This article was written by Judith Staig, founder of ContentWrite. It is sponsored by: Zappi-logo2

You may have noticed something a little different about the MRS annual conference this year, if you were fortunate enough to attend. Yes, it was online but, after the year we’ve all had, that hardly seems worth mentioning. The real difference was that Impact 2021 was the most diverse and inclusive MRS conference ever, both in terms of the amount of content around diversity, inclusion and equality (DI&E), and the profile of the speakers who took part.

In a week when we saw tensions over policing at the vigils for Sarah Everard, and a policing bill with higher penalties for attacking a statue than attacking a woman, Impact 2021 was a shining example of how positive change is possible when you commit to making it happen.

“We’ve ensured a 50/50 gender split for speakers at our annual conference for several years, but I’m proud to say that Impact 2021 has the most ethnically diverse line-up we’ve ever had and also makes headway towards the neuro- and socio-economic diverse programming I am committed to us sharing with our audiences. It’s not just the right thing to do, it makes the conference experience richer. It makes us better.”

Jane Frost CBE,


There were a number of sessions focusing specifically on DI&E. However, there was hardly a session, whatever the primary topic, that didn’t mention these issues to a greater or lesser extent. DI&E is in the air. It was woven through the fabric of the conference, and rightly so, because it is an issue at every level of our industry.

  • We need to think about representation and the experiences of the people who work in the industry. How do we make our workplaces more inclusive and equal, and how do we attract more diverse talent?
  • We need to think about the quality and representativeness of research we do. How do we include more diverse voices and put aside our own preconceptions and biases?
  • And we need to think about the way that brands connect with diverse consumers. How can brands represent and involve the communities they serve?

Take action

A statistic that brands should find galvanising was that 59% of people would support – or not support – a brand as a result of their stance on the Black Lives Matter movement. In their session,  #doesmytitlematter, Kristin Hickey and Jake Finn from Kubi Kalloo argued that consumers want to see brands taking a stance on political or social issues; brands need to be authentic, and to do more than just show support or try to educate – they need to take action.

“Taking a stance is not just putting out a social media post and shrugging your shoulders. It’s about reinventing your brand and making sure, from the bottom up, it represents what you stand for. So do something, don’t just say something.”

Jake Finn,

Senior Research Executive, Kubi Kalloo

This is a message not just for brands, but for us all.  In The Future Can’t Wait, hosted by Jennifer Roberton from respondi, a debate which showcased the talent of young MRS &More members, Theo Francis (GuineaPig Fieldwork), Chloe Bartlem (Razor Research) and Amanda Hammond (ITV), Francis shared the action-oriented approach that had led him to start his business, and co-found Colour of Research (CORe).

“Don’t wait for permission. The reason we have all these barriers is imposter syndrome... We tell ourselves ‘if I put all of this stuff in place, then I’ll be ready.’  Truth is, even if you put that stuff in place you still won’t be ready.” Theo Francis, Founder & Director, GuineaPig Fieldwork & Co-founder & Director at Colour of Research (CORe)

Abel Flint from Suzy made a similar call to action in another debate, 'Being the change', hosted by Michael Brown from UM, with Amelia Brophy (YouGov), Rob Scotland (McCann) and Danielle Todd (Relish). The debate focused on what agency practitioners can do to change the world.

“Don’t ever undervalue the power of the individual. If you are passionate about something you can make it happen...  All it takes sometimes is just one spark to light an entire initiative on fire.”

Abel Flint,

Founder, Out in Research USA and Marketing Manager, Suzy

The same message came through again in th‘Diversity and Inclusion’ debate hosted by Babita Earle from Zappi, with client-side insights professionals Michelle Gansle (Mars), Elaine Rodrigo (Reckitt Benckiser), Christine Avallone (Verizon), and Jake Steadman (Deliveroo). Earle asked about tokenism, and whether companies were really taking action. The panellists shared many example of how their organisations are investing in driving real change, whilst being open about how far they still had to go.  One of the key takeaways from this session was that there is so much learning in individual organisations that could be shared.

“Collaboration is the new competition… The more that we as organisations can partner together to solve issues like this, the faster we will see improvement.” 

Michelle Gansle,

Senior Director, Foresight, Innovation and Growth Insights, Mars Wrigley

Get comfortable with discomfort

It was inspiring to see that so many have moved beyond paying lip service to DI&E and are committing time, money and enthusiasm. Change is starting to happen. And it is inevitable that change will feel uncomfortable for those who have a vested interest in the status quo. Sometimes people outside of protected groups will want to help, but not know how, and fear getting it wrong. Sometimes there is push back: #NotAllMen; #AllLivesMatter.

Sue Unerman and Kathryn Jacob talked to Jan Gooding about their book, Belonging, and how they want to bring men into the conversation about gender at work.

“The DI&E industry has a problem. It has managed to exclude from the conversation the very men who are still largely holding those seats of power. Very often, straight, white, middle-aged men. That cannot be right… There needs to be room for all voices in this discussion.”

Sue Unerman,

Chief Transformation Officer, MediaCom

This requires people in leadership positions to step out of their comfort zone, listen and learn, a point also made in many other sessions.

“We will effect the most change if people that look like me are open to having the right kind of conversations. Not being afraid to put yourself out there… recognising that you don’t necessarily have all the answers…. That’s how we make change.”

Jake Steadman,

VP, Customer Insight & User Research, Deliveroo

It is not helpful to characterise any of the debates about DI&E, as we see so often on social media, as a zero-sum game - men versus women, black versus white. In truth, inclusion and equality lift us all. This was abundantly clear in the Rewriting His-Story debate, chaired by Hannah Marcus from, with panellists Will de Groot (MEND), Sherrell Honoré (Durex), and Abigail Mliner (Make Love Not Porn). They talked about how limiting traditional, heteronormative, patriarchal stories around masculinity and male sexuality can be, not only creating toxicity for women, but also for the men who feel under pressure to conform, and to… ahem… perform, to the extent that it is damaging to their mental health.

“I think of masculinity as an inherited set of cultural behaviours, attitudes and norms that a lot of men now feel are inadequate and no longer fit for purpose for the kind of men they want to be.”

Will de Groot,

Founder and Cultural Strategist, MEND

We all need (to be) allies

But change needs more than white men getting comfortable with discomfort. DI&E is for everyone. The reality is that many of us simultaneously belong to a protected group and belong to another group with some form of privilege. If we want to embrace diversity, we can all educate ourselves, listen to people’s lived experiences and become allies to those who don’t inhabit the same sphere. If you are not disabled, listen, educate yourself and become an ally for disabled people. If you are white, listen, and become an ally for people of colour. If you identify as cis-gender, listen to those who identify as trans-gender.  And so on.

“We are all trying to learn. I might be a specialist because of my skin colour, but LGBTQ+… I need to learn as well.”

Rob Scotland,

Head of Strategy, McCann London

And listening is what we are pretty good at, as an industry. Rodrigo called it our superpower.

“In our industry, we have a superpower. We are trained to immerse ourselves into the world of others and use our empathy and curiosity to decode it and bring it back to our organisation. That’s a core skill.”

Elaine Rodrigo,

Chief Insights & Analytics Officer, Reckitt Benckiser

Reflecting the need for action discussed earlier, the panellists in Being the change were clear that being an ally is more than just expressing your support. Whether it is as an individual or as a business, you have to commit and do the work of dismantling the structures that lead to discrimination.

 “Be THAT person. Be that challenging person, be that supportive person, be that person who notices this doesn’t feel right, that we could think about this a bit harder”

Danielle Todd,

Insight Director, Relish

A more diverse DI&E

Being an ally may require you to think a long way out of your bubble. Historically, much of the conversation around DI&E has been focused on gender, sexuality and race; as we work to reframe DI&E as an issue that is central to all of us, we will start to hear more about disability, neurodiversity, class, age and regional inequalities as well. It was refreshing to see that there were sessions at Impact 2021 that brought this to the fore and invited some different voices to be heard.

One of these was Dr Camilla Pang who, in conversation with Colin Strong, told us about her lived experience as someone diagnosed with ASD (autism spectrum disorder) at the age of eight. She wrote her book, Explaining Humans: What science can teach up about life, love and relationships, to explain the human race (amongst whom she felt like an alien) to herself. She also talked about the value of neurodiversity in the workplace.

“What is neurodiversity bringing to the workplace? Currently, not as much as it could be... I’d hate to think that… people think I’m unreliable because I have three panic attacks a week. I’d like people to be ‘oh yes, she had a panic attack, but she’s really good at analysis.’”

Dr Camilla Pang,

Scientist and author of 'Explaining Humans'

One of the most provocative sessions was about class and, specifically, working class people, who presenter Steven Lacey from The Outsiders, called ‘the biggest diverse group that we never talk about.’ He explored the stereotypes and misconceptions that exist and argued that we overlook this group at our peril, not least because of their buying power and voting power.

“A lot of stereotypes around [the white working class] audience need to be challenged… I’ve had an ad agency say ‘We want to target the working class… so we are going to use Stormzy because they all live in poverty and they all use food banks…’ and I’ve had to say ‘no, no, no you’ve not got this audience quite right.’”

Steven Lacey,

 Managing Director, The Outsiders

He also cautioned against having too little empathy and judging working class people, or having too much empathy and seeking to educate. Instead, we should draw on our superpower of listening, put aside our own biases, and practise objectivity.

The same point was made by Peter Totman from Jigsaw Research, in his session ‘Qual researchers have an empathy problem.’  He called out a perceived political bias in the industry.

“We are doing great things trying to tackle gender and race… but I think we need to go further... We need to make sure viewpoint diversity is something that we, as an industry, consider.”

Peter Totman,

Head of Qualitative, Jigsaw Research

He challenged quallies to strive to be more objective, consider our own biases – particularly confirmation bias - and to practise self-reflection. This is a practice that should apply not just to quallies but to us all, whatever our involvement in the research process.

The Future Can’t Wait session with young researchers also discussed how to broaden the diversity of people working in the industry. One key way is to push back on the notion that we should only hire people with degrees.  The panel also discussed the value of mentoring schemes as well as apprenticeships and internships to help young people from varied backgrounds come into the industry and thrive. 

 “I don’t think you need a degree, and you don’t need a top degree from a top university, to work in market research. There is room for us to open up and welcome people from different backgrounds.”

Chloe Bartlem,

 Research Manager and Associate Partner, Razor Research

Consider intersectionality

The conversation around opening up careers in research brought up the issue of intersectionality, which underlies any discussion of DI&E. If many of us are in at least one minoritised group, many of us are also in more than one group. Intersectionality tells us that there are no one-size-fits-all solutions.

“[A focus on top universities] decreases the diversity not just of educational background but also financial background, ethnicity, all affected by that one problem.” 

Theo Francis,

Founder & Director, GuineaPig Fieldwork & Co-founder & Director at Colour of Research (CORe)

One of the most inspirational sessions of Impact 2021 was the case study, ‘A question of privilege’,  presented by Marie-Claude Gervais from Versiti, and Sope Otulana, from Youth Futures Foundation, looking at the intersectionality of youth, unemployment and ethnicity. The speakers were Cynthia Ko, Amarah Khan, Lucas Rheman and Shae Eccleston. The project was a stellar example of how you can get better results by taking an inclusive and empathetic approach. The team created an online community and trained young researchers from diverse backgrounds as moderators.

“While most research aims for objectivity and neutrality, we aimed for empathy based on an assumption that young people would open up more if they knew and truly believed that we understood their lived reality and that we cared.”

Amarah Khan,


The empathetic approach was a conscious decision, in contrast with calls for objectivity discussed earlier, made to overcome some of the reluctance that young people may have felt to engage with research, and to share their experiences if the researchers had come from seemingly more privileged backgrounds. The results were striking; participant shared intimate stories which showed the high aspirations of this group of young people and how many barriers they have to overcome.

The future is bright

Impact 2021, the most diverse MRS conference ever, embodied a step change in attitudes towards DI&E. In business, DI&E was once seen as a separate initiative, poorly funded and often staffed by volunteers from protected groups; it is now top of the corporate agenda. In the same way, issues of DI&E weren’t confined to specific sessions of the conference, they were front of mind in nearly every presentation and discussion. This is where we need to be.

Next, comes action. For ten things everyone can do today, read ‘What can we do to increase DI&E?’ here.

The MRS DI&E survey, published in November 2020 showed us how far we still have to go, but Impact 2021 was a celebration of how far we have come. One of the most positive findings from the survey was that young people reported caring deeply about inclusion and are prepared to take action to be allies and champions.  This commitment was evident in the inspirational young researchers, in particular those from &More and Versiti, who spoke with such enthusiasm and clarity at the conference. This next generation of leaders showed that there is a lot to be hopeful about. The future of the research industry will be more diverse, more inclusive and more equal. It’s in good hands.


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