For this edition of FFS, we're delighted to be joined by Marie-Claude Gervais, a qualitative research strategist and diversity and inclusion expert.

Marie-Claude is also hosting our upcoming Leaders in Change breakfast on the 12th September, where she'll be speaking on Reframing Diversity.

Aimed at leaders driving big changes, her talk will go beyond pious intentions and well-rehearsed arguments about increased innovation and productivity and empower leaders to respond effectively and drive real change – both from inside and outside their organisations. Get in touch if you'd like to attend, spaces are limited.

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. We aim to find out more about their career in the digital world, and the lessons they've learnt along the way.

And we couldn’t resist the acronym.

What’s the story of your career so far?

You might regret asking! It is long and tortuous.

Because my mum was a single parent working full time, she had neither the time to spend summers with us nor the money to put all three kids in summer camps. So I started working when I was twelve and have never really stopped since. As a kid, I was also earning good money doing TV and radio ads for the likes of KFC and Aquafresh.

My first ‘proper’ job was at the Montreal Stock Exchange. Over four years, I held all sorts of roles. I worked in the Communications department, preparing the radio news reports on trading activity. I gave guided tours of the Exchange to tourists and investors. I devised a system to evaluate the performance of traders on the floor. I co-developed, with a truly empowering boss and mentor, the first-ever training programme for traders. The award-winning programme was later exported to the New York Stock Exchange and the Bourse de Paris. 

While I was studying for my BSc and MSc in Sociology at the Université de Montréal, I worked as a research assistant. This continued after I moved to London to do my PhD in Social Psychology at the LSE. A lot of people ask me what Social Psychology is about. Put simply, it is a social science that aims to understand people in context: how situations shape who we are and what we feel, think and do. This is different from individual psychology, which is about understanding how our personal experiences, primarily in infancy, determine who we become.

As an academic Social Psychologist, most of my time was spent giving lectures and supervising postgraduate research on such topics as social representations (the shared ideas people have as members of a group and the process of both integrating these ideas and of challenging them), attitudes (how people feel about things as a function of their social representations), attributions (how people attribute causes and intentions – it’s less straightforward than it might seem!), and social identity (the ways in which people define themselves, and are defined by others, as members of groups), among other subjects. I was also closely associated with the LSE Methodology Institute, teaching students across the LSE how to do robust qualitative research. 

After many years at the LSE, I had begun to feel that I should use my expertise to impact on the wider world, not just within academia. So, with my ex-husband, I co-founded ETHNOS, a research agency specialising in research with people from ethnic minority backgrounds. This was a very exciting time. New Labour was keen to address inequalities. Some global corporations were waking up to the reality of diversity and the changing social contract between diverse consumers and brands. For a decade, I led research on a huge variety of topics.

Following a divorce, I left the business and became Director at the research agency Quadrangle for a while, before deciding to go it alone. This was mainly motivated by personal reasons: I could not do crazy hours and long commutes. I needed to be home, to settle my kids into their new homes, their new schools and their new lives. Without family around to lend a hand, the only option was to work from home and to do online research, so that I could work long, but very flexible, hours.

About 18 months ago, when it became plain that my teenagers could live without me, I had the great fortune of joining Stephen Cribbett’s company, Further, as Director of Research. My role was to develop a full research service offer for online qual research. That’s doing really well: we have never yet delivered a project that did not lead to repeat business which, to me, is the best indicator of success.

But Stephen and I also decided that we wanted to join forces and create another company that would have a greater social purpose. Building on both our experience and expertise, we co-founded Versiti, a company that works to make organisations, brands, communications and services more inclusive by identifying shortcomings, highlighting opportunities and generating research evidence to drive meaningful change.

What advice would you give to yourself when you were just starting out?

Be curious about everything and be great at one thing. Get exposed to as many opportunities as possible to find out what is possible and what excites you.

What do you love most about what you do?

Working with really brilliant colleagues on a fabulous range of briefs – anything from understanding societal attitudes to blindness, to reducing ethnic differences in cancer outcomes, to rebranding a global corporation, to helping large consultancies reduce their gender pay gap. I just love the variety of the briefs that come our way!

What’s the most important lesson you’ve learned over the course of your career?

Never burn bridges. But also, if you want to make a difference, find people who also want to make a difference. Don’t waste your time fighting inertia.

What do you think is going to be the biggest challenge in our industry over the next twelve months?

In the research industry, I see two big problems. First, the constant pressure to do things faster and cheaper, which will mean automation, poorer quality, and less genuinely positive innovation. And second, the inability to see the wood from the tree, as brands and researchers are drowning in masses of data from which they don’t know how to extract meaning and direction.

In relation to diversity and inclusion more specifically, there is a danger that inequalities, such as the gender pay gap could become ‘normalised’ and no longer seen as shocking. This would make it much more difficult to galvanise people to demand change.

A little bit about Marie-Claude

Marie-Claude is a leading expert on diversity and inclusion. She was a Lecturer at the London School of Economics, teaching both Social Psychology and Qualitative Research Methods for seven years before co-founding one of the UK’s most successful agencies specialising in research with people from minority ethnic backgrounds.

She has led research programmes in a range of areas including arts and culture, education, employment and business, housing, healthcare, policing, community cohesion and the environment. Her clients include government departments, large charities and some of the world’s biggest brands.

Originally from Montreal, Canada, Marie-Claude takes multiculturalism and equality for granted. She has two mixed-race, mixed-faith teenagers. In her spare time, she sings and wages a losing battle with weeds in her communal garden.

You can connect with Marie-Claude on LinkedIn.

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