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American Association for Public Opinion Research

2016 Presidential Address

2016 Presidential Address from the AAPOR 71st Annual Conference

A Call for Inclusion: Why AAPOR Needs an Increased Focus to Thrive by Mollyann Brodie



This has truly been an amazing year and I have been humbled and honored to serve as your president. As my friends and colleagues, who are strewn throughout this room, know: I am a bit obsessive in my preparation, and my preparation for this was no different. I have spent the past three months reading every single AAPOR presidential address from the 70 years of our history. All of them. Every word.

And one thing that really struck me during my reading is that so many of the addresses, particularly in the early years, set AAPOR’s agenda in the context of the bigger questions facing our nation, our democracy and our role in the world. The topic I want to talk about today – inclusion and diversity within AAPOR – is really no different. Our country is embroiled in a deep conversation about racial and ethnic tensions, immigration, and about equality in terms of a person’s sexual orientation or gender. We may even be electing our first woman president, following in the heels of our first African American president. Everywhere we look, race and gender politics are front and center. This conversation is the conversation of the moment, but this is also our conversation. It is time for us to have a serious discussion about inclusion for our own businesses, organizations, institutions, and for our AAPOR community.

My proposition to you today is that AAPOR is stronger, better, and considerably more likely to be successful in leading and facing the challenges of an ever-evolving research industry smack in the middle of a “paradigm shift,” as Michael Link argued last year from this podium (2015), if we embrace more fully what has always made us so special. We are a group of individuals with diverse backgrounds, coming from diverse disciplines, and using diverse methods and approaches to “influence and be influenced by each other” (Edelman 2001, 443). And, I would go even further; like our increasingly multicultural country, we need to grow and diversify our organization even more.

WHAT’S THE ISSUE?

Now many of you would say, “Sure, of course, that’s what we are, that’s what we’ve always been – a big diverse tent.” Inclusion is part of our core values; after all, we started as an organization that brought together, albeit with some “prickly” moments, two diverse perspectives – commercial and noncommercial researchers.

But when I think of AAPOR as a “big tent” it goes beyond that one dimension. I think about all the categories we assign ourselves. For example, we identify ourselves – and bring knowledge, opinions and beliefs to our community discussions – by the sector in which we work; by whether we primarily conduct market research, social research or opinion research; by whether we mainly study methods or mainly study the implications of opinion results; by whether we engage mainly in qualitative or quantitative research; by the size of the organization that we work in; by the chapters and regions we belong to; and, yes, by our personal demographic characteristics – our gender, our racial and ethnic identity, our sexual orientation, our religion and our age.

And I’ve heard from many of you who feel that your particular perspective has been overlooked, belittled, or even worse, ignored. For example, I’ve heard from some of you in small research organizations who believe that AAPOR leadership positions aren’t open to you because of structural barriers. I’ve heard from some of you who primarily use nonprobability based sampling frames that you are treated like outsiders and not valued for the expertise that you bring to our task forces and guidance reports. I’ve heard from some of you who study the implications of public opinion that AAPOR only cares about methodologists. And, I’ve heard from some of you who feel that because of your age or your gender AAPOR has barriers to your participation.

I worry about these claims. And, it is true, we do have some serious inequities, but I do not believe that these outcomes come from systematic and intentional exclusion of any group, rather they come from our inattention. That’s often how it happens. We don’t intentionally exclude one group or another. Rather we fail to take affirmative steps to be inclusive. It doesn’t just matter that we let everyone in and encourage everyone to join AAPOR, but we must be more deliberate about engaging diverse perspectives as we plan our programs and offerings, and be more deliberate about who we mentor and foster in our pipelines for leadership roles.

AN EXAMPLE

Let me share one example: gender in AAPOR leadership. I picked this example because it is one arena where we have decent data that can shed light on the issue and frankly because it’s my own personal experience.

This is not the example I would have thought I’d talk about in an AAPOR Presidential Address: I joined AAPOR in 1995, the esteemed Diane Colasanto would be elected VP/President-elect the next year. I was recruited into PAPOR Chapter leadership by Deborah Jay and Susan Pinkus, and I first served on AAPOR Council under back-to-back women presidents – Betsy Martin and Nancy Belden. I worked closely on AAPOR’s journalist education efforts with President Nancy Mathiowetz. Needless to say the lack of gender equality in our leadership was simply not a salient issue for me, nor do I think it was for most people. 

But by the time I was elected vice president, the picture had changed: there were more and more grumblings about all male plenary panels at the annual conference, and we had just experienced a seven-year stretch with only male AAPOR presidents. A fact that was highlighted to me by a chorus of women who came up to me in Anaheim and again in Florida a year later – saying how “happy,” “excited”, “thrilled”, “relieved” they were to see a woman again sitting at the head of the table. In addition to my personal conversations, as a public opinion scholar, I wondered whether the data supported these concerns.

Many of you saw a spectacular post just a few weeks ago by our own Annie Pettit who draws attention to the panel composition at every conference she goes to in conjunction with a nationwide effort called “The Women in Research 50/50 Initiative.” In her 2016 analysis for this very AAPOR conference, she reports 51% female panel participants (Pettit 2016). Like many of you, I was so pleased to see this result, and on that data alone, one might think we don’t have anything to worry about regarding gender in AAPOR.

But then also consider this figure


In the early days, the 1940s, ‘50s and ‘60s, about one in five AAPOR members were female, yet we had no female presidents. But let’s be honest – that was the ‘40s, ‘50s, and ‘60s so the fact that one in five members were women was probably a sign of how progressive our industry has been in terms of gender.  By the end of the ‘70s still about one in five members were female, and we had our first female president, Hope Lunin Klapper, a sociologist who studied and taught mass communication at NYU. In the ‘80s and ‘90s the share of women members increased as did the share of women presidents.  But then over the past 16 years, the share of women members continued to increase, but not the share of our leaders. Even more interesting to me is that when you look behind this data at who was nominated and agreed to run in each election, only once in our history have we ever had a female vs. female ballot race for president. And that period when I served on Council under back-to-back woman presidents? Well, it turns out to be a rare moment in our history, happening just once in our seven decades.

Look at this picture with regard to our AAPOR Award winners.

It is very simple – we have chosen a woman to receive our highest achievement award just five times.  And these patterns are the same when you look at any of the highest profile roles in our association – for example, conference chairs, plenary speakers, and even standards chairs, which I find particularly disconcerting, given its primary role in our history as our very first established committee. 

Now as the conversation on AAPORnet about our slate this year revealed, there could be lots of reasons for outcomes such as these. A slew of good researchable questions immediately were proposed – is it a question of who we are asking to serve or who agrees to run? Are there structural barriers for woman to participate? Or, is it question of who gets elected once they run?   Is this pervasive across all positions and committees or only certain ones? All good and important questions. And, yes, step one for AAPOR is to begin to understand better why these patterns exist in the first place.

But what is clear to me even without those questions answered is that this is a long persistent pattern not intentionally made nor quickly fixed, but due at least in part to us not paying enough attention. The data are scarce, but I suspect that if we looked at some of the other characteristics I mentioned earlier, we might find similar patterns of under-representation for groups such as small business owners or market researchers. And, of course, doing an analysis like this by race and ethnicity would no doubt be equally important and especially revealing.

WHY DOES IT MATTER?

Why does it matter that our leaders don’t look like the rest of our members, or that our members don’t look like the population at large?

Well, it matters because we need all perspectives to solve the complex problems we face as an industry including dealing with the recent TCPA rulings, claims of data fabrication, ongoing concerns about what declining response rates really mean, and questions by journalists and presidential candidates about whether we help or hurt democracy. We need all the differences of opinion to challenge one another and expand our thinking.  We need all sorts of skills, styles and approaches. In fact, much of the published empirical research demonstrates the importance of diversity in teams. For example, a 2010 article shows more diverse groups have more creative thinking, bringing divergent ideas together and allowing new and innovative ideas to thrive (Stahl et al. 2010).

And, I’ll use the tent analogy once more to argue why else I believe it’s so important for us to welcome and serve people from assorted backgrounds. For all you campers out there, you know that if a tent is all closed up over time, it will get stale, rancid, uninviting. It needs ventilation – it needs the “breath of fresh air” – and we need the same, or we will be stuck operating in the past.  Instead of growing and leading during this crucial and precarious time, we risk becoming irrelevant to new generations of researchers.

Now, I admit that I have been struggling mightily as I thought about how to talk with you about this topic today, because suggesting that we need to be a “big tent” in terms of embracing varied methodological approaches, or sectors, or any other professional category, is consistent with our history and frankly not that provocative – as long as I add the caveat that we only want those diverse folks who are willing to subscribe to our code of professional standards and ethics, which of course is the tie that binds us. And, I do believe we should be a place for everyone who is interested in what the public thinks, believes and does. From the data scientist, to the federal employee, to the single-shop entrepreneur who conducts market research, to the academic scholar from any discipline involved in understanding opinions and behaviors, I want them all to feel, as I do, like AAPOR is their home. This is a key piece of my message to you today.

But, I am also taking this further to argue that it is equally important to consider personal characteristics like gender, race and age in promoting participation and leadership opportunities. Why do personal characteristics matter to the health and vitality of our professional organization?  Well, it matters because we bring different styles and approaches and perspectives based on our personal characteristics. For example, a review of gender and leadership found that women managers have a different leadership style than men (Eagly and Carli 2003). Our committees and our organization are stronger when we have both types of leadership, rather than being dominated by one.

But perhaps even more importantly, it is just the right thing to do. Diversity and inclusion matter for any organization or institution. But there is something uniquely and inherently relevant about it to AAPOR. Our role, our very reason for being, is to understand and report the views and experiences of specific populations, and more often than not, that specific population is the general public. How can we do that effectively or credibly if we as an organization look nothing like the public? How can we do that in the year 2016 if we don’t regularly have female leaders at our helm?  How can we do that do in a country bursting with young, multiracial, entrepreneurs if we don’t have their voices around our tables?

WHAT MIGHT BE THE DOWNSIDES? 

I am not so na├»ve as to believe that operating a bigger more diverse organization will always be easy. In fact, by definition it comes with challenges. Being bigger and more diverse means more constituencies to serve with our limited resources; it might mean we have to modify some of our long standing traditions. For example, our larger conference size has already meant that we can no longer “choose our meals” throughout the conference, a particularly irksome issue for some of you. These sort and other more serious modifications may be required to accommodate more people. Further, we will have to get even better at dealing with conflict and strong differences of opinion; we will even sometimes have to agree to disagree. But, as I raise these downsides of growing, I am reminded of a tale:

One very cold winter in an effort to save themselves from freezing to death, all the porcupines decided to huddle close to fend off the chill. But while protected and warmed by their collective body heat, their prickly quills proved to be a bit of a problem. The mutual needling became increasingly uncomfortable and they began to distance themselves from one another, scattering only to end up alone and frozen. Many died. It soon became clear that they would have to choose between solitary deaths and the discomfort of being occasionally pricked by their companions. Wisely they decided to return to the huddle, where they learned to live with the little wounds caused by their close relations in order to benefit from the collective whole.

So yes, we will likely have more “prickly” situations to deal with – more firestorms on AAPORnet, and more tough resource choices in serving a multidimensional and a multicultural community with not always perfectly aligned needs, desires or opinions. But, I strongly believe that prioritizing diversity will help us thrive as a community.

SO HOW DO WE PAY ATTENTION: WHAT HAVE WE ALREADY DONE?

As researchers and analysts we are primed with the tools to be able to do this – some steps are easy, some are hard. Already this year your AAPOR Council has adopted our first ever diversity statement declaring, in part, that “AAPOR embraces diversity and inclusion as institutional imperatives, as noted in the AAPOR2025 Strategic Vision. Only by promoting an environment where differences in background, experience, and perspectives are valued will AAPOR fully serve its members and remain vital in the future.”

And, we have some institutional “rules” in place to ensure more voices at the table. For example, because of our unique history where experts from commercial and noncommercial sectors first came together to form AAPOR, our bylaws have always called for a rotation from the “two sides” in terms of who serves as president, conference chair and councilor at large. That was a structural decision set in place decades ago to guarantee equity between these two competing and synergistic voices. But as I noted earlier, we have many more “dimensions” that matter if our community is to remain strong, vital and thriving. We need to understand better whether there are structural barriers that impact who participates and in what ways, who is served by our programming and who is not.

For example, analysis of our committee composition suggested long serving tenures by individuals committed to specific aspects of our work, coupled with a somewhat arbitrary approach in how we recruited new committee members was contributing to cases where certain perspectives were clearly not getting heard on specific committees. Your executive council adopted a new set of committee policies including adding term limits, guidelines for recruiting and transitioning membership on committees, and creating a new “online volunteer form” designed to help connect people with different perspectives to the committees that are in need of those perspectives. We have operated throughout the year with these new approaches, and I am so proud to report that we’ve already seen a variety of new voices being appointed to our committees, meaning that the pipeline to leadership and mentorship is already being seeded.   Also, at this conference you will note a special focus on diversity with special panels and events, the product of efforts by our councilor at large, Membership and Chapter Relations Committee and its diversity subcommittee.

SO HOW CAN WE PAY ATTENTION: WHAT ELSE SHOULD WE DO?
While we’ve taken some important first steps, there is much we still need to do as a community. Our own data collection and reporting must be updated significantly so that we can explore the questions that we need to ask like: Where do we have gaps? What explains those gaps? What strategies have helped address gaps? We have to identify and alleviate the impediments to service, but we can’t begin to do that until we understand better the structural and institutional barriers that get in the way.

We also need to consider establishing more formal affinity or interest groups. In the past, many members, including myself, worried that such groups would further divide us into silos. Yet I now believe they give everyone more opportunity to find what they’re looking for in AAPOR, at the same time as giving AAPOR more voices to learn from.  We have a long, successful history of this with AAPOR Regional Chapters. I imagine we could have similar success with helping to establish and foster other types of groups that in many cases are already self-forming – like GAAPOR a group of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer AAPOR members which self-organized in 2012, and now Hispanic AAPOR established just this year. Also for the first time, we have retired AAPORites getting together tonight to consider forming their own affinity group. I could imagine so much more – methodologically-specific groups, leadership-focused groups, topic-specific groups, small business owner groups, who knows what else.

Further, there is a plethora of ideas and examples “out there” of other things we should do to purposefully enhance our community. To continue with my gender example, one of our sister organizations – the American Statistical Association – launched a Women In Statistics program in the mid 1990s to encourage more women statisticians (Committee on Women in Statistics). It is a multitier approach that spans the gambit from concrete efforts to increase the number of women going into the discipline from high school and colleges to changes in how leaders are encouraged and mentored within ASA. They now have a similar effort with respect to expanding racial and ethnic diversity (Committee on Minorities in Statistics). As another example, our own Samara Klar launched a database of female experts in politics, policy, government and methods called “WOMEN ALSO KNOW STUFF” (#WomenAlsoKnowStuff) as an experiment in helping panel organizers, journalists and others easily find woman voices for their own articles and conferences.

THE SPECIAL CHALLENGE OF RACIAL AND ETHNIC DIVERSITY

Now, making sure we are hearing from all voices and expanding participation so there’s “a healthy dose of ventilation” is much, much harder in some domains than in others. And I would be remiss if I didn’t address for a few minutes the biggest “elephant in the room” – the fact that our membership, and our industry is overwhelmingly white.

I remember, with some regret and consternation now, a variety of efforts that took place over 10 years ago by a self-organized group of members who tried to launch the Racial Attitudes Initiative. In fact, at a handful of AAPOR Annual conferences in the early 2000s sociologists Maria Krysan and Devon Johnson teamed up with political scientists David Wilson and Larry Bobo to gather scholars and methodologists to present and participate in sessions focused on the issue of studying race. These were organized with the dual goal of enhancing our knowledge of the methodological challenges involving race-related research and improving the racial diversity of AAPOR.   Many other efforts and conversations like this have happened over time, and I was delighted and encouraged to see the AAPORnet post about a cross-cultural and multilingual research affinity group forming. But, to date, as an association we haven’t committed to taking any specific actions.

We say clearly in our new diversity statement and in AAPOR2025 that we care about racial and ethnic diversity. But good intentions are not enough. We need to decide whether AAPOR wants to help change the face of our industry going forward – do we want to address these challenges head on as have the ASA and the American Political Science Association? If our answer is yes, as I strongly believe it should be, than we need to be doing more including developing a pipeline of researchers that come from underrepresented groups and allocating funds for fellowships that bring members of underrepresented groups to conference. We need to transform our best intentions into an actionable plan. I invite you to join with me and a group of current and former AAPOR Council members who are committed to making this happen.

CONCLUSION

In preparing for today, I have thought long and hard about these issues and about when I did or did not pay enough attention to this myself. The process of struggling to really understand my own beliefs and honestly assess my own actions on this topic has changed me: changed my perspective, changed my own behaviors and choices, and changed how I approach my service in AAPOR. I challenge each of you to think honestly about inclusion and diversity as well, and ask yourself, as I now do, at every level of your AAPOR involvement from planning a panel to serving on a committee to who you choose to sit with at mealtime – how are you reaching outside your normal circles to include varying perspectives? How are you helping to seed pipelines for leadership opportunities? Have you reached out to have a conversation with someone from a dissimilar background – whether that be because they use a different methodologic approach, are at a different stage in their career, or because they have a different demographic profile from you? Have you asked someone from a different sector whether the TCPA has impacted their organization and if so, how? Have you asked someone with a different gender identity to share their experiences in getting appointed or promoted to a higher level of leadership? Have you purposely recruited someone from a different perspective to join you in a particular effort? What actions are you taking? What actions will you take going forward?

Surveys deliver irreplaceable insight; at the end of the day, that is what our work is about. And our insights are far richer when they are produced by a diverse set of researchers, with a shared commitment to standards, to disclosure, to our code of ethics, and, yes, to diversity. After all my years of involvement and having watched so closely our day to day business, I believe that to help protect our industry, our role in society, and our vibrant AAPOR community we must pay deliberate attention to who is in and who isn’t; to who is participating and who is not; to who our leaders are and who is sitting on the sidelines.

I have so much confidence and respect for each of you and for how we come together time and time again as a community of individuals to address the challenges we face. I am certain that the AAPOR of 2025 will be one that reflects the amazing diversity of our nation and is that much stronger as an organization, as an association of professionals, and as a community for it. Thank you.