What next for diversity and inclusion in social research?

alice bell photoEarlier this month, the Young Foundation and Social Research Association published Far to Go, the first comprehensive study of diversity and inclusion in the UK social research profession. Reflecting on the launch event, Alice Bell (Research Officer, The Young Foundation) collates and responds to the questions, thoughts and feedback shared during the event, in order to identify key challenges and opportunities moving forward.

As several panellists remarked at the launch event, the report makes for sobering reading, evoking feelings of anger, sadness and disappointment at the difficult realities faced by many social researchers. Whilst not necessarily surprising, the findings are certainly damning, providing lots for the profession to reflect on.

Reflecting on our approach
As authors of the study, the 'research on research' necessitated a highly reflexive approach throughout. Through our introductory chapter, the research is contextualised against its wider backdrop, including drawing attention to the structural inequalities which shape lived experiences. Panellists and attendees made further links with contemporary political debates, citing hostile narratives around immigration; a failure to address inequality through interventions branded as ‘levelling up’; and divisive framings which pit marginalised communities against each other and deny the institutionalised nature of racism.

Such discourses highlight the potential for (mis)representations of marginalised groups to perpetuate damaging framings and reinforce negative experiences. In response, we ensured our analytical approach was guided by the views and experiences that social researchers shared with us. We also sought feedback and consulted with a range of stakeholders throughout the research process. Yet, these methodological choices aren’t without limitations (as acknowledged in the technical appendix).

A community of best practice
Rightfully, some attendees questioned what more we could do to involve those with lived experience of marginalisation in the design and delivery of the research and webinar. At the Young Foundation, we are striving towards a ‘Nothing About Us Without Us’ ethos across our work - from social investment to community development - so we are keen to learn more and welcome suggestions.

As a good starting point, Traverse has collated some useful resources and commentary on inclusive research and engagement practice. We are also exploring new routes to researching diversity and inclusion issues through participatory approaches- for example, we are currently working with GuildHE to develop and support a community of peer researchers to investigate the lived experiences of postgraduate research culture among ethnic minority students. We would be delighted to hear from others with experiences or an interest in this area, to start to build a community of knowledge around best practice for researching diversity and inclusion.

Building on momentum
With almost 1,000 social researchers contributing to this research, and over 180 people attending the launch event, it is clear that there is a strong appetite to engage with efforts to understand and improve experiences in the profession. Moving from reflection to action, the panel discussion provided lots of reasons to be hopeful; but pointed to three key challenges we need to negotiate, as we build on this momentum to develop a more equitable, inclusive and diverse profession.

1) Striking a balance
For many, discussing diversity and inclusion is daunting - it involves putting yourself and others in situations which may feel uncomfortable. The systemic nature of these issues can also feel overwhelming as, ultimately, the weight of responsibility is heavy and the challenges will be difficult to overcome.

We need to share this load, but striking the right balance is important.

The report calls for profession-wide collaboration, in order to engage the whole ecosystem in achieving change. This sense of shared responsibility is something that resonated with panellists and attendees alike, as it emphasises that everyone has a stake - and the potential to make a difference. Nonetheless, they echoed the report’s caution that, all too often, the burden of change is predominantly carried by those already most negatively affected.

With wide recognition of the value that lived experience can bring to diversity and inclusion initiatives, it is clear that there must be meaningful opportunities for staff to be involved in shaping this work. However, a culture of support and transparency must acknowledge these contributions and ensure they are matched, if not exceeded, by commitments from senior leaders.

2) Focussed investment
To this effect, panellists and attendees agreed that efforts must not be considered as ‘voluntary’; sufficient time should be allocated to, and resources invested in, diversity and inclusion work.

Mechanisms also need to be in place to ensure collective accountability, with frameworks to monitor and evaluate progress - offering important opportunities for researchers and evaluators to utilise our skills to test what works. An interesting question was asked around the use of diversity targets or quotas as part of this process. This highlights the care that needs to be taken to ensure that actions are robust, and don’t feel tokenistic or performative.

As we learn together, the Young Foundation is keen to host groups and activities to support each other in implementing plans, and share what is effective.

3) Chicken and egg
As panellists shared what their organisations were doing to attract and open the door to a greater diversity of social researchers, attendees offered further ideas to help raise the profile of, and increase access to, the ‘niche’ profession: ranging from apprenticeships to engagement in schools, and approaches inspired by those taken in STEM fields.

Nonetheless, questions were raised about the exclusive nature of some entry-level opportunities (e.g. unpaid internships or temporary employment contracts). Moreover, attendees wanted to know what was being done to make the whole progression pipeline more diverse: What are the longer-term trajectories for those entering the profession through less established routes? Once they’ve got their foot in the door, how are organisations working on retaining a greater diversity of talent? And, what opportunities are there to help mid-career researchers reach senior leadership roles?

These questions highlight how the age-old chicken or egg question relates to diversity and inclusion work. Efforts to attract a more diverse workforce will not be worthwhile, or could even be detrimental, if the workplace and subsequent progression routes are not inclusive. However, when existing teams are not particularly diverse, and the organisational culture reflects this, cultivating inclusivity will be difficult.

So, which needs to come first- diversity or inclusion? Only focussed investment in both will open up ‘brave spaces’ which enable change.

Read the report
Watch the launch event webinar
Contact us at [email protected]

Author biography
Alice Bell is a Research Officer, working on a range of research and evaluation projects across the Young Foundation and Institute for Community Studies. Through her work, she is enthusiastic about exploring innovative and inclusive methods to involve diverse communities in impactful research.