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Diversity in think tanks: what needs to change?

September 8, 2020 #Insights
Diversity in think tanks: what needs to change?
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Denean Rowe – Senior Development Officer at Centre for London
Katy Murray – Senior Account Manager at Cast From Clay

This article first appeared in On Think Tanks on 31 August 2020.

The disproportionate impact of COVID-19 on people of Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic (BAME) heritage, combined with widespread protests after George Floyd was killed by a police officer in the US, has put diversity and inclusion back at forefront of global debate.

This debate isn’t new. Each time the world is reminded of the racial and economic inequalities of our societies, we discuss it anew. Companies, big and small, make statements about the need to better represent the people and communities they serve… for a while. And then things go quiet again.

Still, we can hope that this time it will be different.

But for that to happen, organisational structures and practices need to change. And who better to take a lead than think tanks, who pride themselves on working towards mid-to-long-term positive change in society?

By committing to making changes to hiring practices and engaging non-elitist audiences, think tanks will be able to better serve their missions. Because, in the end, our work is not about policymakers, but about society.

If we don’t change now, think tanks are in danger of becoming irrelevant at a time when they are needed the most.

First, think tanks should acknowledge that they are elitist

At Chatham House’s recent Future of Think Tanks event, Dr Richard Haass, President of the Council on Foreign Relations said: ‘We can’t just be elite or establishment organisations.’

He’s right.

Staff teams of many think tanks reveal a lack of diversity. Even in the UK’s think tank capital London, where 40.2% of people identify as BAME, a quick look at the staff pages of leading think tanks confirms that they are mostly led by people who are white, educated in elite institutions, and have policy backgrounds. And this homogeneity in leadership often carries through into the rest of their teams.

Someone who is bright and politically engaged – and who believes in the contribution think tanks make in developing policy solutions that benefit the public – may consider applying for a job in a think tank.  But they won’t see themselves reflected in the existing staff and are left thinking: ‘I don’t fit the profile of the team’ and ‘even if I am hired, I might not match up, let alone fit in’. If you can’t see it, then you can’t be it.

Watch Denean Rowe talk about discrimination in think tanks.

It’s not difficult to imagine the pain and frustration this causes to those who want to contribute but are told, subconsciously, ‘this is not for you’.

It also harms think tanks, because diversity is good for business. Recent findings show that workplaces that are more diverse at all levels show increased financial growth and regularly outperform other organisations.

Think tanks are often distanced from the people that their work concerns

For think tanks, it’s not just a moral or resource question. It’s also a question of relevance.

Recent Cast From Clay polling found that two thirds of UK Members of Parliament agree that think tanks are vehicles for the middle class. And earlier research found that 68% of ‘political insiders’ agree that think tanks represent the interests of the elite.

In a time when more and more politicians are gaining favour from the public by painting themselves as non-elite and non-establishment, this raises questions about the relevance of think tanks, even to their core audience of political insiders.

Think tank outputs too (lengthy reports with technical language and a lofty tone of voice) often favour an audience of academics and policy professionals, instead of a more practitioner or public audience: ‘the medium is the message’.

Interested members of the public will, in turn, struggle to engage with the arguments in these reports, never mind understand how the policy recommendations play into everyday life.

Think tanks aim to show credibility in their work. But the status quo for comms is still often: credibility = exclusivity.

We don’t think it has to be that way. Moreover, if think tanks continue on this path they risk remaining not only both irrelevant and actively mistrusted by the public, but becoming irrelevant to their traditional policy audiences too.

When recruiting, it is time to think outside of the box

Breaking away from ‘hiring in your own image’ is fundamental for think tanks to remain relevant. One way to do this is by branching out in the way that they recruit new team members, and their criteria for what ‘good’ looks like.

In the UK, many academic institutions that think tanks commonly hire from do not admit enough BAME students. This means that think tanks will need to invest in actively seeking out people whose academic backgrounds and lived experience differ from their current colleagues.

The benefits of this are two-fold. It will help to ensure that people working for think tanks work with people whose experiences are different from theirs. It will also help people from marginalised groups to see that they, too, belong in this world and can make a difference.

Don’t just recruit more diversity without expecting and embracing change

Recruiting more diverse people at junior levels will lead to a pipeline of more diverse senior staff members in the future. But this assumes they remain in the sector, which they may not if they are continually made to feel not entirely welcome.

If you feel like the odd one out, are constantly asked to represent the ‘minority view’ in each meeting, are passed over for promotions because of unconscious bias or a narrow view of what talent and leadership looks like, you may decide this sector is not for you.

Recruitment needs to be backed by retention strategies – if you change your recruitment strategy but not your culture, nothing will change.

Make your work more inclusive

The model of knowledge sharing also has to change if we want to be more inclusive.

Most importantly, putting the story – not the report – at the heart of your communications plans.

Such a shift can free you up to take a more creative approach to credible, evidence-based outputs. Like Mona Chalabi’s data visualisations, which tell accessible stories through data, but also through illustrations that centre a human narrative. Or work that puts people impacted by the issue at the forefront.

Doing so will help think tank work travel outside of the policy bubble, into to the communities it concerns, and to start to shift views of think tanks away from being establishment, elite, and shadowy.

Image credit: Clay Banks on Unsplash.

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