The deep bias facing L&D

As we continue our understanding of bias, prejudice and privilege in society, we also start to develop the capability of interrogating our own spheres. I have written before many times how there is a problem of diversity of people of colour in L&D. The most obvious place we can observe this is on the conference circuit. In the main, speakers will be white. It is incredibly rare to see Black people, Chinese people, Indian people, taking the stage. I’m not saying it doesn’t happen, I’m saying it’s rare. In the L&D space, it’s hard to find leaders who fit those demographics, and who are willing to speak on the conference circuit.

But that’s just one place where we can readily observe the lack of diversity.

If we think about things from a systems perspective, we start to see just how the L&D ecosystem is perpetuating completely and thoroughly white perspectives on the world, and it’s in every aspect of everything we experience. I’m specifically talking about L&D here – not the wider societal impacts of white thinking.

And I want to be very clear here – I am being critical of the complete lack of diversity in the system. I am not being critical of any individuals nor their thinking nor their contributions to L&D. In a lot of cases, we have very strong L&D thinkers, leaders, practitioners, consultants who design and deliver fantastic solutions and products. I applaud of all that, thoroughly.

What I am seeking to highlight here is that at the vast majority of our events that we hold, from the books that are written, from the speakers we hear, from the consultants who design, we are getting – in the majority – white perspectives. Yes, there are those who are of colour doing good work in our space, and they are in the minority.

What I see and experience is that we perpetuate and roll along very willingly with all this, and it seems like there is little effort to positively make a difference. White voices are heard, white voices make decisions in our profession, white voices determine the models and theories we follow, white people lead the vendors – do you see?

And let me be clear – I am not saying this makes any of us racist. It is just how it is. If we look at this more critically, it means we’re all complicit in the perpetuation of the same.

This isn’t about people of colour not taking the opportunities to present themselves, or put themselves forward – some already do that. It’s that through the systemic ways in which we operate, so much is done with a white person lens, that we willfully neglect and do not consider that there is a lack of any other voice other than the white ones.

What do I mean? When a call is made to the vendor and an account manager takes the call and puts forward the brief to their team. When a project needs to be managed and the project manager decides on the actions that need to be taken and who’s accountable for what. When a conference organising team is a handful of people. When the academics we laud and talk about and listen to and whose models and theories we want to learn more about. When the books we read are given accolades. When the awards are judged and the decisions are made about the winners. When a new product is launched and there’s a big marketing campaign.

In nearly every one of those scenarios, I’m willing to bet that there are more white voices involved in all of those scenarios than there are active voices from people of colour. I am not suggesting we stop working as we do. I am highlighting that the system enforces the voice of the white person.

This is the deep bias.

Our problem in L&D is that we think we’re above prejudice, above bias, above discrimination. We think we are more inclusive than most, more accommodating of needs than most, more aware of bias and prejudice than most. And yet, it would be tangibly very difficult for most of us to genuinely put forward multiple examples of where diversity bias isn’t so clearly lacking. I’m saying multiple examples because one or two examples from your own experience isn’t enough. I’m talking everyday actions, not specific moments in time.

Our problem in L&D is the same problem in society at large. We believe that our everyday interactions and actions are as genuine as they can be and that we’re treating people well. This isn’t about how well you personally treat others, or what you personally do to make a difference. This is about how the system at large is designed so heavily in favour of white voices that we don’t even recognise the lack of non-white voices.

And for completeness, we are woefully biased against so many other demographics, which I’ve not even tried to address here – disability, social class, sexual orientation, gender orientation, formal education or not, and so many more.

This is the deep bias.

There are no easy solutions here. I’m not asking for solutions. I’m also purposefully not proposing solutions. This blog post isn’t about that. It’s to cause debate. It’s to state observations which I believe to be blatant and very present. This blog post is to bring this discussion to the fore.

Discussing this topic won’t get you in trouble for being racist – unless you use racist language, or say things in racist and discriminatory ways. In the main, most of us will understand how to not do these things, so your contributions and thoughts will be welcome. If you’re not comfortable commenting in the open space, then DM me on Twitter or send me a private LinkedIn message. It is from discussion that we can keep things moving forward. When we don’t discuss things like this openly, we remain complicit in perpetuating the strength of white voices and do not do enough to include voices from people of colour.

Final Point – I hope in this writing you will have seen that I haven’t accused anyone of anything. I’m not singling out any one individual. I’m being quite measured in my language and the points I’m making. I am talking about the L&D ecosystem which is all of us.

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Sukh Pabial

I'm an occupational psychologist by profession and am passionate about all things learning and development, creating holistic learning solutions and using positive psychology in the workforce.

2 thoughts on “The deep bias facing L&D”

  1. Hi Sukh. Very interesting post and you met your aim with me in provoking thought on the subject. As a 30 year old white male I am constantly trying to look at myself to spot bias and use my obvious privileges to try and be better for those around me.

    The first thing that springs to mind here for me is availability. Of the people I have encountered and worked with in L&D environments over the last 10 years, I would say the amount of racial diversity is somewhat representative of the diversity in the organisation or geographical area. I don’t see that diversity has been stifled intentionally in any way but I do recognise a lack of POC applying for roles in L&D.

    I think my company has a fair representation of minority groups according to city figures, but my smaller team does have a distinct lack of POC currently. We do have a diverse group of gender, age, background, health etc. – And we are a small team with not much attrition, but I can’t ignore the glaring lack of racial diversity. In other teams I have been apart of this has been better.

    If I think of the commentators in the L&D world and surrounding networks that I look to to steer thinking, you’re absolutely correct.

    If this wasn’t the case, what differences would you theorise we might see in the spaces and examples you described?

  2. Interesting that you say that, Sukh. I have seen a similar bias in mindset in another context in L&D. I run Bizpunditz, a video learning library for managers where I capture learning from really top Indian business leaders. Several L&D people in MNCs seem to believe that only content that originates in the US or Europe (their HQ) is global. Not what comes out of India.This is despite so many of my speakers being in global roles/ country heads of MNC s (based in India) and the local audiences of these L&D folks being almost entirely Indian and working in India!

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