Diversity. I notice it when I work with big clients. And I also note a greater presence of ethnic minorities there than I encounter in research and marketing circles. The MRS, led by new president Jan Gooding, currently has a big push on diversity. I’m no expert in HR so what follows is just a thought starter, and those better qualified than me can chip in. I doubt, though, that the research industry is going to get any more diverse any time soon. And here’s why.

As an industry, research is fragmented. This is more evident on the qualitative side, which is a small proportion of the whole. If you’re working in a fragmented industry, then diversity is harder to deliver and harder to police.

A basic problem is the lack of a defined career structure. Graduates are at least now encouraged to apply for research jobs, courtesy of the University Roadshow, rather than finding their way in almost by accident — a common occurrence in previous years. Once graduates find a research job, however, their progression is uncertain.

In a session on the future of market research at the MRS national conference I was startled to hear a panellist admit that they were getting rid of people because they were considered too old for their current role. They talked of staff who were perfectly competent but deemed ‘past it’.

Competency devalued

The industry prizes freshness over competency and maturity. Competency does not even guarantee job security — which leads to many going freelance. The qualitative industry is a cottage industry with all sorts of opportunities, full of nice people, all willing to help. It is also largely populated by researchers who, at some stage, have either gone freelance or left to move into some form of consultancy.

This type of environment does not promote diversity: it favours networking and privileges people who are similar to those already working in the industry. It’s tough to get your first job. But if there is no clear progression then you have to place a very large bet that the industry will give you 10 different jobs over a 30-year period. If they are people like you then the odds are pretty good. If you feel like an outsider you need large companies with policies in place and HR departments at the ready who you can approach if you feel the system is working against you.

Most qualitative research agencies aren’t that large. So even if all market research agencies DO want to increase their diversity, where will candidates come from who are willing to take a 30-year bet? And this is before taking into consideration the need for time out to have a family, or to look after elderly relatives, all factors which traditionally have held women back in the workplace but are now affecting men, too.

Let us assume that for a third, or a half, of those 30 years you will be working on short-term contracts or freelancing. It then becomes even more important that your face fits, and de facto, we’re back to the usual straight, white, middle class suspects that we know so well.

I don’t expect the structure of market research agencies to change any time soon. If anything, the changes in technology and methodology are likely to keep research agencies small or medium sized rather than turn them into large monoliths.

We can hope that clients, given their own diversity policies, might exert pressure for change. A generation ago I remember the managing director of a regional advertising agency explaining: “I’m not a racist but... (you know what’s coming next don’t you?) I would never hire a client service manager who was black. Because the clients wouldn’t go along with it. And it would cost us business.”

If clients proactively demand greater diversity from their suppliers, then change must come. International companies whose staff are more diverse could make it a condition of winning projects. Why shouldn’t they be offered a simple rating about the ethnicity of staff? And while we’re at it, why shouldn’t clients ask about churn rate? This would, after all, be a pretty revealing indicator of a company’s stability.

From a researcher’s perspective, if people aren’t sticking around, these small companies become increasingly precarious environments for career development. Clients, meanwhile, who are becoming more diverse, might register which research companies are open to change and which are stuck in homogeneity.

Closed society

There is one other nettle which the industry needs to grasp: the need to communicate more effectively what a career in market research actually looks like. Because if raw recruits don’t know how long they’re likely to be in whatever role, or in the industry as a whole, and who they’ll have to persuade to get their next job, then the usual suspects are going to keep applying and using their networks to get jobs. And for the foreseeable future, the rest will keep their distance.

We need role models who have worked for research companies without going the consultancy/freelance route. We should celebrate those who have worked their way to the top of a company — and stuck around. It’s’ just that finding them might be a tall order.