Finding a Balance

  • Research
  • 23 March 2024

How to ensure Equality, Diversity and Inclusion is for everyone

Many of the key institutions of our public lives have developed increasingly sophisticated Equality, Diversity and Inclusion (EDI) strategies over the last decade. Placing the spotlight on inequalities and injustices related to gender, race, disability, sexuality and age, these strategies have sought to reshape our workplaces, universities, schools, museums and other cultural centres.

Much of this has clearly been for the good. Nonetheless, recent years have also witnessed the emergence of a potentially significant backlash, both inside and outside institutions themselves. We feel that the many public versions of these arguments have been unhelpfully aggressive and polarising. They have created new frictions and tensions within institutions and greater distrust beyond them.

In an era of intense polarisation, progress on matters of EDI may only be possible if there are more sober and sensible conversations. But how must institutions go about building sustainable support for EDI? How can they achieve a more stable, less contested, future for EDI? Answering such questions, we believe, must begin with what the people of this country actually think.

In this report we draw on national polling and focus groups to uncover the public's starting points on EDI, the perceived role of institutions, and a path towards a more effective approach.

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Key Findings

The public support for EDI

Recent years have seen a number of high profile, polarised and occasionally acrimonious debates about Equality, Diversity and Inclusion (EDI). These debates between activists, politicians, practitioners and columnists give the impression of deep, binary divides on the merits (or harms) of embracing EDI.

This binary does not however reflect public opinion. The British public are five times more likely to say that EDI is a good, rather than a bad, thing - and support for EDI extends across Britain. The public are also more likely than not to think that EDI leads to fairer outcomes and that they personally benefit from EDI practice - most people do not see EDI in zero sum terms. That sentiment is not limited to the most progressive segments of the UK but extends across more socially conservative groups too.

Grounding EDI in the everyday

Where people do have concerns it tends to be on how individual EDI training, policies and practices are implemented rather than EDI per se. These concerns emerge when EDI is seen as a tick box exercise, where organisations get the balance of EDI activities wrong or if  EDI activity isn’t tailored to the job or institution in question. A key theme that emerges from polling and conversations with the public is that EDI is best received when it is grounded in people’s everyday work and a shared sense of decency.  EDI that is relevant and actionable, rather than at the level of abstract debates, is far more likely to land with the public. This is a key condition of building sustainable support for EDI.

Building an inclusive approach

Creating a culture of curiosity and opportunity to learn is important. Around half of Britons worry about saying the wrong thing on EDI and seven in ten say that people are made to feel stupid for not saying the right thing. The public do not believe that a castigating approach to EDI works, and fewer than three in ten think it helpful to criticise people for making mistakes on diversity issues.  Sometimes the passion of those most committed to EDI is received as intolerance by less engaged audiences.

EDI frames should avoid reinforcing ‘us vs them’ dynamics. While some - particularly the most progressive segment of the population - find frames such as ‘white privilege’ helpful, most do not. Framed differently however, every segment - including the most socially conservative - believe that there remain areas of British life where ethnic minorities suffer discrimination compared to white people. Explaining how EDI promotes merit, hard work and performance can help assuage the worries of those who think it is sometimes used as an excuse for poor performance. Similarly, showing how EDI benefits a range of groups - including those who experience prejudice on the basis of class - is likely to build greater support.

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Free speech and institutional advocacy

While nearly nine in ten think that free speech is one of the most important rights in the UK, and six in ten think it is under threat, they do not think it is an unqualified right. A clear majority believe it appropriate for someone to lose their job for making grossly offensive comments in the workplace, though they make a distinction between in and out of work. Britons from more progressive and more socially conservative segments believe that it is important that young people are exposed to a range of views  - but also think there are circumstances where no-platforming is appropriate.


Institutions should be intentional in deciding when to take public stances on EDI issues. Sometimes it will fall within the remit of cultural institutions to lead the way in navigating these debates, but institutions risk losing public trust if they are perceived as deviating from the core mission. The public overwhelmingly prefers a ‘retain and explain’ approach to historic artefacts or buildings.  Crucially, for institutions and workplaces alike, the public expect EDI work to start with treating employees and customers well, before engaging in external advocacy on other issues of concern.

Recommendations for building and maintaining support for EDI:

  1. Tailor EDI activities to the employer or institution: Linking EDI to people’s day to day roles and how to do those roles well is the surest way to build support.
  2. Focus on people not contested concepts: Utilise people’s real world experience and stories and appeal to people’s shared sense of decency and fairness.
  3. Build a culture of curiosity and generosity – not of criticism: EDI should create spaces where people can ask questions and not worry about making mistakes.
  4. Distinguish between inside and outside the workplace/institution: The public are more likely to believe that codes of conduct should be enforced in work.
  5. Embrace merit: Practitioners should build on the public’s conviction that EDI leads to fair outcomes by highlighting how it reduces barriers to opportunity.
  6. Use inclusive framings: Avoiding ‘us vs them’  frames and showing how EDI activity benefits the whole of society, not just particular groups, is important.
  7. Think about messengers and coalitions: Broadening EDI messengers to different parts of the ideological spectrum will expand support.
  8. EDI and free speech go hand in hand: Britons want young people to be exposed to a range of voices, but also think extreme forms of speech can create dangers.
  9. Where possible, retain and explain: Britons favour an approach that provides a ‘warts and all’ understanding of history.
  10. Know when to intervene: Commentary and engagement on issues that are relevant to the institution will receive greater public support. 


Below are a series of quotes from a selection of stakeholders who attended the expert EDI roundtable as part of this project

What’s too often lost in the polarised debates we sometimes see about equality issues – is that the public are fundamentally kind and decent. Most Britons want people to be able to live their lives freely and for everyone to have a chance to reach their potential. Equality, Diversity and Inclusion initiatives can contribute a lot to building that sort of fair society, as this important report shows, those initiatives are likely to be best received when they build on that basic sense of decency and fair play. By focusing on real world stories and approaches that are relevant to people’s jobs and daily experiences EDI can have a far greater impact than simply engaging in more abstract rows that dominate column inches and social media but have very little relevance to people’s everyday

Rt Hon Baroness Morgan of Cotes (Minister for Women and Equalities during the Cameron Government)

This is encouraging research, which reinforces the view that there is more which unites us than divides us, and that most people want to live in a society where everyone is respected and has the capacity to live a life which is valuable and valued.

Helen Mountfield KC (Principal of Mansfield College, Oxford)

Research reveals that stark inequalities continue to persist in this country. Equality, Diversity and Inclusion initiatives (EDI) could play an important role in remedying them. But we currently do not know enough about what works and how EDI’s contribution might best be made. By focusing on how the public understand EDI and when they think it goes well or badly, this report marks an important first step in discovering how EDI might help us achieve the change we need to see.

Imran Rasul (Professor of Economics and Research Director, Institute for Fiscal Studies)

This report importantly demonstrates people's willingness to tackle entrenched inequalities and exclusions in workplaces right across the country. It also reminds those of us responsible for developing the next generation of Equality, Diversity and Inclusion strategies of the importance of doing so in a way that resonates with the diversity of values and interests found across our communities.

Professor Alison Koslowski (UCL Pro-Provost - Equity & Inclusion)