Sexism, Glass Ceilings, Gender Bias – Is L&D Guilty?

L&D Watson Kicking Some Ass

L&D Watson Kicking Some Ass

Women in L&D

A lot being said about this of late in the L& D world. I’m waiting for the racism debate…but that shall have to wait. This is an attempt to co-ordinate some of the myriad thoughts about this weighty topic into a post. Before I go into my reasons and rationale, my answer as to whether L&D is guilty: Hell yeah. No doubt.

Donald Taylor wrote a post in response to some research he conducted and Learning Technolgies Summer Forum. At the end of his post, he referenced another post by Brightwave employee Lauren Keith about why she does not wear dresses to work.

I then weighed in on twitter with a few comments. Some of them  probably come across as slightly unfair to men…so its probably a good idea to provide a little context.

…and was thus subtly challenged by my Twiterrati sistren Kate Graham and the author of the article Lauren. (I was going to write brethren first!!) to write a post.

To be honest, like I said in one of my posts….I don’t really know where to start….or stop for that matter, so I’ll attempt to begin with a few little stories from childhood which I remember clearly due to the focus on gender and my indignation at the time.


At middle school, the headteacher came into our class and asked for some strong boys to lift some tables. I put my hand up and said…it was unfair…because I was just as strong…if not stronger than a lot of the boys in the class. Point made…tables moved…got out of class for about 10 mins = result!!


I was in the corridor at a break time in high school, larking about, doing some kung fu. You can see from the leading pic that I haven’t changed much. My French teacher was walking past and she gave me a -1 in my school diary for an ‘unladylike display of martial arts in the corridor.”  I argued…ok, gimme the -1 for the kung-fu…but it was the unladylike bit I took offence to. How can kung-fu be unladylike? There is no male and female versions of kung-fu. Point made. She didn’t back down….but I felt I was right.

These stories demonstrate that the socialization process begins in childhood, by adults…and helps to shape all of our attitudes. I’m not sure why I was such a firebrand…even back then…but I suppose I have never liked injustice….and theres a lot of it about.

Fairness & Equality

To be fair, L&D is probably far less guilty than many other professions in its representation of women. There are a lot of women in the field…more than many others. However, as Donald stated in his piece…the further up the ladder you go…the less women are represented. I’ve been a L&D professional for a long time now, and I’ve spoken about it before. I have had to deal with both racism and sexism…and it is a large part of why I now currently choose to work for myself. Its also a large part in why I have disengaged to a certain extent from the L&D discourse. The mainly male, pale, stale speakers panels. The stagnant conversations. The same types of people moving onwards and upwards in the profession, when I know they are no better than I…but I know I won’t get a look in.  It feels like the same people (mainly men) regurgitating the same things. However…what annoys me more is the fact that they mainly ignore the topics that I find most relevant. We talk about how we can move organisations forward? How we can engage employees? Can gaming help learning retention? Whatever the topic may be. But in my view sexism and racism are THE main problems in organisations today. In the world. If many white males are aware of their privilege, they rarely make reference to it. Preferring to believe that their tenacity, hard work etc, got them where they are…not their connections, opportunities they are afforded to grow and progress or situational positions in society.

Bad Experiences

I had a ‘manager’ once who was so sexist, that it beggared belief. The difference in treatment between my colleagues and I (mostly male) was stark. He even said to me I should be grateful, because he knew men that didn’t earn as much as me #TrueStory. Forget how hard I had worked to get where I was. Forget my qualification and track record. All he could see was a woman…a black one at that…demanding more than he felt she deserved. Sad thing was, he used his position as my manger to make my life a misery, I was used for my knowledge and abused in the situation and in the end…I ended up being forced out of a job that I loved.  A lot of people stood at the sidelines and watched this sad spectacle I might add…such is the nature of the see no evil ethos.

To add to this….is the assumption by men and women alike, that I should be able to ‘suck up’ this kind of behaviour and attitude…and be grateful that things are slowly changing. That was one man, in one workplace. Surely not all of L&d is like that?

Double – Edged Sword

I dunno. L& D are a pretty laid back bunch of people. Caring, empathetic for the most part…due to the nature of our profession. However….I often feel the presence of that ‘Elephant in the Room.’ The debates people are not yet ready to have. Perhaps because in some ways they may feel complicit?

I know if people make comments about single mothers being the scourge of society, or black people being unable to get their act together…I often feel the sting of commentary. Sometimes its easier to ignore those things that make us uncomfortable. Taking a long hard look in the mirror is a challenge for us all.

Also, with forms of discrimination people may argue, and have argued…and always do argue (people I know, friends)…that it is not in fact a gender bias, or colour bias…but a situational or environmental bias, that could have happened to anyone in the same circumstances. To these people I simply retort…perhaps…but I don’t believe that to be the case.

What lies behind any ‘ism?’ Usually fear, fear of loss of power. Power manoeuvring. Maintenance of a status quo. When the business imperative kicks in, and money is at stake…then you may see some form of shifting sands…but only if absolutley necessary.

A story was recounted to me the other day, about black football players in the early days…getting banana skins thrown at them and crowds making monkey chants. The players way of dealing with this was to earn respect by playing harder and being better.

I appreciate this…especially back then. But I don’t want to have to earn the respect of an idiot. Not in this day and age. Also…I believe for all that has been done in the name of gender equality…a truly empowered woman is still threatening for a lot of people.

The double edged sword being people often feel someone else’s progress means a loss of status. So a lot of subtle energies are put into maintaining the status quo for as long as possible, or ensuring any future changes in dynamics are well controllable and changes are manageable. We want progress…but not too much.

World War 2

We know women can often do the same jobs as men. History has taught us that. One example is the use of women during both wars to fulfil the functions normally reserved for men. It was once the men came back from WW2, that the propaganda in television and film, sought to shimmy women back to a subservient role. A supportive sidekick. An invisible backbone. White women mind….not black ones. We’ve had that special place reserved for a long time. General dogsbody. Do as you will. No one cares.

The fact is…we are still mainly valued for our assets, our looks and female attributes. As Mothers, to some man’s children. As second class citizens.

I have no conclusion to this post, as I feel inarticulate and rambling…I’m not a man hater, but I will sign of with the fact that the world of L&D  and the organisations in which they perform their functions are merely microcosyms of wider society. They reflect the same blind predjudices, the same inequalities and sadly…often the same lack of desire to change.


Singer/Songwriter Learning & Development Consultant Good Egg

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Posted in Learning Insight, Opinion, Social Learning
2 comments on “Sexism, Glass Ceilings, Gender Bias – Is L&D Guilty?
  1. My mum was a butcher in WW2 – and a good one too (according to her 🙂

    • s0ngb1rd says:

      Lol…”according to her.’ That comment is exactly why us women need to evidence our experiences. Otherwise they get consigned to the realm of fantasy. Things we made up in our heads.

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