New Voices in L&D – Helen Marshall

A key area for discussion in L&D is the disproportionate number of men occupying senior roles in L&D, and what we can do to correct for this and at the same time advocate for and speak out against sexism (mainly against women) and misogyny. Helen Marshall picks at this conversation in a really thoughtful way, and I appreciate her writing here to help us consider this topic further.

I don’t edit or amend the pieces being written for me. I’m not an editor, and that’s not something that matters for the purposes of this series. Each piece is submitted in the author’s own writing style.

You can connect with Helen on LinkedIn.

Being your own advocate as a woman in L&D

Since Donald H Taylor’s research was published in 2015 which highlighted the issues surrounding gender inequality in the learning sector, there’s been a movement picking up pace in the L&D world, a group called ‘Women in Learning’. Taylor’s main findings came from 2,635 members of the Learning and Skills Group, which was split 45% female and 55% male. Across this population, the split was roughly 2:1 female to male in support roles, 1:1 in mid-level roles and 1:2 in leadership roles. This research, although now several years old, rings true of the experience I have had, to greater and lesser degrees, since stepping into this industry full time in 2014.

As a result, there are a couple of things I wanted to pick up, albeit briefly, in this blog: 1) recognising the challenges faced by women in this industry, and 2) why being your own advocate is important.

Although I’ve been lucky enough to be surrounded by inspiring women and leaders since I joined the L&D world, there’s also been a noticeable lack of women in senior leadership roles in all the companies I’ve worked for (some more so than others), and the more senior you go the less diverse the population. This is not only echoed by Donald Taylor’s research, and the subsequent need for the rise of the Women in Learning movement off the back of it, but by my friend’s experiences in the industry as well. The issue doesn’t stop with senior leadership though, it stretches into discrepancies with salaries, progression opportunities, and inclusion in daily work-based activities. And if you’re a woman of colour, as some of my friends have pointed out, these issues are felt even more acutely.

Recognising and talking about this is one way to begin changing perception and tackling inequality – something I’m sure the Women in Learning movement will successfully achieve. Yet advocating for yourself, and for those around you is also essential.

I used to be wary of being seen as ‘singing my own praises’ and relied on other people (colleagues or clients) to flag with management when I’d done a good job – and when it came to sharing this with my team I was definitely not going to shout about my own achievements. This usually stemmed from one place: I didn’t want to sound arrogant (something women constantly battle with). Then I switched to working remotely – I had to make a conscious effort to connect with people in my company, to let people know what I was doing or achieving in my role (and beyond) and I suddenly realised: I am my best advocate. Looking back now I wish I’d been this proactive and vocal in all my previous roles (L&D or not). There were definitely times when I did great work that went relatively unnoticed as a result of not wanting to make a fuss.

Yet a step beyond this is being an advocate for other people, too. Supporting each other and providing a platform for others whenever possible. It’s also about opening people’s eyes to issues that may often be swept under the rug or ignored. For example, one of my friends works in a Graphic Design team where over 90% of her colleagues and all of the leadership is male (there’s 13 people on the team), but she hadn’t really seen an issue with that due to her own cultural upbringing. Unconscious bias definitely plays a part here too, but that’s a whole other blog post. In the meantime, here’s a great article.

To end on a bit of an anecdote. I was once part of producing a course for a client based in the Middle East who asked for all imagery of women to be removed from an eLearning course. I fundamentally disagreed and refused to do this, only to be told by senior leadership that I had to obey the will of the client (they were paying the bills after all…). It’s extremely difficult to be sensitive to different cultural requirements whilst advocating for equality in a world you’re so separate from. However, if you just blindly accept things like this aren’t you part of a bigger problem? I left that company, obviously.

In summary: advocate for yourself and others, and keep your eyes and ears open.

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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.

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