Researching inequalities when participants don’t perceive a problem

‘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.

Published by Kevin Guyan

Dr Kevin Guyan is a researcher and writer based in Edinburgh whose work explores the intersection of data and identity.

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