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Equality initiatives: how do we know they’re working?

ECU's Freya Douglas examines how the thoughts, opinions and experiences of staff and students can be a vital tool in measuring progress on equality

We are all doing so much to advance equality and diversity; we have various equality objectives or outcomes, action plans, projects and initiatives underway. But do we really know what difference we’re making for our staff and students with protected characteristics? Are they more included, progressing further in our institutions, are relations better between groups?

We all know that the work we do is benefiting people in our institutions. We hear their success stories every day. The student with a mental health difficulty who received support and completed their degree, the mother of three who has returned to complete their course with no lost time, the professor of engineering making changes in their department to facilitate progression of women. We know our work is worthwhile.

The difficulty is that the world requires hard evidence, not just a good story or two, and we have to show progress, continual improvement, and impact for the people we are trying to reach.

It is not easy to measure the impact of equality work as so much of it relates to people’s experiences, attitudes, behaviours, awareness and knowledge. But these things are the vital indicators of equality, and so we must try to find a way to use them in our work.

Experience, attitudes and knowledge lend themselves to qualitative measurement, to being captured and analysed using qualitative evidence. In our world, this means staff or students’ thoughts, opinions and accounts, often expressed in survey responses, focus groups, interviews, meetings or conversations.

But what can this evidence tell us? In isolation, perhaps not very much further than one person’s lived experience (as important as this is). When we put it together with other evidence, qualitative or quantitative, themes and patterns can emerge. We can see how included people feel, how an initiative changed people’s opinions, how students feel they are treated and respected, peoples’ attitudes to reasonable adjustments, flexible working or career progression. We can use this evidence to illuminate the reality of our work in a way quantitative evidence on its own cannot.

It is often difficult to measure change or impact, but we can be clever when we design our evidence collection. We can gather it at the start, during and end of an activity and we can ask questions that elicit reflection on changes. This can help us to track progress and change in lived experiences, and tie these to our work. With a bit of pre-planning, this can enable us to tell powerful stories about the difference our work really makes.

Five steps to measuring progress

We’ve put together a five step process to help you plan what, how and when to collect, monitor and analyse qualitative evidence.

  1. Establish: identify qualitative baselines
  2. Formulate: qualitative indicators to measure progress and impact over time
  3. Review: use qualitative evidence to monitor progress
  4. Analyse: drawing conclusions from the evidence of progress
  5. Report: create a picture of progress