If market research is to be truly diverse and inclusive, we need to look at every form of discrimination and inequity and think about how it plays out in our industry. Often, the first step towards change is to understand the status quo, starting by gathering data on the representation of marginalised groups. Ideally we want to understand not only how many people there are, and in what positions, but also to learn about their experiences of inclusivity or otherwise – to what extent can people be their whole selves at work?

This article was commissioned by the MRS Diversity, Inclusion & Equality Council and written by Judith Staig. It is sponsored by:


The MRS DI&E survey is an attempt to do just that and it starts, as do most surveys, with a classification section.  Researchers know that getting this right is not as simple as it may seem. There are (ever evolving) challenges in classifying most groups. For example, we used to ask people if they were male or female, but we now need to ensure that we use an inclusive way of asking about gender identity that doesn’t assume a binary norm.

Social class is particularly tricky to classify. The 2020 MRS survey experimented with an approach to understanding social class – people who went to state schools and didn’t have parents or grandparents who went to university - in order to analyse access to education and track social mobility. These criteria applied to 93 of the 470 survey respondents – but do they all identify as working class, and did it exclude others who might also do so? The MRS is committed to further work to tease out these questions.

What we do know is that only 41% of people surveyed believe that everyone has the same opportunities in our industry, regardless of class. The verbatim comments throughout the survey revealed that people some people perceive or have experienced the following issues at work in the market research sector:

  • A prevailing bias in recruitment towards people from the top universities
  • Most leaders in the industry being White and middle class, so potentially finding it harder to understand working-class people
  • A feeling that people hire ‘people like them’ which, with the leadership being middle class, excludes working-class people
  • Feeling out of place, due to differing cultural references and experiences
  • A need to hide one’s background and ‘pass’ for middle class
  • The intersectionality of class and race causing additional problems for people of colour
  • Conversations about diversity focusing on gender and race, but not mentioning class

Around 60% of people in the UK self-identify as working class, regardless of what job they actually do; 47% of those in ‘middle-class’ jobs (classified as managerial or professional) say they are working class. For some, this relates to working-class origins, but 27% of those in middle-class jobs who come from a managerial or professional background still identify as working class. This may be because there is cachet in denying the privileges of being middle class. At the MRS conference, Impact 2021, Keir Starmer was asked how he, with his privileged lifestyle, would be able to understand the lives of ordinary people; rather than talking about his willingness to listen and have compassion, he emphasised his working-class family background.

“I was one of four children, my dad was a tool maker, my mum was a nurse; my dad worked in a factory; we didn’t have a lot of money. I’m not pleading poverty but growing up did I know what it was like to have the electricity or the telephone cut off because we hadn’t paid the bill… That’s my background, that’s who I am.” Kier Starmer, Impact 2021

If so many people, from so many backgrounds, and in so many circumstances, all identify as working class, how do we identify and support those who might be suffering from discrimination and exclusion? And what does being working class really mean?

Steve Lacey of The Outsiders specialises in working with working-class research respondents and he advises brands and advertisers on how to reach these audiences. He contends that the market research industry has a problem, not only with employing and including working-class people, but also with understanding and representing working-class consumers in our work – which is ironic as understanding consumers is what our industry is all about.

He feels that this is because of an overrepresentation of middle-class people in the industry, compounded by London centricity – researchers are in an echo chamber and many are nervous about talking about class. This nervousness can result in stereotyping working-class people either negatively as poor, ill-educated thugs or positively, but still patronisingly, as ‘salt-of-the earth’ Del Boys and cheeky chappies – neither of which adequately describe the complexity and heterogeneity of the 60% of people in the UK who self-identify as working class.

We need to work to understand people who live in different bubbles to ourselves… For example, it’s easy to see the positive side of multiculturalism if you live in an affluent area and you can self-actualise – you have your Polish builder, your Romanian nanny... But if you live with insecurities around employment or housing, you don’t feel the same way… It’s not enough to have empathy through the lens of our existing prejudices. Empathy is not insight. As a qualitative researcher, if you think you understand someone because you’ve hung out with them for an hour, you don’t. Steve Lacey, Owner, The Outsiders

So what can we do as researchers, leaders, colleagues, suppliers and friends to make the industry a better place for working-class people?

Lacey has these suggestions:

  1. Challenge our clients to think about who their target markets really are. They tend to only bring in the C2DEs when there is a social problem to fix, rather than recognising that these are the people shopping for their products.
  2. Recruit more diverse graduates into the industry. We need to broaden our search beyond a limited set of ‘top’ universities and think about the struggle that people from diverse backgrounds may have had – and overcome - compared with the relatively easy path of those coming from more affluent families, with greater social capital.
  3. Think beyond graduate jobs to other ways to get into the industry such as (paid) internships, entry-level opportunities and apprenticeships. We need to make careers in market research available and appealing to talented people who may not have been able to go the university route. But we also need to be careful that we don’t only target people from deprived backgrounds and forget about people in the middle – the children of builders and plumbers - who may also not have gone to university, but who miss out on initiatives focused on the most disadvantaged.

Making the industry more representative of and welcoming to working-class people is not only fair, it’s also smart. Research that underpins a guide from the government’s Social Mobility Commission shows that in the law firms surveyed, employees educated at state schools were 75% more likely to feature in the top 10% of performers than those educated at independent schools. If we include socio-economic status in our diversity and inclusion efforts, everybody wins.

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