When assessing their Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) progress, organizations often solely rely on HR data to tell the story. After all, numbers are the most “objective” way of understanding impact, right?
Quantitative data can certainly tell us how many women, people of colour, people with disabilities, or LGBTQ2S+ people work in an organization. It can also help us to track progress over time, and identify any major disparities.
But statistics don’t come with stories. They don’t tell why certain groups might be underrepresented, or what challenges the current staff might be facing.
At Evenings & Weekends Consulting, we often advise our clients to complement numerical data with their teams’ own insights and perspectives, and to see DEI not as an HR initiative, but an organization-wide commitment with all departments accountable.
So when George Brown College’s Department of Research and Innovation approached us to support their strategic planning with an equity lens, we designed a listening campaign that would bring their wider community’s experiences to the forefront.
“We decided very early on that we would look at our department’s growth and impact from an DEI perspective,” explains Dr. Krista Holmes, Associate Vice-President, Research and Innovation at George Brown College. “All of us are very committed, but we were a little bit out of our depth as research administrators—this isn’t typically how we would approach planning and strategy work. We brought on Evenings & Weekends to help us undertake it in an effective way.”
If you’re working in an organization with a data-driven culture, pushing for qualitative research can be challenging. Here’s what we recommend to successfully make the case.
1. Understand the Value of Stories.
When conducting research, stories aren’t just a “nice to have.” They’re a method to mitigate the biases that come with traditional data collection and analysis methods. These entrenched biases can lead readers to interpret quantitative findings through the dominant perspective—which often leads to racist and sexist outcomes.
By listening to people’s stories in their own words, we gain insights into the barriers that quantitative data just can't capture. We learn about the microaggressions, unconscious biases, and examples of systemic oppression that people encounter daily. Once we have this information, we can design more human-centred responses.
Consider a workplace with good gender diversity numbers. They might have an equal number of men and women, but qualitative data might reveal that women often face interruptions and credit being taken for their ideas in meetings. This paints a more complex picture, showing that even in seemingly equitable environments, biases and challenges persist.
2. Make the Case to Leadership Well in Advance.
Using qualitative data is a new process for many organizations. It may require convincing leadership to invest time and resources in an untested strategy—especially one that might raise critical perspectives of the status quo.
“As research administrators, we have institutional requirements that are very quantitative,” explains Holmes. “This is a constant battle, as our funders, the government, our institution, and our board all appreciate having access to big numbers. But [these numbers] don't tell us anything about quality—who our people are and how we are doing.”
We advise our clients to ensure that decision-makers are fully informed about why and how they propose to seek qualitative data. Demonstrate how the information you receive will be used to guide effective solutions that can support your teams to truly thrive.
3. Create a Supportive Environment for Listening.
Collecting qualitative data isn't always easy. It requires facilitators who are trained in active listening, who can create safer spaces for open conversations, and who can maintain the trust of participants that their stories will remain confidential.
We recommend that organizations bring in an external facilitator, as their presence enables staff to share their experiences openly and honestly, without fear of reprisal or bias. Additionally, internal employees and leaders may become defensive or resist change when they hear critical feedback. A third party can present findings and recommendations in a way that’s less likely to trigger defensive reactions, eliciting a more constructive response.
“As a privileged white lady who wants to do well by this work, I don't necessarily have the tools,” says Holmes. “It was really important to have experts decide this process and act as a neutral third party. They were also incredibly helpful in managing my expectations and giving me the motivation and the language that I needed to start to socialize these processes within the institution.”
4. Establish Processes for Ongoing Consent and Confirmation.
Sharing personal experiences within a workplace, particularly harmful ones, can be a deeply uneasy experience for many people. To feel confident that they won’t face repercussions for their honesty, it’s vital that facilitators respect the confidentiality of the sessions, and provide space for participants to validate any reports or recommendations made as a result of their contributions.
When leading this work, our teams de-personalize and aggregate the stories we hear. We look for common themes among what’s shared, and identify emerging priorities that reflect the unique experiences of all participants.
Finally, we always schedule “What We Heard” sessions, where all participants have the opportunity to hear a summary of the information we gathered, understand how their feedback may or may not have been elevated for consideration, and validate or critique our assessment.
5. Act on the Findings.
At Evenings & Weekends, we’re not in the business of writing reports that will sit on a shelf. Before we embark on any qualitative research project, we ask organizations to commit to be transparent with participants about what findings were unearthed, to take action on the issues that they can address, and to communicate with their teams where change isn’t yet possible.
In making this commitment, organizations come away from our work together with a roadmap for sustained improvement, rather than a short-term fix.
“I feel like it’s a really great opportunity for us as a unit in a much larger institution to demonstrate leadership on this front,” says Krista. “Now, we can work with the willing to build more momentum across the institution. Now nobody can pretend that they don't know, or that there aren't recommendations for how to do this.”