25 January 2022

L&D’s DEIB Opportunity

Heather Gilmartin Adams
Research Lead


  • As orgs invest more than ever in DEIB, L&D functions have an opportunity do the same 
  • L&D functions need to think more deeply and expansively about the impact they can have on DEIB
  • RedThread is launching a new study focusing on how L&D functions can most effectively help drive strong DEIB cultures in their orgs 
  • L&D leaders have the opportunity to participate in the study 

DEIB: So hot right now, for good reason

Diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging (DEIB) is receiving more attention and investment than ever before—for good reason, we think. The COVID-19 pandemic and the social justice movements of the past 2 years have highlighted the disparities in how different groups of people experience the workplace.

In response, 3 stakeholder groups are starting to demand more from orgs (Figure 1):

  • Customers want to buy from brands that lead the way on DEIB
  • Employees expect more action on DEIB from their employers
  • Investors are including social factors in their analyses and investment decisions1

Figure 1: Shifts in stakeholder expectations on DEIB | Source: Edelman Trust Barometer, 2022.

These shifting expectations have prompted orgs to do more to build strong DEIB cultures—to make themselves more diverse, equitable, and inclusive. We are seeing many orgs dramatically expanding their DEIB efforts.2

Why we care: L&D’s DEIB opportunity

As orgs invest more in DEIB, we see an opportunity for L&D functions to do the same. There’s a lot of—mostly untapped—potential for L&D functions to influence the DEIB cultures of their orgs.

L&D functions have great potential to influence the DEIB cultures of their orgs.

This potential stems from 2 characteristics of the L&D function: its responsibility to ensure the workforce has needed skills, and its ability to reach employees all across the org:

  • On the skill-building front, our DEIB skills research identified 19 skills that correlate with a stronger DEIB culture.3 L&D functions, with their responsibility for and expertise in employee skill development, can do more to enable employees to develop these critical DEIB skills.
  • L&D’s reach across the org means L&D functions have a unique opportunity to establish consistent org-wide expectations for “the ways we work” and “the ways we behave.” This reach also means that the ways employee development efforts are implemented—that is, whether the learning opportunities themselves are diverse, inclusive, and equitable—affect the overall DEIB culture of the org.

Moreover, we see alignment between a DEIB culture and the culture of learning that L&D has been talking about for so long. A DEIB culture is, at its core, about openness to the other and curiosity about the new and unfamiliar. Those are foundational values of learning cultures, too.

In other words: L&D functions have a dual opportunity to help create strong DEIB cultures and strong learning cultures at the same time.

L&D struggles to move beyond DEIB training

Perhaps sensing this opportunity, L&D functions seem to want to do more on DEIB. For example, we’re getting more requests from RedThread members to talk about our work on DEIB. We’ve also seen an uptick in the number of articles, videos, webinars, and other resources on DEIB targeted at L&D audiences.4 With a few notable exceptions, however, most of these resources focus on L&D’s historical DEIB comfort zone—DEIB compliance training.5

Our interpretation of this limited focus on DEIB training in the overall conversation is that L&D functions are struggling to see how they can be most effective on DEIB.

L&D functions struggle to see how they can be most effective on DEIB.

We think there are 3 reasons for this struggle:

L&D composition / demographics

According to an article citing Chief Learning Officer’s data as well as our own recent survey of L&D professionals, L&D functions have a diversity problem. The Chief Learning Officer article reported that 89% of learning and training managers are white, 5.6% Black or African American, 9% Hispanic or Latino, and 2.2% Asian American or Pacific Islander. It further noted that although women hold the majority of HR and L&D roles, only 38% of CLOs are women.6

With all the research on the value of having people with different experiences and ways of looking at things, it’s no wonder L&D functions might struggle to think outside the traditional box.

Unclear ownership of DEIB efforts

As orgs expand their DEIB efforts, more people are getting involved in DEIB. But many (including L&D functions) might lack DEIB experience and / or clarity on the exact role they should play. The answers to “Who’s doing what?” and “Who’s responsible for which parts of DEIB?” are getting more complicated—and relationships, roles, and responsibilities aren’t always clear. This may be contributing to L&D functions’ struggle to see where best to plug in.

L&D’s mindset

L&D functions have historically focused on DEIB training, but research shows that at best, DEIB training doesn't work and at worst it can backfire.7 Recently, we’ve seen L&D functions trying to expand beyond DEIB training—for example by incorporating DEIB principles into core manager training or leadership development courses that aren’t specifically about DEIB. We’ve even seen a handful of articles suggesting how to embed a DEIB lens into broader employee development efforts such as mentoring programs.8

That’s awesome. But these broader ideas about DEIB and learning are not yet widespread. In our experience thus far, L&D functions are thinking too small: Their beliefs about how L&D can support orgs’ DEIB efforts are limited. We think L&D functions need to think more deeply, expansively, and holistically about the impact they can have on DEIB.

Given these 3 challenges, we can see why many L&D functions haven’t yet begun expanding their efforts to create a DEIB culture in their orgs—and why many of them are at a loss as to exactly how best to help.

That’s why we’re launching new research focusing on DEIB and learning—to identify the ways L&D functions can most effectively help drive strong DEIB cultures in their orgs.

What we’ll research

As we launch into this research, our overarching question is:

What are the most impactful things L&D functions can do to help build a strong DEIB culture in their orgs?

More specifically:

  • What are forward-thinking L&D functions doing to build a DEIB culture in their orgs?
  • What changes can L&D functions make—to themselves and to the ways learning happens—to have the biggest impact on the DEIB culture in their orgs?
  • What are the major considerations that L&D functions should be taking into account if they’re just starting to expand their DEIB efforts?

This article is the first of several ways we’ll explore these questions. We'll also investigate how L&D functions are addressing the 3 challenges (demographics, ownership, and mindset) listed above.

Other activities associated with this research project include:

  • Literature review
  • Roundtable
  • Interviews
  • Key findings infographic
  • Final report

At RedThread, we believe in “doing research out loud”—in opening our research process to practitioners across the community. It makes us smarter and helps everyone gather ideas from a wider pool of people. To participate in the roundtable and / or interviews for this and other RedThread research projects, please reach out!

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.


  1. Creating a DEIB culture: The skills every employee needs, S. Garr and P. Mehrotra, RedThread Research, 2021.
  2. Two examples we provided in the DEIB skills research were: As of August 2021, job posting for “Director of Diversity & Inclusion” were 76% higher than those 12 months earlier, and the DEIB tech market has grown at a 59% CAGR over the past 2 years. Creating a DEIB culture: The skills every employee needs, S. Garr and P. Mehrotra, RedThread Research, 2021.
  3. “Quick Summary: Skills Driving DEIB,” P. Mehrotra, RedThread Research, 2021.
  4. See, for example, the number of DEIB resources on 2 popular L&D sites, Chief Learning Officer and the Association for Talent Development.
  5. Two of the most notable exceptions include “Companies Need to Think Bigger Than Diversity Training,” A. Kalev and F. Dobbin, Harvard Business Review, 2020 and “L&D’s DEI blind spot: Perpetuating inequity?” G. Cox and K. Peters, Chief Learning Officer, 2021.
  6. “L&D’s DEI blind spot: Perpetuating inequity?” G. Cox and K. Peters, Chief Learning Officer, 2021. RedThread research’s Nov-Dec 2021 survey of 281 L&D professionals found similar gender and ethnicity breakdowns.
  7. “Why Doesn’t Diversity Training Work? The Challenge for Industry and Academia,” F. Dobbin and A. Kalev, 2018.
  8. See, for example, “The future of diversity and apprenticeships in construction,” D. Groves, Chief Learning Officer, 2021, and “How to Build Inclusive Mentoring Programs for the Hybrid Workplace,” A. Purbasari Horton, 2021. Most of these articles focus on integrating a DEIB lens into one particular learning method (e.g., apprenticeships, mentoring) and fall short of discussing the integration of a DEIB lens into how learning happens in the org overall.


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