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Q&A: how the L&D industry is tackling its gender diversity problem

While there have been many positive changes in recent years with regards to gender equality in the workplace, the fact remains that women are still under-represented in senior leadership positions. Here, Kate Graham, co-founder of Women in Learning and Andrew Jacobs, producer of the Women Talking About Learning podcast, discuss why it’s essential for women's voices to be heard if we are to achieve meaningful change.  

11th Nov 2020
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Research shows women are twice as likely as men to have administrative support roles – and half as likely to have leadership positions – in L&D as men. Women are underrepresented in the boardroom, accounting for less than a quarter of management positions globally. It’s been proven that greater gender diversity can translate to increased productivity and higher levels of innovation – among many other benefits – so what’s holding us back?

Once you see the imbalance, it becomes almost impossible to unsee it. 

The Women in Learning movement was set up to help amplify the voices of women in the L&D sector, bringing together over 800 learning professionals to share their experiences and push for change. Just 18 months later, the momentum continues to gather pace and the group has launched its first ever podcast to help spread the word further.

How did the Women in Learning movement come to fruition?

Kate: Women in Learning was an accident of timing. In 2015, Donald H Taylor researched the roles that women undertook in learning and found that women were represented in a senior role for every two men. A few women had spoken about doing something but hadn’t got round to arranging anything!

We made a decision to correct this and set up a Women in Learning LinkedIn group. In just 18 months we’ve gathered huge momentum. Over 1,100 people have joined the #WomenInLearning group now. What’s important is that this is people of all genders; this is all about inclusivity and you can’t work on something like this without factoring in intersectionality across race, age, disability, culture, socio-economic background, etc.

What kinds of things have you been working on since then?

Kate: Women in Learning may lead on gender, but at its heart, it’s about equality in all forms. It is beginning to make a difference and has had global support at industry events, given interviews, guested on podcasts and is busy setting up something particularly close to my heart, a mentoring and coaching scheme to help support women right across the industry. That’s just for starters – remember, everyone involved has day jobs as well!

What has the reception been like from the industry?

Kate: Women are contacting us with their challenges and to talk about their experiences. This is a network that is growing and expanding day-by-day. Suddenly, magically, we can find ourselves in a place where women aren’t afraid to be heard.

Male bosses, peers and colleagues are also contacting us asking how they can help or get involved. Many have always been balanced and inclusive when it comes to gender, but I do believe what we’re doing here is opening people’s eyes. Once you see the imbalance, it becomes almost impossible to unsee it. Just look at the speaker line-up of any conference and you can instantly see if that organisation is paying any heed to gender balance and the voices of women

future L&D leaders hub link

Andrew, you were one of the male colleagues who got involved in this. Why was this such an important cause for you?

Andrew: This is something I’m passionate about; too few women's voices are heard in the learning and development space and I wanted to develop the signal and remove the noise from women in learning. Having some privilege as a conference speaker I realised that I am part of the issue. One reason is that women don’t have the same exposure at industry events. I looked back over events that I’d spoken at, publications I’d contributed to, podcasts I’d be invited onto and internet TV and realised I wasn’t doing anything actively to change things. Being active is an important point – we can all be non-sexist but being anti-sexist requires action.

In March 2019, I published a blog post that said I wouldn’t speak at an event, podcast etc, unless there was at least an equal split of men and women speakers. The same rules apply to magazine pieces, op-eds, videos, etc. The post attracted a bit of interest and I recognised that the issue was more significant than I’d anticipated. The timing was serendipitous, as this was also at the time that the Women in Learning movement was also growing.

What was your contribution?

Andrew: When lockdown hit, conferences and events were reduced and we had to get used to ways of working differently. I recognised that I could fill this void and, as I am now an independent consultant, had the space to take action. That’s when the Women Talking About Learning (WTAL) podcast came about. While I introduce and summarise each episode, the main focus of each one is on two women talking about topics they’re interested in. We’ve launched this week with two episodes, The Boss One and The Lockdown One, and there’ll be a new episode each week.

How do you decide the topics for each episode?

Andrew: The topics are crowd-sourced by the learning community and we have over 50 areas that people want to hear about, from learning design through delivery online and evaluation, to more women specific topics such as misogyny and mansplaining.

What has been the reaction so far?

Andrew: We have had a phenomenal response to one topic in particular – imposter syndrome. We will be developing a couple of ‘special’ podcasts around that subject in the New Year because it has been so popular and will probably need lots of contributions from the learning community. Details will be on the podcast in the next few weeks.

How can members of the learning community get involved?

Andrew: Details of the topics that will be covered are available on the WTAL podcast website along with details about how to contribute, to nominate people as guests and details of the episodes published.

Women Talking About Learning isn’t advertorial, so no one is using it to push their products or services. This is very important. Also, although I’m producing it, the narrative is created by the women guests – any editing is agreed with the speakers afterwards so you can trust that their authentic voice is being heard.

The Women Talking About Learning podcast is available on Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, Podbean, TuneIn Radio, Amazon Music and Alexa, Spotify, or your favourite podcast app.

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