Organizations are investing more than ever in diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging (DEIB) efforts. We see an opportunity for L&D functions to do the same, beyond simple diversity training. With their influence on culture and reach across the enterprise, L&D functions are well-positioned to improve the DEIB culture in their organizations.
And L&D functions want to do more on DEIB. In LinkedIn Learning’s 2021 Workplace Learning Report, 64% of L&D professionals globally and 73% in North America said DEIB programs were a priority. Our own experience tracks with this trend: RedThread community members are asking more and more about DEIB and learning.
But L&D functions seem to struggle to identify the best ways to help. That’s why we launched a research study focusing on this question:
What are the most impactful things L&D functions can do to help build a robust DEIB culture in their organizations?
To get a grasp on the current DEIB and learning conversation, we reviewed nearly 100 articles, books, podcasts, and reports. We expected, frankly, to find a lot about diversity training and not much else. And, as expected, there was a lot about diversity training. But there were more interesting ideas, too.
This short article summarizes the key ideas we found, including:
- 4 themes from the literature
- 1 hidden gem
- 5 articles that caught our attention
- 6 additional articles to check out if you have time
What we found: 4 themes from the literature
The literature has lots of ideas about DEIB and learning. These ideas fell into 4 themes:
- L&D is tangential to the DEIB conversation
- L&D is focused on improving diversity training
- Developing underrepresented groups is a common DEIB strategy
- L&D functions need to take a hard look at themselves
L&D is tangential to the DEIB conversation
In the literature we reviewed, DEIB or org psych professionals sometimes wrote about diversity training or unconscious bias programs. But not many L&D professionals ventured into the broader DEIB conversation.
Additionally, a few studies we ran across revealed that L&D functions are on the periphery of DEIB efforts. In one survey by i4cp, only 25% of respondents said L&D is “heavily tasked” with efforts to improve diversity and inclusion goals.
Many articles noted that L&D and DEIB teams often do not work together as closely or as effectively as they could. As a result, L&D functions are sometimes left out of key DEIB strategy, goal-setting, and planning decisions. These pieces argued that if L&D functions want to do more on DEIB, they need to partner better with stakeholders across the business. For example, Matthew Daniel, principal at Guild Education, wrote:
"Rather than siloing [DEIB] objectives onto separate teams, CLOs and CDOs [Chief Diversity Officers] can accomplish more by working together, while also measuring and tracking progress at the same time."
Other pieces echoed Daniel’s point about measuring and tracking progress. They suggested that L&D functions should know how success on DEIB is defined, tracked, and measured in their organization. Then, they said, L&D should align the learning strategy to those goals and metrics.
L&D is focused on improving diversity training
We expected to see many articles arguing that compliance-focused, event-based DEIB training doesn’t work. And there were lots of articles about diversity and unconscious bias training. To our surprise, however, these articles took the ineffectiveness of these training programs as a given. They often cited the 2016 article, “Why Diversity Programs Fail,” as proof.
There were 2 broad threads in this portion of the literature:
- Training effectiveness: Ideas about making diversity training more effective in changing employee behavior. For example, articles mentioned using AR / VR simulations to encourage empathy and help employees practice skills.
- Inclusivity: Suggestions for making all training (especially diversity training) more inclusive. For example, the literature suggested soliciting diverse perspectives when designing training and content.
Some articles did explore additional learning methods that might be used to develop employees’ DEIB skills. Of these, many mentioned coaching managers on being more inclusive leaders. Others discussed microlearning and “nudges” that space learning over time. But these articles did not explore ways for L&D functions to improve DEIB outside of creating learning programs.
Developing underrepresented groups is a common DEIB strategy
The literature agreed that organizations should develop individuals from underrepresented groups. As one study by McKinsey pointed out, employees in underrepresented groups report having fewer development opportunities than other employees. Several articles argued that active and intentional support of underrepresented groups could help reduce this gap.
The literature also noted that employees from underrepresented groups are more likely to use and benefit from structured programs. There were many ideas about programs that might enable these employees to develop and advance. Some of the ideas mentioned included:
- Employee Resource Groups (ERGs)
- Work-study programs
- Work assignments (e.g., international postings)
- Rotational schemes
- Tuition reimbursement
- Talent marketplaces (to enhance visibility and access to opportunities)
- Intrapreneurship programs
- Communities of practice
- “People advisors” who provide career coaching
- Mentoring and sponsorship
In reviewing this theme, we noticed a disconnect: Many articles pushed for more development of underrepresented groups. But others noted that L&D isn’t heavily responsible for DEIB efforts (as we saw in the first theme of this review).
These threads seem contradictory. If developing underrepresented groups is so important, why isn’t L&D more central to DEIB strategies? The literature didn’t answer this question directly. But it’s interesting to note that many of the above programs aren’t traditionally L&D’s responsibility (e.g., rotations, ERGs). We think that may be the reason so many authors emphasized the need for L&D functions to partner with key stakeholders, as mentioned above.
L&D functions need to take a hard look at themselves
A few articles in the literature asked L&D functions to do some serious self-reflection. They are not the bulk of the literature—not by a long shot. But we are calling them out as a theme because they highlighted an issue with substantial DEIB implications: L&D’s own lack of diversity. These articles—especially the ones from authors Gena Cox and Katy Peters, Ave Rio, and Maria Morukian—noted that most L&D functions are majority white and majority women (except at senior levels). Most L&D professionals hold advanced degrees. That means:
White women with advanced degrees dominate L&D. At more senior levels, white men with advanced degrees do.
According to these articles, non-diverse L&D functions might find it harder to drive DEIB efforts and make employee development more diverse, equitable, and inclusive. For example, some articles noted that a lack of diversity might allow bias to creep into the ways that L&D functions tend to:
- Define, prioritize, and measure skills, aptitude, and abilities
- Use data to make decisions about learning
- Decide which development opportunities to offer
- Choose learning methods to invest in
These articles explored how the L&D function might need to change itself to address potential biases. They are a great start to a broader conversation about all the ways L&D functions can contribute to DEIB efforts in their organizations.
Hidden gem: A systems approach to DEIB and learning
We found a handful of articles that took a systemic view of how L&D functions might influence DEIB. They thought more broadly about how to make learning more equitable and inclusive, rather than just about the programs L&D functions might create.
J.D. Dillon, CEO of learning vendor Axonify, wrote:
"Restoring learning equity requires a fundamental mindset shift. Rather than relying on programs as the basic unit of learning, [talent development] professionals should adopt a systems approach."
By a “systems approach,” these articles meant looking at things like accessibility and opportunity:
- Who is offered access to development opportunities, and why?
- How might access to development opportunities vary based on an employee’s location, access to tech, or ability to use nonworking hours for development?
- Are learning opportunities easy for all employees to find? Are they widely and effectively marketed to all employees?
We appreciated these prompts to think about how L&D functions can ensure that all employees have equitable access to development opportunities. And we believe a systemic lens will reveal many additional ways that L&D functions can make learning more diverse, equitable, and inclusive. We plan to investigate this systemic approach in more depth as part of this research.
What caught our attention
Of the literature we reviewed, several pieces stood out to us. Each of the articles below contained information that we found helpful and / or intriguing. We learned from their perspectives and encourage you to do the same. Click on the titles to go to the full articles.
"The biggest opportunities for TD professionals to make a difference [to DEIB] lie in three important but often overlooked segments: knowledge management, career and leadership development, and coaching."
This article has detailed, practical advice for L&D professionals who want to do more on DEIB, above and beyond DEIB training. It also has some great examples of what good looks like—and what good doesn’t look like.
- Training courses are one part, but not the cornerstone, of a strong DEIB strategy.
- L&D functions can use their knowledge management expertise to make tacit DEIB knowledge more explicit, storable, and shareable.
- Inclusive, equitable employee development programs require DEIB and L&D staff to work together.
- Coaching can build more diverse, inclusive, and equitable workplaces by equipping managers with DEIB skills.
"What if the L&D professionals who measure achievement of… skills understand the day-to-day experience of only a subset of their colleagues? What if the career progression decisions from those measurements perpetuate some of the same distorted effects that are now evident in educational assessment?"
This article examines how L&D’s potential biases and blind spots might lead to inequitable employee development. It makes a case for a proactive, systemic approach to overcoming those biases.
- The L&D profession lacks racial and ethnic diversity, potentially leading to blind spots, biases, and inequity.
- The way skills are currently defined, prioritized, and measured may lead to biased outcomes.
- Overcoming L&D’s blind spots requires a systemic approach that re-examines many long-standing L&D practices, including how skills are defined and how data are used.
- A proactive approach to addressing L&D’s blind spots will help make workplaces more inclusive.
"Our research made clear that who you know is as important—often more so—than what you know when it comes to rising through the ranks."
Organizational network analysis (ONA) can reveal who knows whom. It can uncover who has access to informal networks and sources of info about development opportunities. Using ONA, L&D functions can also identify marginalized groups who can be invited for specific development.
- One study revealed that men’s informal relationships with their male managers could explain nearly 40% of the gender pay gap.
- Women are less likely to be at the center of the networks that matter: knowledge, innovation, and critical decision-making networks.
- L&D functions can impact DEIB by codifying and sharing the networking strategies of people with solid and diverse networks.
- L&D functions can use ONA to assess the effectiveness of specific diversity training and other learning programs.
"‘Here we are in Taiwan, in Asia, where they were doing training and learning way before the US, and the two major keynoters they got were white guys over 60 from New York,’ Masie said."
This article is packed with quotes from L&D and DEIB experts. These experts explain why L&D functions must reflect the employee population in terms of race, ethnicity, gender, background, etc.
- The number of people of color in L&D does not reflect the communities L&D serves.
- L&D functions are often asked to be the ambassadors of organizational culture, which is difficult if they aren’t representative of the workforce.
- Thought leaders in L&D are often older white men, reflecting the people who pioneered the field in the 1960s and 1970s.
- To increase diversity, L&D functions need to be intentionally inclusive about whom they highlight as thought leaders.
- L&D’s role in DEIB must be part of a larger organizational strategy.
"When asked if their company offers support for women from executives and middle managers, 72% of male respondents say yes, compared with only 54% of women."
This report helps companies identify the specific diversity and inclusion initiatives—including learning initiatives—that offer the greatest payoff for gender equity. It breaks initiatives into 4 helpful categories: Proven Measures, Hidden Gems, Baseline Measures, and Overrated Measures.
- Proven measures are valued by women and known to be effective by leaders. For example, a proven measure related to L&D is sponsoring women at scale.
- Hidden gems are highly effective initiatives that many organizations should pursue. For example, a hidden gem related to L&D is offering professional development for underrepresented groups.
- Baseline measures are basic steps that all organizations should do, but that don’t have a transformative effect on women’s daily experience. For example, a baseline measure related to L&D is mentoring women.
- Overrated measures are seemingly promising efforts that often do not lead to real cultural change. For example, an overrated measure related to L&D is one-time diversity training sessions.
Additional articles to check out
- "Are learning equity issues affecting your company?" J.D. Dillon, TD Magazine, 2021.
- Improving Workplace Culture through Evidence-Based Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Practices, S. Creary, N. Rothbard, and J. Scruggs, The Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, 2021.
- "How internal talent marketplaces can help overcome seven common DEI strategy pitfalls," M. Heiskell, D. Kearns-Manolatos, and M. Rawat, Deloitte, 2021.
- "Assignments are critical tools to achieve workplace gender equity," E. Macke, G. Gall Rosa, S. Gilmartin, and C. Simard, MIT Sloan Management Review, 2022.
- "How does your company support ‘first-generation professionals’?" M. Burwell and B. Maldonaldo, SHRM, 2022.
- "Providing performance feedback to support neurodiverse employees," M. Hamdani and S. Biagi, MIT Sloan Management Review, 2022.
Heather Gilmartin Adams
Heather is a senior consultant at RedThread Research. Trained in conflict resolution and organizational development, Heather has spent the past ten years in various capacities at organizational culture and mindset change consultancies as well as the U.S. Department of the Treasury. She holds a masters degree in international affairs from Columbia University and a bachelors degree in history from Princeton University. She has lived in Germany, China, Japan, and India and was, for one summer, a wrangler on a dude ranch in Colorado.