What is the Role of L&D in the Quest for a Gender Balanced Workforce?

Roundtable discussion, 8 March 2019, London

As a leadership development company, we feel that we are not only responsible for observing and reacting to changing business landscapes, but for driving a change which is ethically right and will help our clients to succeed. In 2018, we asked L&D professionals around the globe what trends they were observing and what they anticipated being on their agenda over the coming years.

One of the topics that consistently cropped up was ‘Women in business’ albeit described with various nuances: ‘women in leadership’, ‘gender equality’, leveling the playing field’, ‘gender balance’. Hopefully we all know why: Diverse companies are proven to be more profitable and more innovative than those that aren’t.

We were intrigued to explore just how this huge societal challenge is playing out in organisations around the world, and across industry sectors. More specifically, we wanted to understand how we, together with the L&D clients we work with every day, can play our part in shaping a gender balanced workplace.

Key Discussion Points: The Role of L&D in Leading a Gender Balanced Culture

On 8 March 2019 – timed to coincide with International Women’s Day – we invited a group of senior L&D, HR and Talent professionals to join us for a breakfast discussion.

We had two key questions in mind:

  1. How can L&D play a pivotal role in the cultural shift needed for a gender balanced workplace?
  2. And how can leadership training be delivered through the lens of diversity?

Here are a number of key themes that rose to the surface.

From ‘diversity fatigue’ to ‘diversity by stealth’

Although discrimination laws previously existed in the UK, The Equality Act of 2010 brought nine protected characteristics under one ‘umbrella’ piece of legislation, with a view to making it easier to understand and implement. The result was a flurry of mandatory trainings as HR departments feared litigation as a result of – perhaps unintentional – discrimination. The term ‘diversity and inclusion’ entered the workforce with a bang.

A decade later and our guests report that D&I can still be a prickly topic. Employees can sometimes feel resentful about being ‘forced’ to be more diverse and there was a worry that it can do more harm than good. Some suggested that there is an element of ‘diversity fatigue’, yet broadly speaking, we have yet to level the playing field and create diverse, inclusive workplaces, not only to abide with legislation but to pursue all the financial benefits diversity can bring. Some companies in the room reported a desire for less ‘talk’ andmore ‘action’ and the ideal shift is could be towards a ‘red thread’ conversation through everything. This would, we anticipate, be more effective than separate Ddiversity and Inclusion’ initiatives in building inclusivity, whether through L&D efforts or everyday interactions.

Of course a key part of progress is self-awareness. We have to understand where privilege plays a role if we are to address it. We spent time discussing the various biases we all experience – implicit, unconscious and second generation. Creating a safe space to discuss bias without blame, knowing how to recognise our own bias, and then challenging ourselves and each other to shift our mindset, remains an important foundation for creating an inclusive culture. The challenge of weaving that education piece through everyday interactions, coaching, feedback and development is ongoing. It’s important that we all feel safe in discussing such things, but that we do not allow privilege or a ‘backlash’ to distract us from the critical work of inclusion.

We all agreed that everyone needs to be in the conversation – not only HR or D&I officers. Providing ‘nudges’ to employees about bias at key points (such as when recruiting, conducting performance reviews or offering promotion opportunities) could help to shift the conversation from being aimed at the ‘affected’ to involving everyone

Global inconsistencies? Don’t underestimate the power of company culture

The majority of our guests were from multinationals so it came as no surprise that they are experiencing a very real struggle around global consistency in approaches to diversity. One particularly interesting point was raised – that of the potential clash between company values and cultural norms.

It made us think of a TED talk by Janet Stovall who suggests that companies are ideally placed to shift mindsets in the world around them. Stovall spoke in terms of racial diversity, but arguably the same principles apply when looking at all diverse groups. Where else do you have such a mix of people who are not homogenous? School, local communities, clubs, religious communities – none witnesses the same mix that business does. And none has the same ‘authority’ to set targets, make demands for equality and equity, and drive inclusivity.

One of the organisations represented explained that they have a well-established company value of ‘respect’. This effectively gives licence to weave inclusion ambitions throughout the company as part of that value; and arguably allows behavioural change and mindset shifts to occur in places where, outside of the company walls, the world and expectations are very different.

Less HR ‘policing’, more individual responsibility

No-one likes playing the role of bad cop. Pulling colleagues up on behaviours, comments and actions is uncomfortable and fraught. Several participants expressed a desire for HR to be less about enforcement and more on focusing their attentions on creating an environment in which positive, inclusive behaviours are encouraged and rewarded. This perhaps mirrors a broader shift away from the idea of HR and L&D being ‘controllers’, and a move towards them being ‘enablers’.

But individuals can only take on that responsibility if they have the right team and environment to support and encourage them. Feeling ‘safe’ enough to flag non-inclusive behaviours in the day-to-day is critical. Fostering a culture that allows that is not easy, but is possible through positive behaviour modeling by leaders throughout the business.

Re-thinking leadership qualities

We discussed the very definition of leadership. The consensus was to stop getting stuck with a traditional definition of what good leadership looks like. Continuing to value ‘masculine’ traits over ‘feminine’ traitsin leadership ideals is indeed at the heart of the problem. Tomorrow’s leaders need different skills – collaboration, empathy, inclusivity – yet we still focus on confidence, power, charisma and assertiveness. Women – and, it’s important to note, men – who don’t fit this stereotype miss out on leadership roles or selection for High Potential support. Businesses ultimately miss out on a vast amount of talent and are poorer as a result. Where does the opportunity to find and maximise this talent sit? It’s in the hands of recruiters, managers, team leaders, and colleagues.

A few final thoughts:

  • Let’s move away from thinking ‘we’re all different and that’s ok’ towards ‘we’re all different … how can we use those differences to be better people, colleagues, teams and leaders?’
  • Let’s not forget about the journey so far. This isn’t about blame or despair. It’s about continuous improvement in a world that is heavily dominated by patriarchy, and we need to remind ourselves of that.
  • Leadership development is one piece of a complex jigsaw, if a crucial part. We also need policies, procedures, values, mentoring, allyship, role modeling, societal activism and more to make the difference we are seeking – and a lot of this begins with leadership that inspires, challenges, empowers, and includes.

Interested in this topic?

If you would like to join the conversation – join our LinkedIn group and download our Leading a Gender Balanced Culture infographic.

Further reading

Look out for our next blog post where we show an example of how Inclusive Conversations can Drive Collaboration…


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