Does L&D have a gender problem?

Men and Women

The answer is unequivocally yes.   

With all of the attention that Harvey Weinstein and Kevin Spacey and Louis C.K. have been getting recently, I asked a colleague if she felt there were issues in our industry. She thought for a moment and said: “There could be. Sometimes someone says something to me and I’m not sure if it’s my gender or because I’m still relatively new in the field. And then something else is said and I’m not sure if it’s my gender or if it’s because I shouldn’t have spoken so forcefully in a meeting.”

So I reached out to several other female colleagues and they said:

  • “I’ve had comments on session evaluations that said my breasts were distracting. (Do they sing and dance when I’m not watching?)”
  • “When I’m out training in a military establishment or an industry with lots of retired military, or even the manufacturing sector, I believe I have to work harder [than a man] to earn trust and credibility.”
  • “I’ve been told I should look more professional and buttoned up. I work in tech. Everyone wears jeans and tshirts. I don’t know if they’re saying this because I’m a woman, but I’ve never heard another guy say that he’s been asked to be more ‘buttoned up’.”
  • “When I was presenting my first big L&D project to the only male stakeholder, he’d only look at my male boss when communicating and sharing feedback.”
  • “You have no idea how many people I asked regarding my new headshot. Men hit on me via LinkedIn messaging.”
  • “I was in a table group discussion on the topic of motivation in instructional design at a large L&D conference recently and the only male in the group said: ‘If the motivation is based on your emotion and your audience is male, then you’ll lose all of them. If the motivation is based in logic, you’ll lose all the females.’ When a woman participant asked if he was serious, he doubled down, saying: ‘Men respond to logic, not emotions. Women won’t respond to logic, just emotions.'”

When I spoke to some of these colleagues, a common theme emerged from their stories. While some things were overt, there were many other things that come up in their daily routine – not being included in meetings or informal conversations with their male colleagues, getting feedback about how they came off “too strong” during a meeting – which they said might be attributed to other things, or perhaps these things happened because they were women.

As a man, I’ve never, ever wondered if I wasn’t included in a group because of my gender. I’ve never, ever wondered if someone wasn’t making eye contact with me or talking with me in a meeting because I’m a guy. And that is the very definition of male privilege. A collection of unearned advantages that I hold over my female colleagues in the learning and development field.

I was introduced to the concept of “privilege” a number of years ago with Peggy McIntosh’s 1989 article entitled White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack that includes a series of questions that help identify aspects of white privilege. In other words, Ms. McIntosh’s article and questions were around privilege along racial/ethnic lines.

Based upon my very limited research into the matter (“research” is a stretch, more based upon anecdotal evidence from a variety of female colleagues working in a variety of organizations and from a variety of career stages), I’d like to offer my own set of questions here. It’s a rough list. I’m going to work on refining it. For now, I invite you to take a look and if you have a minute or two, go ahead and complete it. (Download Male Privilege in the Learning Development Sector if you want to print it out.)

Male Privilege in the Sector

If you took the time to fill out this little questionnaire, I’d appreciate if you would use the comment section to share your gender and how many items you were able to check off. I’m curious to know if there’s a difference between male and female respondents.

(In case you’re wondering, I’m a male and I was able to check off every statement as being true for me.)


4 thoughts on “Does L&D have a gender problem?

  1. Great post, Brian. As a woman in the nonprofit sector, I was able to check off 5/6 of the options. If you had asked me to answer this survey 8 years ago, I would’ve likely responded differently, checking off only 1/6. I feel my sector may be a large reason behind how women are treated–but that’s just my narrow lens. When I go to conferences in the grantmaking industry (not L&D), its primarily women in attendance, and men are the minority. At the office, its an equal 50/50 gender split at all levels of the hierarchy. I feel relatively ‘lucky’, but that’s not to say I don’t see plenty of examples of each of your survey questions affecting my colleagues.

  2. Thanks for writing a great blog post on a difficult topic. I can relate to the colleague who said she’s not sure whether people say things to her because of her gender or because she’s new to the field. But the more experienced/confident I get as a learning developer, the better I’m getting at detecting “mansplaining” and sticking up for my point of view.

  3. Thankfully, I could mark most of these as true and I think its because our organization has made a concerted effort at this for years, from the board on down. … the other reason, which I realized in a recent conversation with women in my office about cat calls from men when they walk to a nearby grocery store from my office is that I don’t get cat calls (or Level 1 evaluations) of my looks … hmm, is it because of my boy-ish figure? Never thought that to be a “privilege”.

    • Thank you for introducing a difficult topic of discussion. The L&D industry isn’t exempt from this issue.

      The key now is how to change the “norm”. The good news is that there are men, like you and the men I call friends and colleagues, who realize this “norm” exists and willing to take up arms with women to change the tide. The bad news is that there are still some men who resist this effort. Saying it’s women being “overly emotional” or “taking things too personally” or “Don’t they know a joke when they hear one?” Heavy sigh. Yes, we know a joke when we hear one, and we know when that joke is at our expense. We know when men assume to “explain” things that require no explanation, what you are really trying to communicate. We know when you make comments about our looks, completely beyond what is contextually appropriate, you are making clear the priority and my brain isn’t it.

      Change comes with conversation, and empathetic understanding. Me, as a woman, trying to help guide behaviors (in an appropriate manner, we don’t have to be rude about it) and you, as a man, trying to really grasp a world (without being defensive) were one has to modulate her tone of voice or be called aggressive, a bitch, or a “trying to be a man”. In my world, that’s all I ask for – understanding and a willingness to see the world through a different lens, then be part of the change we all need.

      Thanks again Brian

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.