How can research benefit diversity and inclusion initiatives?

For the second year, organisations with more that 250 employees are expected to publish their UK gender pay gap data by 4th April 2019.

Research is often the first step in an organisation’s journey to cultural transformation. Global players especially want to harness the power of new d&i initiatives and research is essential in ensuring they are adapted to different geographies and organisational challenges. The question is: how?

GDP Head of Consultancy Theresa Stearn specialises in the creation of effective research programmes and solutions at every stage of d&I transformation projects. She has delivered successful projects with Taylor Wimpey, Barratt Developments and Walgreen Boots as well as many global projects with organisations in culturally complex and challenging environments.

We spoke to her to find out more about how research can be used to add value to D&I initiatives.

What role does research play in helping organisations become more diverse and inclusive?

Research gives companies a clear picture of where they are and where they want to be.

Organisations often initiate a d&I intervention as a knee-jerk reaction. Perhaps there has been a claim for sexual harassment, or a group of people leave unexpectedly. The business feels they need to be seen to be doing something and they move forwards without having a clear picture.

Research clarifies the actual gap they need to fill. In our experience, there are always surprising elements that emerge that the business hadn’t expected to find, and this can completely reset priorities.

Benchmarking can help managers to assess what change or impact can reasonably be expected and what ‘good’ could look like over a period of time.

What are some of the key factors to take into account when planning D&I research?

Understand what you want the research to achieve.

The answer should always be ‘in order to’ rather than ‘because’. It needs to look forwards to your destination and not backwards to an event that may have prompted the concern. Have a clear idea of what you are planning to do with the results.

Be prepared for surprises. The distribution of answers across different groups may raise important flags that need to be resolved before you move forwards with any planned activity.

Know what capacity you have both to undertake and analyse the research and then to respond to the results. Many organisations start a d&I journey with research, often an employee survey. If you don’t have the capacity to follow through, it’s something employees remember and can lead to cynicism and poor response rates in future.

Ensure the research fits in and supports other initiatives. e.g. gender pay gap. The research should enhance or confirm what organisations are finding in those areas.

Consider all the factors such as, how long things will take, how many people need to be involved, who will take which roles, what approvals look like, diary management for key stakeholders and authorisers who may be absent at key times, how the team will communicate, what sort of cost is involved, whether it’s appropriate to get an external organisation for some or all of the work, especially if there are contentious issues.

What are the research options?

There are several main options, assess the viability of each carefully before choosing which is the best path.

  • Surveys, which can be delivered with as much or as little technology as is appropriate.
  • Analysis of existing data on staff turnover, retention, existing initiatives, take-up of programmes, recruitment data, graduate programme, benefits, pay etc.
  • Comparative benchmarking with one or more companies in your industry.
  • Comparative benchmarking with one or more companies with shared characteristics.
  • Third party assessment – e.g. invite a charity that specialises in disability to assess how the company can become more disability friendly.
  • Look at third party awards and benchmarks as these often represent best practice that is common to the most diverse and inclusive companies.

What is the best way to get the most value from a research project?

This comes back to the question about planning.

Know what you are trying to achieve from the outset.

Be prepared for surprises. Make sure you have the capacity to deal with the whole project as well as some contingency for the unexpected. Factor in process crunch points like approvals into your planning. Use the research to support other initiatives so you extract the best value.

Another important factor is test before you roll out. Sample a questionnaire with one division or a team before taking it to the whole workforce.

It is also important to involve departments beyond HR to drive the process. Ensuring leadership, operational and financial divisions are involved is key to successful research.

What if a company has limited resources – are there any options?

Either look at ways of reducing cost out of new bespoke research, or look at how you can replicate bespoke research with existing data.

Look at other companies that are similar to yours, or who have already done similar things, to establish if there are useful pockets of data or learnings that are relevant to your business.

Examine public sector requirements and case studies via diversity organisations such as Business in the Community. Public sector best practice will prompt questions and highlight priorities to drive inclusivity in your business, services and culture.

If a bespoke approach is required, could paid interns, graduates or placement students under supervision be sufficient as a project team? Could it be a development opportunity for a more junior regular member of the company?

What are some of the pitfalls/mistakes that you’ve seen over the years?

Many of the pitfalls lie in inadequate planning.

Not being clear why you’re doing research or not having an end in mind.

Sometimes companies ask questions out of curiosity rather than a specific intention to act on results. Research should always lead to change. If you ask a question, it will raise an expectation. If the expectation isn’t met, people will want to know why.

Companies often ignore valuable intelligence. Employee engagement surveys, for example, cover a whole range of topics. But many companies miss the opportunity to mine the data along demographic lines – to establish, for example, if female employees are more or less satisfied with their working conditions compared with their male colleagues. Or if younger employees feel more or less engaged than older colleagues.

Another risk is when specific individuals use research to prove a point rather than to discover and learn. This can restrict lines of enquiry because the objective is too narrow.

Great can also be the enemy of good. If employee response rates are low, companies commonly delay any action until the data set reflects perfection.
Work with responses you have, proportions you have. Make decisions based on that. If people don’t respond that tells you something. Don’t ignore it.

I have often seen a reluctance to ask about ‘contentious’ issues such as bullying or harassment, or to ask for demographic data such as sexual orientation even though surveys responses are anonymous. This can mean really important areas are missed.

What are some of the new trends that you’re seeing in D&I research?

Organisations are starting to use research to dig much deeper and this is changing how it is being applied.

There is much greater recognition for a wider number of diversities, and it can help to consider them separately or in interdependent groups.

Research is becoming more issues led, say, looking at work/life balance or talent retention.

Companies are wanting to look at cultural issues that affect everyone rather than focusing on one group and unfair treatment.


If you’d like to speak to Theresa or a member of the GDP team on how to get the most value from your D&I research, please e-mail us on

The truth is, all businesses, irrespective of their age, sector and employee make up struggle with diversity and inclusion, and need help on their journey to ensure that the behaviours, biases and cultures that result in exclusions, discriminations and ‘we think’ are eliminated.

It is easy to get exasperated by the fact that industries led by such talented, creative and vibrant individuals can leave so many employees feeling like they don’t have a place.

Yet we need to feel inspired by all of the many examples of the positive steps individuals and companies are taking in order to make a meaningful impact on shifting the inclusion dial. Just the fact that the Diversity in Marketing & Advertising Summit (DIMA) was so well attended by so many glittering marketing and advertising brands is in itself grounds for hope.

The key is action – for all of us. What is each of us doing today to include and engage the teams that we work with?

The rationale is familiar.

At DIMA, I spoke about a concept originally reported in TrendWatching of brands no longer being ‘black boxes’ carefully crafted to be neatly engaging and alluring for consumers.

Once, consumers interacted with brands only through micro-managed advertising which was purposefully selected to portray a certain image.

We no longer live in the age of the black box: the walls we built to protect our brands are now transparent, and the actions and behaviours of every individual within our organisations are under the spotlight. The experiences of a single person are enough to topple the leadership of some of the world’s largest companies, as demonstrated by Susan Fowler, the whistle-blower who exposed a deeply concerning culture and record of behaviours at the leadership levels of Uber.

Glass box brands means accountability does not rest squarely upon the shoulders of the C-Suite: everyone is a leader.

We live in a world where 70% of millennials and Gen Z are more likely to base purchasing and loyalty decisions on brands which appeal to their values, so never has it been more important to ensure that inclusion permeates our messaging and corporate culture.

When 65% of customers tell us that they would feel more favourable about a brand which reflects diversity in its advertising, we have to see this as a wake-up call.

Diverse advertising and marketing is only possible where there are diverse teams empowered to speak up and share their real experiences, where necessary, to challenge brand assumptions.

So much of advertising is based on stereotypes. Even today, The Times published an interview with Rachel Pashley, an advertising executive who has smashed the traditional definitions of female tribes used to create campaigns. It said, “In her 20-plus years working in advertising, Rachel Pashley lost count of the times clients informed her that they wanted to design a campaign for “busy working mums”. “No one ever mentioned busy working fathers,” Pashley says.”

Perhaps not surprising then that “research by Enterprise IG showed that 91 per cent of women believe that advertisers do not understand them and 58 per cent are positively annoyed at how they are targeted.”

The impetus for inclusion in advertising and marketing is not just about how agencies and marketing departments behave with their people. It’s also about the aspirational, entertaining, deliberately engrossing content that is the product of these departments.

2014 study found that on average, children between the ages of two and eight spend around two hours a day with screen media. Neuroscience tells us that the images that we are exposed to on a daily basis unlock neural pathways, which over time reinforce stereotypes, and that all this happens unconsciously.

Present a young woman with unrealistic advertising images of women day in, day out, and that will be her reality.  Diversity and inclusion is an enormous social responsibility.

Brands provide leadership in a society that mirrors itself on what is seen in the media. Businesses change our society by how they treat their employees. Brands change the world by how they treat their customers.

Events like DIMA are designed to help us all take action. So what should we do?

Here are my key takeaways:

Focus on a few key efforts and stop focusing on company-wide change as it may be too big. Start small, set little targets, and focus on shifting the dial an inch today, then an inch tomorrow, with one individual or one team. What gets measured gets done.

Go beyond your usual suspects and include everyone in the change process. Engaging men to champion inclusion is essential to making a difference. A study by BCG found that 96% of gender diversity initiatives report progress when men are involved in comparison to 30% which are driven by women alone. Everyone is diverse, and diversity includes everyone.

Live outside of your comfort zone. Be a disruptor, a challenger and an amplifier. Don’t go with the flow — disrupt the status quo. Being an inclusive leader is not easy: it requires courage and determination.

But when has this industry ever backed down from a challenge?