How think tanks can boost diversity and inclusion by working together

Author(s): Grant Dalton

January 10, 2023

As a sector that seeks to represent the views and interests of society when examining public policy, think tanks should expect to be representative of, or at least listening to, the whole of society. But as previous work from Smart Thinking, the Social Mobility Commission and others has shown, the policy sector and think tanks in particular may not be as diverse or inclusive as they should be.

In response to these worries, the Institute for Government has produced a report on the ethnic and socio-economic diversity of the think tank sector to try to understand why some perspectives might be missing, and propose solutions. Our new report, Diversity and Inclusion in the Think Tank Sector, aims to answer some of these questions.

What we did

We started out by looking at how the diversity of think tank staff compares on key metrics to society as a whole, London (where many think tanks are based), university students (the pool from which think tanks normally recruit), and cohorts recruited in different sectors like the civil service fast stream. The answer to this question will vary by individual think tank, but we include a list of benchmarks that organisations can use to see how diverse they are.

We then spoke to people working on similar issues in other think tanks and sectors to work out what possible barriers to entry for certain groups might be, and what policy changes could make a difference. We also sent round a survey to students and early-career policy workers from minority ethnicity or lower socio-economic backgrounds, followed up by three focus groups, to explore these issues further and hear the perspectives of those who are not fully represented in the sector.

What we found

Those we spoke to, especially students, often didn’t know much about the sector, but what opinions they did have about think tanks tended to be negative. They felt that think tanks were not a good cultural fit for them, and in the words of one participant were “really white and middle class… [and] not even trying to improve that”. They feared they would have to adapt how they spoke and behaved to fit into the sector.

They also worried about precarity and progression. People without much financial support in particular said they were not prepared to apply for jobs in the sector which were short term, unpaid or didn’t offer opportunities to progress. Many of those we spoke to were interested in the work think tanks do, and wanted to make an impact with their careers, but didn’t really understand what day-to-day life at a think tank involved. Some interviewees also expressed concern that most think tank jobs were based in London, so would be hard to access for those without family in the capital.

What we propose

These problems are deep seated, but can be addressed. Think tanks should be open about their funding, mission and the diversity of staff they employ, to tackle perceptions of elitism. They should offer fairly paid, entry-level jobs (as the IfG does) and proudly advertise the sorts of jobs their early-career employees go on to get. And they should do more to reach out to people who might be interested in the sector – by providing information to university careers services, which are disproportionately used by underrepresented groups, for instance, and by creating resources for sixth form students.

But better outreach is not necessarily enough. While improving perceptions can help, many will also have recruitment processes that implicitly if unintentionally discriminate against candidates from less privileged backgrounds, resulting in a less diverse set of recruits than the original candidate pool. For example, civil service fast stream data shows that white applicants are around twice as likely to be given a job at the end of the recruitment process than their Black counterparts. Think tanks should study the outcomes of different ethnic and socio-economic groups who apply for their jobs. Our report lays out a number of practical ways organisations that find their recruitment processes do discriminate can address the issue.

But most importantly the sector needs to work together. Many of these problems are difficult to solve on an individual level. Think tanks need collective action to create a cross-sector graduate scheme, and co-ordinate university outreach. And last but not least, they should improve representation at events and in the media. In the words of one focus group participant:

“I think for me representation does matter in terms of leadership at our leading think tanks. Recently I was watching the news and for the first time I saw a Black female who was chief exec of a think tank… That really caught my eye because normally when I’m watching the news and think tanks come up, it’s normally a white, very well-educated person, and for me that does stick out a lot… People start looking at these things and being like no, actually there’s someone here who looks like me, talks like me, this might be an interesting career for me”