Radio NewMR Insight Podcast – Dr Marie-Claude Gervais

Dr Marie-Claude GervaisPosted 5 October 2021

In this Radio NewMR podcast, Dr Marie-Calude Gervais, the Research Director at Versiti talks to Ray Poynter about a recent project on diversity that won an MRS award. Marie-Claude shows how four young people, representing a diverse group were recruited and trained as peer moderators.

Dr Marie-Claude Gervais is Research Director at Versiti. A former Lecturer at the London School of Economics, Marie-Claude is a social psychologist and qualitative methodologist with more than 20 years’ experience helping brands and organisations identify and cater to the needs of ‘seldom heard’ groups (e.g. ethnic minority communities, LGBTQ+ people, disabled people, etc.). Her multi-award winning work straddles the corporate, government and third sectors.

Automated Podcast Transcript

Note, this transcript was produced using automatically by HappyScribe, it should be 80+% accurate – but it may contain some gremlins. The timelines are included to help you get to a specific portion of the audio file.

[00:00:11.060] – Ray Poynter

Hi, Ray Poynter here from NewMR, and I’m going to be bringing you another podcast from Radio NewMR. And today I’m delighted to have with me, Dr Marie-Claude Gervais, the research director, at Versiti. Marie-Claude is going to be chatting to us today about an award Versiti won recently at the MRS conference and the work that led to that award. Hi, Marie-Claude.

[00:00:34.220] – Marie-Claude Gervais

Hi. Thank you for inviting me.

[00:00:38.630] – Ray Poynter

Great. Have you here? Marie-Claude, perhaps you can start by giving our listeners a little bit of background to you and also Versiti?

[00:00:48.200] – Marie-Claude Gervais

Sure. So I’m Marie-Claude Gervais, originally from Montreal, from Canada. I’m French speaking, so the name. I’ve been in the UK for 30 years now. I came here first to do my PhD, so I lectured at the London School of Economics in Social Psychology. So that’s really focusing on understanding the way people think and feel and behave. So, it has a very wide applications so you can imagine across various sectors. And eventually I wanted to have a more direct impact. I think, on society, not just teaching others but actually bringing about change myself.

[00:01:24.700] – Marie-Claude Gervais

So, I left academia and created research agency that specialises in understanding people from ethnic minority backgrounds. And then my kind of interest around diversity and inclusion grew really with every project. I became more and more interested in finding out what are the various inequalities and what causes them, what can be done about them, not just to ethnicity but various minority groups, so that can include people who are LGBTQ+ or disabled people, women, older people, whatever.

[00:01:58.060] – Ray Poynter

Moving to the recent MRS awards, can you tell us what award it was and how you won it?

[00:02:05.800] – Marie-Claude Gervais

Sure. So this was the MRS Impact 2021 award. So the MRS is the world’s largest Association of market and social researchers. It has 60,000 members, in the UK mainly, but also around the world. And Impact is the annual conference of the MRS. So, this year, for the first time because of holding the conference online, and instead of having a range of judges that are kind of selected by the MRS to go around the conference and pick the presentations that they think are potentially award winning.

[00:02:42.290] – Marie-Claude Gervais

There was only one award and that was the Audience Award. So everybody ploughed through the 56 submissions and I’m really, really proud and delighted that Versiti has been voted the one and only winner of Impact Conference at 2021 of this year. The Audience Award.

[00:03:03.120] – Ray Poynter

Fantastic. So, to dig a little deeper. Perhaps you can tell us about the project and the team and what you did.

[00:03:10.980] – Marie-Claude Gervais

Absolutely. So, this was a project for an organisation called the Youth Futures Foundation so that’s an endowment charity. They have a budget of about £90 million and their role is to really structure the youth employment sector, trying to help as many young people as possible, keep and find good jobs early in the Pandemic. In April 2020, I got in touch with that Foundation, the Youth Futures Foundation, because like everybody else, I think I could see in the news that youth unemployment was three times higher than the the job losses amongst older adults, that ethic minority people were twice more likely to report that they’d lost their jobs.

[00:03:59.290] – Marie-Claude Gervais

In the first two months of the pandemic, ethnic minority households saw a reduction in their income of 46%, whereas white households a reduction in their income of 28%, so much greater loss of income as a proportion for ethnic minority households, we could hear about mental illness, all sorts of problems. So, I approached this foundation and said I don’t know what you’re doing about what seems to be mounting evidence of ethnic inequalities in the of COVID-19 on the employment of young people is complicated, but I think I can help.

[00:04:39.860] – Marie-Claude Gervais

So, they said, okay, that’s a good idea. Why not send us a proposal, which I did. And, after a few rounds of negotiations, we got a contract and then went about creating a very innovative approach to delivering this. It felt to me that, although I’ve been working in the area of diversity and inclusion for 25 years, and I think I can say confidently, I’m an expert on this, it still didn’t feel right that as a white, middle aged middle class woman would lead the conversation with young ethnic minority people who are having a tough time.

[00:05:18.270] – Marie-Claude Gervais

And I also wanted to use this project as an opportunity to recruit more diverse young people, skill them up, train them to become peer researchers and to understand the communities out there whose needs are so often not heard in mainstream research. We recruited four young people. So Cynthia Co, who is Chinese, Malaysian but born in the Netherlands and living in London, Lucas Rehman, who is a mix of Canadian and Pakistani born here. Shae Eccleston a Black Caribbean woman and Amarah Khan a Bangladeshi young woman, a British Bangladeshi.

[00:06:08.320] – Marie-Claude Gervais

And we recruited and trained them in terms of how to do online research. So using a particular platform together that it’s a platform that’s run by a company called Further for Online research community projects. It’s very good. So we train them into that using that technology and how to do good online research, how to moderate and how to tease out people’s experiences while not imposing your own views and controlling for biases. Because, on the one hand, we wanted these young people to draw on their whole experience to enrich the whole research project, but at the same time, they also needed to not lead participants and generate biases.

[00:06:53.940] – Marie-Claude Gervais

We also because we knew the topic was likely to be difficult, challenging, sensitive. We trained these young people and provided safeguarding. So they all went through an NSPCC Safeguarding course and got a certificate which they can then take with them. They were DBS checked, all sorts of basic but sound project management work, and they then worked. They also helped to create research activities that would be meaningful and get the language right and explore the wealth of different issues and perspectives and experiences that young people go through in a language that they could relate to.

[00:07:34.690] – Marie-Claude Gervais

And then they were online moderating the discussion. So we brought 70 diverse young people online for two weeks and our small team of young moderators then moderated the discussion for those two weeks. And of course, one of the benefits of doing the research in that way is that I, as a research director, was supervising all of these interactions online and I could have, like an Observer, I could see how people were in my team, how they were moderating, if they were perhaps leading or missing a trick, not probing where they perhaps should have done, I could really teach them and make sure that no stones were left on turn and the tone of voice was right.

[00:08:24.360] – Marie-Claude Gervais

I would get them to correct the typos and teaching the basic things so that it felt and looked professional. And yeah, they’ve been such an amazing experience. I think in a sense, we won this award for the process, really, as much as for the insights, the insights are going to be published. So the Youth Futures Foundation will have a report published on their website. If you want to find out more, I’m sure I’ll have a link to share eventually, but I think it’s more that we almost provided a blueprint for how to do inclusive research for the industry that we certainly hope is going to get replicated by others.

[00:09:05.240] – Ray Poynter

It’s really interesting and I will ask you a couple more questions about that in a moment. Just for those listeners from outside of the UK, probably a couple of the sets of initials you used there. The NSPCC is a British charity that looks after the interests of children, and I think that was the people who ran the course that you are talking about. And the DBS background chck is something that’s recognised by the UK government, which ensures that we have no bad actors who are dealing with young people as well.

[00:09:36.730] – Ray Poynter

So that was just a quick clarification, as I say, for the out of town listeners. Now, how did the four new researchers take to the role? Do they find it a strange process? Do they envisage themselves using these techniques going forward? Might they possibly be researchers in the future?

[00:09:57.280] – Marie-Claude Gervais

Yeah, absolutely. So I don’t know if they found. It strange. I think that they found really empowering. They really took to this and we made it very clear from the word go that the process was going to be as egalitarian as we could make it and that this was a space for their voices to be heard. We really wanted their input in the whole process. Why else would we have put ourselves through a somewhat demanding process. I must say so clearly. It’s because we really wanted their input and they would all say that they have felt listened to and heard, I believe so.

[00:10:40.940] – Marie-Claude Gervais

Cynthia has joined the business on a permanent basis four days a week, which is wonderful. Shae is also working on a part time basis three days a week, continuing to support us. Lucas is going to be moderating other research projects for us, and Amarah is not doing research for now, but she’s working in community advocacy and I think she’s been very much emboldened and empowered by this project. So absolutely. This is about giving people the skills and access to this profession. I have done completely different project commissioned by the Mrs to the Market Research Society to do the industry wide survey of diversity and inclusion across the sector, and that survey has really found that we have a little bit of work to do in order to become more diverse, more inclusive.

[00:11:43.910] – Marie-Claude Gervais

So this project, which is a foundation, is also a bit of a response to having identified that problem in our industry. So when I say that Versiti exists to supply evidence to drive change around equity, inclusion, understanding diverse audiences, minoritised groups, we live and die by that, and all our work is really organised along that goal.

[00:12:14.120] – Ray Poynter

You mentioned that one of the four is moving into advocacy, which brings me back to actually doing something. On the Versiti website I noticed a quote which I made a note of. So we use research, evidence and insight to create a fairer and more inclusive society. Now, when I read that, two things caught my eye, the first one was simply the domain how to improve Inclusivity. And you’ve spoken to that, but also the intention to bring about change. And this seems to be much more Proactive, less passive than the position that most research and most researchers take.

[00:12:50.390] – Ray Poynter

So do you see the role Versiti as a researcher or really as a change agent?

[00:12:56.340] – Marie-Claude Gervais

I think both. It’s a really good question, and this in a sense, raises very much deeper questions about it’s almost epistemological question about the status of evidence. Are we there to be neutral and present objective, factual, kind of value free evidence, whatever that might look like, or are we specifically aiming to change things through the evidence that we produce? Now, for me, the two go together, I don’t see a necessary opposition between the two. I can see this belongs to very difficult, different philosophical schools. For me, it doesn’t take away anything about objectivity integrity, independence that I focus on change.


[00:13:50.980] – Marie-Claude Gervais

It just means that I ask different questions to begin with about different issues. So it’s not that the process is less objective. It’s that I pick an issue where I think that the evidence will help drive equity in society. So whether it is here understanding ethnic and age inequalities in the effects of COVID. This is not that the research is not as rigorous than as any other project, but I’ve picked a topic where I think there are inequities that I can help shed light on. So it’s more of that, rather than losing objectivity or independence.

[00:14:30.350] – Ray Poynter

Great. So we’re getting towards the end of our time slot, so perhaps you could outline your thoughts on where do you think research is going next? Where is Versiti going next? And, of course, where are you? Where your aims, objectives, hopes in the near future?