Conducting a focus group

Focus groups are an established method of qualitative data collection involving a guided group discussion with a particular focus. Focus groups are not undirected or informal conversations, nor open-ended interviews.

Conducting focus groups with your employees can help you explore their awareness, attitudes, opinions and behaviours in relation to workplace gender equality. They can reveal differences between what your organisation thinks it is doing and employees’ actual experiences. The group setting can support employees to express their views and can reveal strengths, weaknesses and opportunities they may not otherwise have been uncovered.

Focus groups are better suited to smaller numbers of participants. While they may take longer to conduct and analyse than a survey, focus groups can provide deep insights that can help you progress gender equality in your workplace.

While there is value to face-to-face consultation, remember that focus groups can be conducted using online platforms. This can enable you to reach a greater or different cross-section of employees and may be more appropriate in the context of COVID-19 pandemic.

Preparing your focus group

Sampling

We recommend running focus groups with a small number of participants—large enough to generate discussion but small enough to hear everyone’s voices and keep on track. 

It usually takes more than one focus group to produce valid results. You should know when you have conducted enough groups (with the same sets of questions) when you are not hearing anything new anymore, reaching the point of ‘data saturation’.[1]

To ensure your data is well-rounded, you may consider running separate focus groups for different sections of your workforce, such as leadership teams, managers and employees. This will allow you to explore different perspectives and help make the discussion a ‘safe space’.

You should also consider the following when selecting participants to minimise power imbalances and ensure a representative sample:

  • Gender: will both women and men feel comfortable talking freely in a mixed gender group? It may be useful to run all female, all male and a mixed focus group and compare results.
  • Age: Consider whether it will be intimidating for one younger employee to be placed in a group of older employees or vice versa.
  • Cliques’: Where there are known close associations among groups of employees, try not to include more than one member of a group in the same focus group session. 

Developing an interview guide

Focus groups are usually structured around a set of carefully considered questions that facilitate discussion. To make focus groups run smoothly and maximise opportunities to contribute, ensure questions are:

  • clear, short and to the point
  • focused on one point each
  • open-ended, i.e. worded in a way that they can’t be answered with a simple ‘yes’ or ‘no’ answer
  • do not lead participants to an assumed answer.

Some examples of clear, neutral and open-ended focus groups questions are provided below. These are examples only and should be adapted or changes to suit your organisation's context and the purpose of your consultation.

Question examples

  • What might be the benefits of addressing workplace gender equality in our organisation?
  • What does our organisation do well when it comes to workplace gender equality?
  • How could our organisation improve gender equality? What are the most important areas to prioritise? (e.g. workforce composition, pay equity, flexible work practices, workplace culture)
  • What are the barriers to addressing gender equality in our organisation? (e.g. cultural, structural)
  • How should we progress gender equality in the workplace?
  • Who should be responsible for driving change?
  • How effective is our gender equality strategy? What are the strengths and weaknesses?
  • How well do our policies and procedures support gender equality? What changes could be made?
  • What is our approach to addressing gender pay equity? How confident are you that our organisation is addressing gender pay gaps?
  • How well are flexible working arrangements encouraged/ embedded in our workplace?
  • How would you describe the organisation’s culture? Could we improve the culture of diversity and inclusion?


There are different ‘modes’ for focus group questioning—from structured to semi- and un-structured.

Structured or unstructured?

For experienced facilitators, asking an overarching question and then having several prompt questions ready to guide the discussion is a very effective way to maximise the information gathered. 

Another mode is to determine several specific questions in advance and to work through them, in much the same way as a structured interview. This is a good method for less experienced facilitators, or in situations where the purpose of the focus group is to glean specific information about specific topics. 

Ensure consistency

If several focus groups are being conducted using the same questions, the questions should be asked the same way in each. This will ensure consistent and reliable data is collected. Changing the way the question is stated can change the message people hear, and therefore the responses they give.

Selecting a facilitator

Focus groups may be run by an external facilitator or by members of your leadership team. While an external facilitator can bring a fresh perspective and remove any potential bias, an internal facilitator can bring in-depth knowledge of the organisation and demonstrate a personal commitment to the cause.

When selecting a facilitator, it is a good idea to consider the power structure in the room. For example, having a CEO conduct a focus group with production line workers may result in very little information about what doesn’t work so well. 

Scheduling a session

Consider how long you will need to enable a fruitful discussion. Smaller groups need less time; larger groups take longer. You may also want to schedule enough time for each group to run over time, giving the facilitator some leeway to let a useful discussion finish before ending the session. 

To maximise engagement, you should avoid scheduling focus groups:

  • back-to-back with other regular meetings
  • over lunch time
  • first thing in the morning or at the end of the day
  • during peak holiday times, seasonal changes in workloads or close to a weekend or public holiday.

You should also decide how often you want to repeat your focus groups. It is best practice to do this at regular intervals so that you can measure progress and changes over time, as well as any emerging needs or priorities.

Facilitating your focus group

Most focus groups broadly include the following key steps.

Welcoming participants

Ideally, the group will be welcomed by a (senior) leader of the organisation, demonstrating organisational commitment to gender equality.

The facilitator should then clarify the objectives of the session, ensuring all participants know what is expected from the group, why the focus group is taking place, and how the information gathered will be used, making sure each participant feels ‘safe’ to be honest and share real opinions and feedback.

Setting ground rules

So that everybody can be heard and feel safe in the discussion, it is essential to set ground rules with the group at the start of the session. At a minimum, the ground rules should include:

  • awareness and consent if the session is being audio or video recorded
  • acknowledgement that participants are under no obligation to contribute to the discussion
  • a statement that everyone has a right to be heard and participants should not interrupt or talk over the top of each other
  • a request that people stay on track and don’t launch into long and irrelevant anecdotes, no matter how amusing they may be
  • an expectation that respect and courtesy will be maintained in all interactions
  • the importance of respecting the privacy of each person in the room. If any controversial, personal, or uncomfortable topics are raised, they must be kept private after the session (what is said in the room stays in the room) and where relevant, escalated to the relevant staff, with appropriate support or debrief provided to the employee
  • a clear and unequivocal statement that abusive behaviour – be it physical, verbal or emotional - will not be tolerated
  • reassurance that nothing said in the group will affect participants’ job security or management relationships
  • an instruction that if anyone feels uncomfortable, please notify the facilitator immediately

Facilitating effectively

When done well, a focus group creates an accepting environment that puts participants at ease, allowing them to thoughtfully answer questions and engage in discussions, using their own words and adding meaning to their answers.

While there are no hard and fast rules, a good facilitator should:

  • listen actively with sensitivity, empathy and respect
  • believe that all participants are equal and all have valuable opinions to offer
  • have adequate knowledge of gender equality principles
  • have adequate knowledge of policies and procedures in your workplace that directly impact gender equality such as recruitment process, remuneration decisions, promotion and performance rating, flexible working arrangements
  • keep personal views and judgements out of the room and not lead participants to particular responses
  • appropriately manage potentially challenging group dynamics.

Wrapping up

It’s important to allow sufficient time at the end of your session to:

  • reflect on key themes
  • thank participants for their time and insights
  • reassure participants of confidentiality protocols
  • clarify next steps in the consultation process.

Make sure to take note of anyone who might be struggling with information or issues that arose during the focus group. If needed, refer them on to an appropriate source of assistance such as the Employee Assistance Program or a Harassment Contact Officer.

You could also provide an anonymous evaluation survey if you want to get more detailed feedback.

Recording the discussion

It is common practice to audio record focus groups to have these transcribed. This is because discussions that involve several people can be very difficult to record in real time and it is easy to miss important information. Having a transcript of each session allows for better quality understanding of the content, and for more in-depth analysis. If manual note-taking is the only available option, we recommend that at least two people take notes that can be combined after the session.

When collecting and storing recordings or transcriptions, keep confidentiality and privacy considerations in mind.

 

[1] Strauss & Corbin, (1998). Basics of Qualitative Research: Techniques and procedures for developing grounded theory, California: SAGE Publications