Dr John Whittle is a sociologist (with specialisms in gender, identity and power), insight expert and senior researcher at diversity and inclusion specialist consultancy Versiti.
If you’re new to FFS, otherwise known as Futureheads Five Stories, this is a regular interview series where we speak to people who have interesting stories to tell.
And we couldn’t resist the acronym.
What’s the story of your career so far?
I’ve always been fascinated by the way people think and behave.
I did my PhD at Loughborough, which focused on gender, identity and digital practices among Millennials.
A professor once told me that studying sociology would either make me a cynic, or want to change the world, and I guess I fall (rather idealistically) into the second category.
While I love academia, it can feel a bit removed from the real world. Companies, on the other hand, (sometimes) seize new opportunities, and move the needle with more urgency.
It’s a really interesting time for businesses – the consumer social contract is being rewritten, and boardrooms are under pressure to make big changes. However, more often than not, these bigger companies are still led by a room of (majority) white men who don’t understand the true value of diversity, think of it as just a moral issue and don’t understand how to connect with a fast-changing world.
The thing is, regardless of the moral argument, nailing diversity and inclusion makes so much business sense – it boosts profits and improves staff retention.
Working with Versiti has given me the chance to study people and organisations closely, and solve some big problems. Every day is different, but that’s the way I work best.
What advice would you give to yourself when you were just starting out?
The research will save you.
Even after all these years, when the research is in, I still get a pang of doubt about whether it’s going to meet the objectives. But, as long as the thinking is there, it will deliver the evidence you need to drive big changes.
I’d also probably tell myself to never underestimate that educating people on diversity and inclusion is a process that requires tact and understanding. At Versiti, our inclusive transformation cycle starts by holding a mirror up and highlighting behaviours that people can find uncomfortable, which contribute to inequality and poor business performance. It’s key to manage these situations in a way that leads to positive outcomes – which can be quite a challenge!
Those with power don’t often see the value of these discussions straight away – or perhaps they think that they were already being inclusive. And, of course, no one wants to feel bad about their behaviour, so it’s important that this process is handled with care. My role is to guide people through a journey of awareness about the history they carry and the place they hold in the power structures that make up society. It’s an amazing thing to be a part of, but it definitely needs a lot of thought in order to keep things moving forward progressively.
What do you love most about what you do?
I love the variety. I can get bored easily, so this suits me perfectly! I get to spend my days learning about people, and businesses, and unpacking all that brings.
It’s an overused word, but I love insight – making connections between data to create evidence-driven frameworks that come to life and enable real change.
What’s the most important lesson you’ve learned over the course of your career?
In sociology, the saying goes that the moment you accept something the way it is, you’ve failed in your work. There’s always another layer. It’s not always obvious, sometimes it takes a while to find the next level or a specific framework to help you crack the code, but there is always a need to dig deeper and question everything we think we know.
As a white man, I spend a lot of time thinking about my own privilege and how it may impact on my experience and that of others around me. I do my best to make sure I’m not taking this privilege for granted, and that I’m wielding that influence and credibility for good, and generally aim to have a net positive impact. But in the shifting sands of modern society, there are always more layers to uncover and more challenges (personal or business based) that arise.
What do you think is going to be the biggest challenge in our industry over the next twelve months?
The climate of political uncertainty means that people are hesitant to spend their cash on anything they don’t trust. And with so much consumer choice in every sector you can think of, this means that brands have to work a lot harder to show their value to their customers.
Brands have to think about how they can prove that their product or service is worth investing in – that they have the credentials to add value to their customers. The only way to do that is to genuinely empathise with your customers – and your employees (after all, your credibility comes from your employees). This means getting under the hood to understand the needs of these groups, to ensure you’re able to engage with them in an authentic way.
A little bit more about John
John is a sociologist, researcher and strategy consultant. On the face of it, little seems to prepare John for his deep passion and commitment to inclusion, but he has deep expertise in gender – first as an academic and now as a Diversity and Inclusion researcher and practitioner with Versiti. His PhD focused on gender identity, in particular how both masculinity and femininity are constructed and performed in various contexts. This sharpened his understanding of what organisations need to do to stamp out policies and practices that have a negative impact on gender equality and what structures need to be established to promote inclusion. In a way, John’s background makes it easier to have challenging conversations with clients whose privileged position he shares.
John’s recent work at Versiti helped tackle gender discrimination in recruitment for one of the major management consultancies, transform a global strategic communication and engagement company, generate insight into the drivers of media consumption among minority audiences for a prominent UK broadcaster, and challenge public attitudes towards disabled people for a national charity.
John’s methodological rigour and digital research know-how also see him regularly teaching research skills and ‘best practice’ techniques in the market research industry.
When he’s not head down in work, you’ll find him focused on his other passion – honing his athletic, gymnastic and lifting skills to win Crossfit competitions and helping others get fit.
You can connect with him on LinkedIn.
John also came into Futureheads HQ to deliver a session on the commercial value of diversity and inclusion – here are our takeaways.
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