Researching inequalities when participants don’t perceive a problem

Navigating contradictions between statistics and participants’ perceptions of equality, diversity and inclusion.


‘I genuinely believe our institution is gender blind.’

‘It doesn’t make any difference here whether you’re a man or a woman.’

‘Take a look at the international diversity of our staff – there can’t possibly be a problem here.’

Three statements. All imagined but representative of comments that researchers engaged in studies of equality, diversity and inclusion might encounter in interviews, focus groups or open text survey responses.

Problems emerge when these testimonies crash into statistics, which highlight a less positive picture, or statements from others who have experienced the flip-side of an institution’s culture. Participants are forced to consider if they exist in a context (or world) that, consciously or unconsciously, does not treat people equally or fairly. What must align for participants to trust numerical data or place faith in the perceptions and experiences of others even when this belies their own perceptions? Particularly when acknowledgement of institutional problems risks admitting your own complicity in any wrongdoing.

Research participants who have not directly encountered bias, prejudice or discrimination might start with an assumption that society is meritocratic – ‘you work hard, you get ahead’. Default to an assumption that their institution is fair and equitable. In this framing of the world, systems and structures are blind to identity. Those who explore this question as someone outside a majority (or dominant) group, such as a gay man in a heteronormative school or a disabled woman in an ableist and patriarchal workplace, might not begin with the same default assumption. The glass is neither half empty nor are your necessarily looking for the worst in others. But life experiences teach you – discipline you – the need to be guarded. The need to be prepared for things to go wrong.

These feelings are not only the preserve of those with lived experiences. Many have indirect experiences with family and friends. Many take an academic interest in histories of identities and the manifestation of power. Others possess a strong sense of empathy which translates into awareness that, for many overlapping reasons, everyone does not experience identical situations in the same way.

What is more important – the ‘reality’ of how an institution’s structures operate or how participants subjectively perceive their operation?

What then is the role of EDI researchers in raising participants’ awareness of issues in their institution that they may not personally perceive? To use an old phrase, is there a place for ‘consciousness raising’ in EDI research? Qualitative methods, such as one-to-one interviews and focus groups, are fantastic ways to unearth people’s feelings and perceptions about particular topics. But what is more important – the ‘reality’ of how an institution’s structures operate or how participants subjectively perceive their operation? The two are very much intertwined but subjective perceptions (as well as institutional realities) will impact how participants feel about colleagues, career development and shape their wellbeing.

How do researchers join the dots in situations where participants present positive perceptions (‘I wholeheartedly believe my institution operates gender blind promotion policies’) that contradicts quantitative data (a disproportionate gap between the number of female applicants and the number of women offered positions)? A tension persists: more often, numerical data are given greater weight than subjective perceptions. If the numbers provide evidence to show that a problem exists, a problem exists. Is it ever the role of researchers to inform participants of structures that might affect their account of an institution? There is a difference between EDI research and EDI activism: one seeks to survey the situation in order to act; one takes action. There is no easy answer.

Dr Kevin Guyan is an equality and diversity researcher based in Edinburgh. He is writing in a personal capacity.

Could behavioural insights change public attitudes to LGBT people in Scotland?

Using behavioural science to reshape public perceptions towards LGBT people might present a new approach to a persistent problem.

Earlier this summer the UK government published results from a survey of 108,000 lesbian, gay, bisexual and trans (LGBT) people, the biggest national survey of its kind.

The research found over half of the respondents (56%) felt comfortable being LGBT in the UK. However, the work also uncovered a number of specific concerns. More than two in three respondents said they avoid holding hands with a same-sex partner for fear of a negative reaction from others. Likewise, 26% of respondents had experienced verbal harassment, insults or other hurtful comments in the past 12 months because they were LGBT.

Alongside the launch of the survey results, the UK government also published an accompanying list of over 75 commitments. Some of these were unexciting (‘We intend to secure additional funding after March 2020’) while others were unexpected (‘We will bring forward proposals to end the practice of conversion therapy in the UK’).

One commitment was particularly intriguing: the Government Equalities Office intends to ‘trial innovative ways of tackling deep-seated prejudices in our communities’ and consider ‘how behavioural insights can be used to help improve people’s attitudes towards LGBT people more quickly’.

This slightly cryptic commitment assumedly refers to the work of the Behavioural Insights Team (BIT), a company jointly owned by the UK Government, Nesta (the innovation charity) and its employees. It was established in 2010 by Prime Minister David Cameron to apply behavioural science within government policymaking, with a primary focus on effectiveness of public services and improvement of outcomes, while enabling people to make ‘better choices for themselves’. The team have offices across the globe and have worked on a number of projects related to gender and equalities, such as work in Sydney to tackle the problem of sexist behaviours and sexual harassment.

The Government Equalities Office intends to ‘trial innovative ways of tackling deep-seated prejudices in our communities’.

Behavioural insights are best known for ‘nudge theory’, in which small interventions are introduced into a person’s life to encourage good behaviours such as going to the gym more regularly, revising for exams or drinking less alcohol. The application of these methods to positively change public perceptions towards LGBT people in the UK would be a new approach to a persistent problem.

The Equalities Office research highlights the negative experiences of young LGBT people within education establishments, with one in three of those in education in the 2016/17 academic year reporting a negative or mixed reaction from others due to being LGBT or being thought to be LGBT. Schools, colleges and universities might therefore present an ideal environment to test behavioural insight interventions, gather empirical data on ‘what works?’ and scale-up the most successful projects.

Scotland has already witnessed a rapid reshaping of attitudes towards LGBT people in recent decades. For example, between 2000 and 2015, the percentage of people who believed that sexual relationships between two adults of the same sex was always or mostly wrong fell from 48% to 17%.

The same social attitude survey presented data on respondents who had a family member who identified as gay or lesbian, rising from 13% in 2010 to 21% in 2015. It is unlikely that this percentage increased because the number of LGBT people in Scotland rapidly changed over a five-year period. What is more likely is that LGBT people felt better able to share who they are with their families.

As much as the UK government’s commitment to ‘trial innovative ways’ to target prejudice is exciting, it remains unclear whether something as fundamental as negative attitudes towards sexual orientation can be changed through targeted psychological interventions. Furthermore, who should the government target? Society-at-large or restrict the interventions to self-identified homophobes?

The government’s use of behavioural insights to challenge prejudice might seem a bit futuristic. However, following revelations that Facebook data was used to develop targeted ads and potentially swing election and referendum results, it is becoming increasingly clear that these technologies are already used to shape our everyday lives. However, one terrifying risk remains: if behavioural insights can be used to tackle prejudice could the same methods, in the wrong hands, be used to reverse the progress made in recent decades?

Dr Kevin Guyan is an equality and diversity researcher based in Edinburgh. He is writing in a personal capacity.