understand.

Understand that ‘minorities’ are in the majority

I tend to define the minority not by demographic size, but by access to power. If you consider white people during Apartheid in South Africa, clearly they were a demographic minority but a political majority. I think we need to complexify our sense of what a ‘minority’ is. In the UK, women are half of the population (and a minority in terms of access to power - which is why women are protected by the Equalities Act); people from ethnic minority backgrounds are about 14% of the population; disabled people are around 20%; LGBTQI+ are around 5%; older people (aged 65 and over) make up about 18%, and so on. Even if there are multiple overlapping categories between these groups, this suggests that people from ‘minority’ groups make up more than half of the population. In other words, most of us belong to some ‘minority’ in some dimension of our life.
 
Diversity is not just demographic
 
Diversity refers to the full spectrum of differences and similarities between individuals. Typically, we think about that in terms of socio-demographic variables, like people’s age and gender, ethnicity, sexual orientation, disability, social class. But diversity is also more encompassing and can refer to a diversity of beliefs and values, life experiences and personal preferences - such as being a humanist, having caring responsibilities, living with a rare condition, or choosing to abstain from alcohol.
 
Inclusion is when diversity becomes normal
 
Inclusion is more about making individuals, whatever their background, feel welcome, valued and confident that they will be treated fairly and respected. For me, inclusion is the normalisation of diversity. It’s the point when we take it for granted that the whole world is diverse and we build this awareness into everything we do. It’s a mindset that is fundamentally about respecting each person in all their complexity. 
 
Equality or equity?
 
Equality is more complicated. It can mean equality of access or equality of opportunity but also equality of experience and equality of outcomes. Too often people assume that they are fair because they ‘treat everyone the same’. They conflate ‘sameness’, ‘equality’ and ‘fairness’. In fact, fairness might very well be treating people differently. It might be more precise in fact, to talk about equity within organisations rather than equality. 
 
Get to know your client
 
Armed with this thinking we can prepare to approach our client. We try to learn as much as possible about their organisational culture, their corporate aims, their business objectives. And we look at the literature to identify interesting things to start a conversation with clients - about their circumstances, opportunities, new target audiences and so on. 
 
Build a relationship with the client
 
We’re very aware that, for many people, the world of EDI is very tentative. It’s a bit scary. In fact, the fear of getting it wrong often leads to inaction. So a key part of our role is to instill confidence and trust and to equip clients with knowledge, good practice, and confidence. For example, we produced a guide to terminology to help clients have more positive and informed conversations about EDI. 
 
Kick-off on the best foot
 
 It is essential to have a good kick-off meeting with internal stakeholders to make sure that everybody is aligned, that we are attuned to the different agendas in a room, and we understand the insight requirements across the organisation. There will typically be different people with very different understandings around diversity and inclusion. So being mindful of and sensitive to that is very important. 
 
Have diverse teams
 
 The issue of ‘matching’ the profile of the researcher and the research participant deserves careful thinking. Ethnic matching, for example, presents many advantages. It has ‘face value validity’. People assume that this will automatically generate deeper disclosures and better insights. However, while sharing an ‘insider’ status can lead to these benefits, this is not necessarily the case. There are also benefits to having ‘outsiders’ to the communities in the research team. This makes it possible to ask different types of questions and to see cultural patterns that might be taken for granted by those who share them. In my experience, what works best is having diverse research teams that combine both insiders and knowledgeable outsiders to the communities being researched. 
 
Go qualitative
 
 Versiti are not really wedded to any specific methodology. One of the interesting parts of my role is to create the right methodology for each brief. But most projects rely on qualitative research – face-to-face or online individual interviews, focus groups, research communities, storytelling, ethnography, semiotics, etc. It is more appropriate because the issues are complex: they are not well understood and require in-depth exploration, flexibility and contextualisation. 
 
Get close to the participants’ world
 
 Almost by definition, many research participants from minority groups will have experienced exclusion, discrimination, and might have a degree of distrust towards the research industry. It takes time to build rapport and it requires an understanding of the assumptions and concerns participants bring to the table. The closer we can be to their environment - their home, their workplace, in their family, in the shopping malls where they go, in their living room when they watch TV - the better it is for data quality. 
 
Go online to get immersed
 
 Over the last 10 years, we’ve made extensive use of online research communities. They unfold over a fixed period of time, say a week, two weeks, a month – and give us time to get the closest to an ethnographic approach as client budgets will typically allow. We tend to use diaries, storytelling, drawing, a mix of individual and group discussions, markup tools and various other methods to elicit participant experiences and get feedback on stimuli supplied by clients.  I am excited to see how digital research is becoming the mainstream, even if this is driven by COVID constraints. We might have an explosion of really good quality research if the research industry embraces it and does it well.
 
Don’t assume digital research excludes minority groups
 
 As early as 2013, OFCOM research found that people across all the main ethnic minority communities in the UK were more likely than their White British counterparts to own at least one mobile phone, have broadband at home, use mobile hotspots, and have positive attitudes towards computers, gadgets and technology. This is largely because the ethnic minority population is, on average, 12 years younger than White British people and because only about 3% live in rural areas. Today, while it is true that a small number of ethnic minority people are not online - mainly among first-generation Asian women, recent refugees and asylum seekers, and Gypsies, Travellers and Roma people - digital approaches can be more inclusive. Again, having an evidence-based approach to selecting the right methodology is key. 
 
Think ‘Who’ not ‘Where’
 
 If you don’t have the right people in the room, you’re never going to get high quality data. So recruiting the right research participants is essential. This requires creating the right sampling frame in the first place. “Who should we be speaking to?” not just “Where do we find them?”. What is the profile of the people that we should be speaking to? Do we expect generational differences? Do we expect regional differences, age differences? That basic thinking is really quite important before you think of how to recruit people. 
 
Not ‘hard to reach’ but ‘seldom heard’
 
 We also work with a team of specialist recruiters – so people who have a lot of experience in recruiting underrepresented groups that are often called “hard to reach”.  But we don’t use that phrase - it makes it sound like “they” are responsible for the lack of engagement. We talk about “seldom heard” people because we think that the onus should be on institutions and organisations to reach out. We need to make provisions to hear - and truly listen to - the voices of people who are not in the mainstream. 
 
Don’t snowball and use convenience sampling
 
 Snowballing, and convenience sampling generally, is best avoided. There are cases when this is very challenging, like sampling sex workers or Gypsy and Traveller older people or LGBT people living with cancer. But, in principle, we need the same rigorous screener and sampling processes that we would use for any other type of research. We wouldn’t stand outside mosques, synagogues, temples or churches to recruit Muslim, Jewish, Hindu, Sikh or Christian people, because It would be wrong to generalise from these subsets to their entire communities based on the most religious members of each group. 
 
Analyse for intersectionality
 
 Our thinking and our methodology in relation to intersectionality (when one person belongs to more than one minority group and experiences the cumulative impacts of different forms of discrimination) keeps evolving. For instance, in a study I led years ago for the Government Equalities Office on the Routes to Power of Ethnic Minority Women, we looked at the intersectional discrimination and experiences of black and Asian women over the lifecycle and saw how different the experiences of black and Asian women were, as well as those from working-class and middle-class backgrounds.  
 
More recently, in a survey of EDI in the market research sector on behalf of the Market Research Society, we grouped together the responses of older, white, straight, non-disabled men and compared them with the responses of people who belong to at least one visible minority group. We found that employees who belonged to none of the visible minority groups were significantly more satisfied with their company performance on EDI (e.g. fairness and inclusion at work). They were also earning £15,500 more than their female colleagues and £12,000 more than their ethnic minority colleagues. This helped to explain why the motivation to address EDI issues differs between groups. Focussing on intersectionality using these heuristic groups proved very insightful indeed.
 
Minority groups understand how social structures operate
 
 Listening to people who are under-represented often yields amazing insight - not just about their own specific needs but about how society functions in general. I think that when you feel excluded from key aspects of social, political and economic life, when you stand on the margins, that gives you a very interesting perspective from which to look at the world. It’s like being a newcomer in a company or a stranger arriving in a new culture: you can see very different things compared to the locals. That’s why minority groups can drive innovation.
 
Bring people to life in reporting
 
 Every effort should be made to ensure that clients understand the issues, get the insights and go: “Aha! Wow! Okay, I get it.” It’s about generating both understanding and empathy. We use quite a bit of video so that clients get to see and hear people.  It is amazing how many misguided assumptions are made about people from various minority groups, about who they are, how they speak, what they look like, etc. Each project debunks multiple myths! Bringing people to life in reporting is a key part of that.
 
Research doesn’t stop at the report
 
 For us, research is never an end in itself. It has really no value until it is used. If a report sits on a shelf, we feel we have absolutely failed. So we focus a lot on activation, impact, and change. Once all the stakeholders have digested the insights, we meet and we really workshop hard the implications for the organisation. This can involve systematically reviewing the corporate strategy, customer segments and brand assets or identifying new development opportunities, or surfacing latent areas of resistance and barriers to implementation. Sometimes we bring research participants into the room so that lived experiences are present in that conversation.
 
Focus on portrayals, not just representation
 
 It is also important to avoid thinking only in terms of representation. When thinking about diversity in advertising, having an Asian or gay person or disabled person just plunked on an advertisement quickly begins to look tokenistic or box-ticking, or exploitative in some way. We need to see three-dimensional characters, people from various minority groups in situations that we can relate to. This likely applies as much to social research messaging as it does to consumer research.  It’s the way in which diversity is portrayed, not just represented, that matters.
 
Move away from ‘extractive’ research and give back
 
Finally, we are coming to understand with greater clarity that, too often, research is ‘extractive’: it takes from communities and does not give back. There are many ways of tilting the balance so that the research industry is less exploitative and more focused on building the capacity of communities. Sharing key results with research participants is one. Adopting more participatory approaches is another. In some cases, when using online research communities, we have given back to participants a file with all their personal contributions - which was very powerful. At the next MRS Impact conference, in 2021, we will bring ethnic minority young people, whow we trained to take part in a project on ethnic inequalities in the impacts of COVID-19 on young people, to share the stage and talk about both their contributions to the project and what they have learned from it.
 
Author Biography:  I am the co-founder and Director of Research at Versiti. Versiti is a full-service research and consultancy company that helps clients in the public, private, and third sector understand and mitigate against inequalities and strive for greater inclusion and a fairer society. We use evidence to drive change. My interest in DE&I stems from a mix of professional, business, and personal factors. I did my PhD and then was a Lecturer in Social Psychology at the London School of Economics and have a long-term commitment to understanding what makes people feel and think and behave in the way that they do. But keen to have a greater impact and to drive change, I left academia in 2000 to create an agency that specialises in research with people from ethnic minority backgrounds. I then joined forces with Stephen Cribbett and launched Versiti.  On a personal level, I am French Canadian, living in London, and previously married for 20 years to a British Pakistani man, with two wonderful children that have been much enriched by being raised in three different cultural traditions. Diversity, inclusion, and equality matter to me at a moral level but also because I want my kids to grow up in a world where they will have the same opportunities to thrive as everybody else. 

Acknowledgement: This blog post was adapted from an IN CLEAR FOCUS podcast broadcast on December 4th 2020 featuring Adrian Tennant (VP Insights, Bigeye) interviewing Dr Marie-Claude Gervais. 

 

 

 

 

 

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 How to make research more inclusive (1/12/2021) 
   
 Covid-19 and face-to-face fieldwork (1/8/2021) 
   
 Immobile data (12/16/2020)