International Women’s Day: Q&A with Kerry Sproston

March 7, 2022

We caught up with Head of DBM Social Research Kerry Sproston who shares her insights as a leader in social research, and her advice for up-and-coming female researchers.

Can you tell us a bit about your experience as a leader in social research?

Prior to joining DBM Consultants a year ago, I headed up a government and social research team at a large, established agency; and one of the things I did there was to grow the business by about 20% and developed a problem gambling research practice from scratch.

Before that, I enjoyed 15 years in a senior role at the National Centre for Social Research, working with some really impressive minds. NatCen is Europe's leading Social Research Institute; renowned for quality, prestigious evidence-based research. It was a very good place to cut my teeth and start off my social research career.

What are some changes or trends you have noticed as a leader in your field?

Declining response rates and changing methodologies are impossible to ignore. In the early days, working for the NatCen, we were conducting large, random representative samples of the population such as the Health Survey for England. The interviewers were knocking on people’s doors and obtaining 70% response rate with no incentives.

Now, with random probability surveys, which are done by phone in Australia due to the size of the country, national telephone surveys are getting less than 10% response rates. I think that's really making the industry, both clients and research practitioners, realise that we've got to do something to look at other ways of getting representative samples. And ask ourselves if it’s always necessary to spend huge budgets on telephone surveys, with such low response rates.

Here at DBM, I've been able to be much more creative and innovative and to rethink and redefine the way I design research projects.  I think that it's definitely given me a new lease of life as a researcher!

What do you love about social research? What makes you passionate about it?

I love social research because it’s about exploring and finding out more about people. I did an English literature and Psychology degree (many moons ago), so I guess that I’ve always been fascinated by human nature.

But it’s also about highlighting inequities in society.  I come from a background where I've experienced socioeconomic disadvantage firsthand, so it’s close to my heart.

I did crossover into commercial research for a few months when I first came to Australia, but it wasn’t for me. Producing headlines was not where I wanted to be, so I came back ‘home’ to what I do best.

I'm now at a stage in my career where I am keen to invest in mentoring the new generation of social researchers.

I hope that I can pass on what I know to the new generation so they can innovate and continue to find different ways of keeping research fresh and relevant, but still high quality.

Why is social research so important? What impact can it have for individuals and the community?

I like to say, that when I first went into social research, I thought I could change the world one survey at a time!

Social research – for me – is about providing evidence and recommendations and helping clients to make sound decisions; and to shine a light on vulnerable populations.

Vulnerable groups don't just have one challenge. Often, there are multiple issues at play, including family violence, mental health issues, problem gambling, etc.

I love the variety of social research. Having said that, though, since it covers so many different policy areas, you can never be across all of them. And I’d never pretend to be. When I first started, researchers tended to be generalists, whereas now we realise that you need to focus in on particular areas to acquire the understanding and expertise required to deliver the best outcomes for clients.

Part of my job as a researcher is to help the decision-makers who are allocating government funding to know where their money is best spent; so that, ultimately, the taxpayer’s money is being used in a way that's good for society, and minimises harm and disadvantage in the community.

What advice do you have for up-and-coming female research professionals who are interested in social research?

Collaboration - that's been very much my mantra since setting up DBM Social Research a year ago. I believe it’s really important for women, particularly, to collaborate with each other and not be in competition with each other.

Historically, opportunities to partner with external parties might have been discouraged, as they would be seen as competitors.  I think that that's a bit old fashioned.

There are several really strong, impressive women whom I've reached out to, and worked with, since starting DBM Social and that’s undoubtedly been crucial to my success. That’s not to say that I'm only collaborating with females - there are couple of males in there too! But it just so happens that I've been connecting with female leaders in a way that I didn't before I set up DBM Social Research. It’s been really fulfilling for me to brainstorm and share experiences with them, and we support and sustain each other.

Can you tell us about how DBM Social Research has developed since it launched a year ago?

Well, DBM Social Research has gone from just me, on my own, for a few months, to a total of 10 people in the team within less than a year, which I think is pretty good progress!

We’re going from strength to strength, and we’ve won some really prestigious top shelf, social research projects working with both federal and state governments.

What makes DBM Social Research different from other research agencies?

At DBM, we’re able to be much more nimble, agile and think creatively and innovatively than perhaps larger, more established agencies.

I’m continuing to collaborate with longstanding academic partners, and those partnerships are key to what sets us apart.

Also, having such strong analytical/data science expertise – in the form of Dr Russell Blamey – has allowed us to take on some advanced analytics work; quite different from your day-to-day research projects.

In my experience, social research teams are often very top heavy. I've tried to make sure that we have coverage at all levels. Whilst Russell and I have decades worth of experience, the team includes researchers across the continuum, and I believe strongly in capacity building and investing in junior researchers.

Our team expertise reflects a range of sector experience too. For example, Nicole Hodge has a lot of client-side experience, particularly in the disability sector. Rob Heneghan has research experience in vehicles and transport, which has been really useful for a project that we're currently working on. We have significant expertise in running online communities, too, which are becoming increasingly popular with government clients, and for good reason.

I'm feeling very positive and excited about what the future holds for DBM Social Research and for my team. I want us to all be in it for the long haul as we develop and grow the business together.

Watch this space!

Find out more about DBM Social Research.

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