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Mind the inclusion gap: Why your company’s DI&E policy isn’t enough

Is the research industry a good place for women or people from minority groups to work? The answer is… it depends on who you ask. Most people outside of these protected groups (straight, non-disabled, white men) would say that it is. People within these groups? Perhaps not so much.

The following commentary was commissioned to reflect the views of the MRS Diversity, Inclusion & Equality Council.

Most research companies these days have DI&E (diversity, inclusion and equality) policies, and also make sure that they comply with legal requirements around these issues. But having a policy doesn’t mean that discrimination isn’t happening. It’s just that it’s not typically happening to cis, straight, non-disabled, middle-class, middle-aged white men, so they are less likely to be aware when it is happening to anybody else – or appreciate the devastating impact it can have.

What is the inclusion gap?

There are two elements to the inclusion gap in the market research industry:

  1. The difference in perceptions and experiences between straight, non-disabled white men and members of protected groups

  2. The gap between the good intentions and positive work done by industry leaders, and the everyday experiences of people in protected groups

The perception and experience gap

The recent survey by the MRS of more than 400 people working in the industry revealed a gap in experiences and perceptions of diversity and inclusion between straight, non-disabled, white men (white men for short) - and those in other groups.[1] Although sample sizes in some groups were relatively small, there were significant differences in a number of measures. The report found the following:

  • White men have better experiences at work: White men were most likely to say that they are given opportunities and resources to work flexibly, to feel like they belong at their company, and to believe that their unique characteristics are valued. They are least likely to have had colleagues taking credit for their work, to have been insulted or demeaned, or to have been excluded from events or activities. They are also significantly less likely to consider leaving their jobs due to concerns linked to DI&E.

  • White men are less likely to be aware of issues around DI&E: They are more likely to say that most employees in their organisations feel comfortable being themselves; that DI&E is taken seriously in their organisation; and that managers are fair on hiring and career advancement. They are also more likely to believe that women and minority groups are well represented at all levels of the organisation and that the company workforce represents the diversity of the community.

The issues of DI&E play out differently for everyone; awareness of intersectionality tells us that people in multiple protected groups have different experiences than people in just one. If we are in a group that is having a better time at work than others, it isn’t surprising that we also have a more benign view of how well the organisation is performing on issues of DI&E. And if we think there isn’t a problem, how will we be mobilised to advocate for change?

The leadership gap

Nobody would deny that the MRS CEO Pledge, established two years ago, is a positive move. So far, 25 research company leaders have signed up and committed to working towards safer and more representative workplaces. The pledge includes: publishing pay statistics annually, working towards government targets for women and ethnic minorities at board level and improving recruitment practices. The recent CEO Pledge Progress Report is full of inspiring examples of how organisations are working towards change.

But even while all of this good stuff is happening, people who work in our industry still feel excluded and discriminated against. The CEO Pledge is a great first step, but the hard work is in what follows on from this commitment – having the difficult conversations and addressing individual issues, so we can evolve how our workplaces function, for everyone. One of the most shocking statistics from the survey was that only 9% of ethnic minority researchers believe that they are treated fairly and have the same opportunities as other colleagues. And if there was any doubt that discrimination exists, the verbatim comments sections of the survey were full of the lived experiences of people in our industry who feel they are not being treated fairly. People who get talked over in meetings, left behind for promotions, left out of conversations, disregarded, belittled and patronised.

Why is there an inclusion gap?

So why do these gaps exist? The gap between the perceptions of white men and everyone else? And the gap between the positivity of the CEO Pledge Progress Report, and the experiences reported in the MRS survey?

There are a number of issues here. Firstly, the real issue for DI&E isn’t about being numerically in the majority, or being white, male or straight; it is about how power is structured. Even if they have the best intentions, people in positions of power can be out of touch with people further down the organisation. And although power tends to be concentrated amongst white men, people from any background can be in positions of power and be out of touch. Some would say that Barack Obama is the epitome of ‘woke’ but in his latest book, A Promised Land, he talks about how dominant male behaviour in the White House was serving to alienate and