Today, in partnership with the Social Research Association (SRA), we are publishing the largest scale study to date of equality and diversity in the social research profession.
‘Research on research’ is always hard as turning a critical gaze on ourselves was inevitably going to be an uncomfortable experience. This research has thrown into even sharper relief many of the issues we, along with many others, have been grappling with at The Young Foundation for quite some time.
There are three burning issues we are working to address, and this report shows that they are challenges common across the profession. How do we attract more diverse talent into social research roles? How do we ensure that workplaces are inclusive, free from discrimination, and enable everyone to progress and develop? And how do we make our research methods more representative and inclusive of the populations whose voices and experiences we seek to elevate?
Opening the door
Social research is a profession that is broad. We include people working with a range of methodologies – from data science to ethnography – and in a range of roles from commissioners, research practitioners, and those in operational roles as recruiters, data processors and more.
Social researchers can be found in almost every sector. Academia and the public sector are major employers of social researchers, but so too are commercial research firms, think tanks and third sector organisations. There is also a large workforce of self-employed and freelance social researchers.
So in a world where much careers advice is generic and comes from the same stable that suggests Fatima’s next job could be in cyber, how do we even communicate what a role in social research could be? Doctor, engineer, teacher, hairdresser (and so on) are all more instantly recognisable career options, with clear pathways to entry and progression.
Breaking through silos
We, like many others, have started to make changes to increase the accessibility and appeal of the profession. We abolished unpaid internships in 2014, replaced with Living Wage Foundation paid roles, and – propelled by Covid-19 – have opened up remote internships, which have enabled young people from the West Country to Scotland to gain experience without the need to relocate. We have also changed our recruitment practices to tackle unconscious bias and increase the diversity of candidates we interview.
Most recently, The Young Foundation we have been excited to pilot a new programme to welcome new talent via the government’s Kickstart initiative, training up young people at risk of long-term unemployment to be peer researchers. One of our Kickstart employees, Amelia Clayton has written a blog about their early reflections on becoming a social researcher.
But this isn’t enough. Our ambition is for our research team to reflect the communities we research in and with, and for there to be easier transitions between different types of social research roles. As someone who has benefited from a career across commercial research, the public sector, a major charity and, of course, The Young Foundation, I know how hard it can be to jump the sectoral divide, but also just how rewarding – and I believe I am better at what I do because of it.
The sheer plethora of routes into social research should be one of our greatest strengths – there truly is a role to suit everyone. But our siloed ways of working mean that we are not collaborating to raise awareness and understanding of the profession, or advertise the wonderful careers we have to offer.
Becoming equal and inclusive
Are we a profession dominated by the ‘liberal metropolitan elite’? And does the genuine commitment to social justice that motivates many social researchers blind us to our own failings? Sadly, the answer to these questions appears to be yes. Our research shows that far too many researchers are experiencing exclusion and discrimination in the workplace, and that it is frequently disregarded or insufficiently dealt with. Each and every one of us, and particularly those of us in leadership positions, must look at our processes, practices and cultures with an open and critical eye – and commit to taking action to address the systemic inequalities we uncover, and ensuring that all employees feel the sense of belonging and opportunity we endeavour to create.
Our own efforts have tended to focus on changing our recruitment processes: where we advertise, how we ask people to apply, how we de-bias selection etc – which has yielded some positive results – but we are nowhere where we need to be. The welcoming of our Kickstart cohort of researchers has shown us very clearly the power and value of an increasingly diverse workforce, and we have created some spaces and places for people to gather safely to discuss challenges and issues that are affecting their work or well-being. But like so many, we are ‘work in progress’ and this report shows us that we must continually hold our feet to the fire to ensure we increase our momentum for change internally, as much as seeking to influence the wider research and innovation ecosystem.
Leading the way
And so, the final issue is not about how we work internally, but about the very practice of much social research. And it is in this that I fear some of the greatest challenge lies.
How, for example, do we challenge decades of convention around ‘nationally representative samples’ as best practice, when this almost always results in an inability to separately analyse the experiences of some of the minority groups most affected by the issues at hand?
Or how do we meaningfully include people who are most marginalised and excluded when budgets and timeframes for research preclude the methods and approaches which would facilitate real engagement?
We have been investing over the last year in growing a national peer research network, collaborating with others to build out best practice in the field, raise the profile and understanding of this type of research, and giving people in communities greater voice on the issues that matter to them. In September we’ll also be launching a new Level 2 accreditation in peer research that will be open to people across the UK to help evidence their skills and support their educational and career development. But this is only one approach.
To create systemic change, researchers must put their necks above the parapet – arguing the case for new approaches to funders and commissioners (with the associated peril of losing much needed income), or risking the scorn and rejection of peer reviewers whose work often seems counter to methodological innovation, with an emphasis on citing previous research as a justification for selecting one approach over another.
As with all things in life, major change will not come quickly, easily or without a serious investment of time, effort and money. The social research ecosystem must come together to tackle these issues and commit to creating a profession which is truly diverse and inclusive, and which gives greater voice to those we represent.