Still a long way to go - diversity and inclusion in the social research profession

This blog provides a personal commentary, from Lee Chan (SRA Trustee), on the key insights of an expansive and detailed survey from the Young Foundation and SRA of 900+ UK researchers from within government, academia, charities, research institutes and the private sector on diversity and inclusion (D&I) at work. It also invites readers to suggest how the SRA can continue to help the profession take on the challenges presented.

A great achievement

It gives me great pride to be invited to share my thoughts on the Young Foundation report 'Far to Go: Diversity & Inclusion in UK Social Research' that is being launched today. After a number of delays, including those created by lockdown, the Social Research Association was able (with the support from Power to Change and Kantar Public) to fund an extensive survey on D&I at work. It is the first research of its kind to engage the whole spectrum of the profession. Thanks are particularly due to SRA trustee Isabella Pereira who has worked tirelessly over several years to make this project a reality.

It feels like such an achievement, as a trustee of the SRA and for me personally, to be able to report a powerful story of both the challenges faced by those from minoritised groups working in social research and the wide concerns about the lack of diversity and inclusive research practice in the profession. At the same time, through the report, we are also able to present evidence on more successful areas and the powerful appetite that exists for change. 

How do we stop the waste of talent?

Twenty years ago, I resigned from a research job and in my leaving speech remarked how I felt marginalised and that the company was managed by a boys club. Flash forward to 2021 and we still see a perception that diversity within the profession is poor: that access or entry to the profession needs to be addressed, as does retention of talent as people from minoritised groups progress in their careers. Additionally, exclusionary practices limit the progression of researchers - sometimes this might be due to a poor understanding and execution of inclusive management, and other times due to suspected unfair and discriminatory behaviour such as unequal access to development and other opportunities. The lack of diverse representation at senior levels is seen as both a reflection and cause of the problem.  

Lots of action, but what impact?

The crude term ‘all mouth, no trousers’ comes to mind. It’s harsh but it quickly gets to another key insight from the report. Experiences of inclusion at work are poorer among minoritised groups despite the concurrent view that organisations appear to value D&I. What we are seeing here is that minoritised employees don’t feel that D&I initiatives in the workplace are actually making much of a difference to their experience at work. Activities can be seen as scattergun and reactive, lacking in focus and not accounting for the lived experiences of marginalised groups or of what actually works to achieve progress. In some cases, they are seen as performative. Things the report identifies as making a difference on the ground include:

  • Actively involving a wide range of staff in the design and implementation of D&I action plans;
  • Building on best practice within the profession and from other sectors;
  • Getting explicit endorsement by senior leadership;
  • Embedding D&I in organisational strategies, policies, processes and practice - such as inclusive leadership and management practice;
  • Establishing a framework for measuring and reporting progress, to ensure collective accountability - again, such as setting personal objectives around inclusive management practice and making these part of performance reviews.

A time for reflection and collaboration

The report shows that there is a strong appetite for change and that many organisations are starting to take steps in the right direction. But we need to ensure that there is consistency across the whole social research ecosystem. It’s no coincidence that in our survey, the sectors doing better on D&I are those obliged to do so by their public sector equality duty. My own career journey has taken me across the public, private and third sectors, so I have experienced these differences first hand. They are really quite stark and they shouldn’t be.  

We now need to begin to work together within and across sectors in social research to share best practice and approaches to improving D&I - ideally in line with the principles of ‘open access’ and the ‘creative commons’. It is my personal view that knowledge in this area should be freely shared and, wherever possible and practical, not monetised.  

Finally, I fully agree with the recommendation that organisations should build a culture of reflection, support and transparency. Trust and respect are cornerstones of success in the area of D&I and they can be earned - in part - by constructive open self-reflection. The report specifies the following, in words I couldn’t put any better myself: 

  • Organisations should continue on the journey that most have begun of scrutinising their own work and practice;
  • Care must be taken to ensure that staff are closely involved with this process, but that the burden of leading and creating change does not fall on those already most negatively affected.

Roll up those sleeves and get in touch  

The report presents us with some profound challenges for the social research profession. We want to hear from SRA members and non-members about how they want us to help organisations and individuals reflect on how they can work collaboratively to ensure that diverse talents are included, recognised and rewarded in our profession. Ideas on how to ensure social research practice is as inclusive as it can be are also welcome. We have started the collaborative ball rolling by inviting a diverse panel of speakers to today’s launch event from across the social research ecosystem to respond to the report findings. 

Please send any additional thoughts and suggestions on what else the SRA can do to help by emailing admin@the-sra.org.uk with ‘D&I: What else the SRA could do’ as the subject line, or leave a comment below if you’re reading this on social media.

Author biography
 
Lee Chan is a trustee for the Social Research Association.  She manages a team of policy researchers at the consumer group Which?. They support the charity's advocacy work by providing consumer insight and through direct engagement with consumers. Lee started out in commercial social and market research where she was trained as a mixed methods researcher, then moved into stakeholder engagement and participatory research before settling into policy research. Finally, Lee is a proud Northerner and daughter of immigrants from Hong Kong.  Her colourful research career and life story can be heard in more detail at: https://outrageousimpact.co.uk/learning/outrageous-impact-show-lee-chan/