24 May 2022

Less DEIB training, more learning equity

Heather Gilmartin Adams
Research Lead

TL;DR

  • L&D functions are doing more to support DEIB efforts. In the past few years, L&D functions have increased their efforts to improve diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging (DEIB) in their organizations.
  • L&D functions have a huge opportunity to improve DEIB by making employee development itself more inclusive and equitable. Making the systems and processes of employee development themselves more diverse, equitable, and inclusive is an underutilized and effective way for L&D functions to make a difference on DEIB.
  • High-performing organizations make development opportunities more transparent. 81% of employees in high-performing organizations said their organization is transparent about the development opportunities available, compared to 61% of employees in other organizations.
  • High-performing organizations offer more equal access to development. 84% of employees in high-performing organizations said employees in their organization have equal access to development opportunities, compared to 58% of employees in other organizations.
  • High-performing organizations enable more employees to participate in development opportunities. Across demographic groups, about 2x more employees in high-performing organizations reported being enabled to participate in development.

L&D's DEIB commitments are growing

As we head further from the catalytic events of summer 2020, it’s heartening to see that organizations are continuing to ramp up efforts on diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging (DEIB). For example, the Association for Talent Development (ATD) reported that 39% of organizations have introduced DEIB programs in the past 2 years. And organizations appear committed to continuing this trend: A study by Traliant and WBR Insights reported that 79% of organizations planned to allocate more budget and / or resources to DEIB in 2022 compared to 2021.

Like their broader organizations, L&D functions are doing more to foster DEIB. LinkedIn Learning’s 2 most recent annual workplace learning reports (2022 and 2021) indicate that L&D functions plan to deploy more DEIB programs in 2022 compared to 2021. In addition, more L&D functions said they own or share responsibility for DEIB efforts in their organizations (Figure 1).

L&D commitments to DEIB efforts | Sources: LinkedIn Learning Workplace Learning Reports, 2021 and 2022

Figure 1: L&D commitments to DEIB efforts  |  Sources: LinkedIn Learning Workplace Learning Reports, 2021 and 2022

These growing commitments make a lot of sense: L&D functions should be more involved in DEIB efforts. With their broad and cross-functional reach and their ability to influence expectations for the ways people work and interact with one another, L&D functions are uniquely positioned to drive the kind of deep and widespread culture change that DEIB requires. As Emma Birchall, Global Head of Diversity and Inclusion at Ericsson, put it:

You can’t overstate the importance of L&D in DEIB. L&D is the part of the organization that translates the business strategy into signals to individuals and teams about how they execute on the strategy.

Moreover, improving DEIB is (or should be) an enterprise effort. In our experience, DEIB efforts that are seen as 1 group’s job face an uphill battle. DEIB culture change isn’t something that can be achieved if only 1 team, no matter how dedicated and capable, is committed to it.

As L&D functions continue to become more deeply embedded in their organizations’ DEIB efforts, partnering with teams across the organization—especially DEIB teams—will be key. We touch on this idea of partnership throughout this paper.

3 reasons L&D isn’t more effective on improving DEIB (yet)

Despite the growing sense that L&D functions can and should do more to improve the DEIB cultures in their organizations, many are not contributing as effectively as they could. We see 3 reasons for this:

  1. Lack of organizational DEIB policy / guidance. Many of the leaders we talked to said they were waiting for an organizational DEIB strategy to be developed before they started incorporating DEIB into employee development experiences.
  2. Defaulting to training. In many organizations, it’s assumed that training is all L&D functions do (or should do). This can lead to an over-focus on DEIB training as a strategy for effecting change. There’s a good deal of research indicating that one-off, compliance-focused diversity training alone does not improve DEIB in organizations. The article “Why Diversity Programs Fail,” by F. Dobbin and A. Kalev, gives a good overview of why this may be.
  3. L&D’s own blind spots. In the learning survey that we conducted in December 2021, about 75% of L&D respondents were white (Figure 2). This lack of diversity may make it difficult for L&D functions to recognize their own biases. For example, in our survey, 50% of L&D pros who identified as white said their L&D function proactively applies a DEIB lens to learning opportunities. Only 36% of those who did not identify as white agreed with the same statement.
RedThread learning survey L&D respondents by race / ethnicity (n=288) | Source: RedThread Research, 2021

Figure 2: RedThread learning survey L&D respondents by race / ethnicity (n=288) | Source: RedThread Research, 2021. See appendix for survey methodology and respondent demographics.

Jeffrey M., Senior Manager for Organizational & Leadership Development at a commercial space company, articulated the challenges associated with a lack of diversity within L&D functions in this way:

If you don’t have [a Black man] like me, or someone Latino or Asian on the team, then there’s a certain lack of diversity of thought that’s built into the development opportunities that are offered.

Fortunately, these challenges aren’t insurmountable. There’s a lot that L&D functions can do—starting now—to more effectively drive DEIB cultures in their organizations. That’s the focus of this study.

Focus on learning equity

In our lit review on DEIB & learning, we identified 4 main areas L&D functions consider when approaching DEIB (Figure 3):

  1. Delivering DEIB training. L&D functions deliver training on topics like unconscious bias, with a focus on making the training more effective and “stickier."
  2. Making all training more DEIB. L&D functions adapt the language, visuals, physical and virtual spaces, etc., for all trainings to make them more diverse, equitable, and inclusive.
  3. Developing employees’ DEIB skills. L&D functions identify the skills that will drive a DEIB culture in their organizations and focus on enabling employees to develop those key skills.
  4. Focusing on learning equity. L&D functions take a systemic approach to DEIB in employee development. They make the systems and processes of employee development more diverse, equitable, and inclusive.
L&D functions consider 4 approaches for their DEIB efforts

Figure 3: 4 ways L&D can improve DEIB in their organizations | Source: RedThread Research, 2022.

Our research focused on this 4th approach: learning equity. We chose this focus largely because much has been written on the first 3 approaches, but learning equity is a relatively new concept for organizations. This systemic approach was described by Kate Shaw, Director of Learning at Airbnb:

DEIB has to be not just a piece of what you do, but woven throughout everything you do.

In addition, there’s a correlation between a systemic focus on DEIB and high performance. In our learning survey, 61% of L&D pros in high-performing organizations said their L&D function proactively applies a DEIB lens to employee development, versus 36% of L&D pros in the rest of our dataset.

3 elements of learning equity

Our research indicates that organizations are making development opportunities more diverse, equitable, and inclusive by paying attention to 3 specific aspects of employee development (Figure 4):

Learning equity depends on 3 aspects of employee development: discovery, access, and participation

Figure 4: The 3 elements of learning equity | Source: RedThread Research, 2022.

  • Discovery is how employees find out about development opportunities. Employees use a range of formal and informal methods to get information about the opportunities available to them
  • Access is which employees can take advantage of a development opportunity if they want to. Employees’ access to many development opportunities is determined by the organization, often based on an employee’s role, skills, job function, job level, or management status.
  • Participation refers to which employees actually participate in the development opportunities they have access to.

L&D functions should assess Discovery, Access, and Participation in their organizations to identify where systems and processes may be inequitable or hamper diversity and inclusivity. With a more nuanced understanding of where the gaps are, they can take more targeted actions to close those gaps and improve learning equity.

Discovery

Discovery is a critical component of learning, as it’s what connects employees to the opportunities they need. Some of the ways employees discover opportunities to learn and grow include:

  • Informational emails from the organization
  • Newsletters
  • Assigned or required training
  • Searching / browsing on the internet, intranet, LMS, LXP, or other learning platform
  • Automated recommendations from learning systems
  • Recommendations from senior leaders, managers, peers, or colleagues

Even when several of these methods are available to employees, some groups of people face consistent and systemic barriers to discovering opportunities.

For example, many L&D functions rely on email to share info about development opportunities. But if a large portion of the workforce doesn’t have an email address or can’t easily check their work email regularly, then defaulting to email isn’t an equitable or inclusive method for Discovery. As one roundtable participant put it:

It's inequitable if L&D sends an email about a development opportunity and 30% of your workforce doesn't use email.

We also know—for example, through research we did on DEIB skills—that information about opportunities often flows through informal channels. Some opportunities, like job rotations or special assignments, are open only to those who know about them.

Interestingly, our research found that high-performing organizations make opportunities more transparent (Figure 5). About 81% of employees in high-performing organizations reported their organizations are transparent about the development opportunities that are available, compared to 61% of employees in other organizations.

High-performing organizations make development opportunities more transparent. 81% of respondents vs 61% of respondents agree.

Figure 5: Respondents who agree their organization is transparent about the development opportunities available to employees, to a significant or very great extent, by business performance (n=1521) | Source: RedThread Research, 2021.

L&D functions can make employee development more equitable and inclusive by making all opportunities explicit and transparent to everyone. With this transparency, employees can find and take advantage of the learning that’s right for them.

Making Discovery more equitable and inclusive

This research uncovered a number of challenges associated with Discovery, as well as some effective ways that L&D functions are addressing those challenges.

Challenge 1: Organizations make access to opportunities too narrow

Historically, organizations make development opportunities available only to employees with an immediate or obvious need. In general, this choice applies not just to costly opportunities, but even to the ones that are free or inexpensive.

This narrow focus limits Discovery: Employees are told only about the opportunities that the organization feels they need, rather than having the choice, freedom, and equity to determine their own career path.

Action: Increase transparency about what’s available

To the extent possible, L&D functions can make Discovery more equitable and inclusive by becoming much more transparent about all the development opportunities that are available.

For example, they might:

  • Remove limitations based on role, function, seniority, etc. from what’s visible / searchable in the LMS or LXP
  • Review any matching or recommendation algorithms to ensure they’re equitable and inclusive
  • Communicate directly with employees rather than relying on managers to disseminate information about opportunities
  • If there are different newsletters or email distribution lists for different target audiences, publish those lists and allow employees to opt into them
  • Implement a talent marketplace to make projects, gigs, rotations, jobs, mentoring opportunities, etc. more explicit and discoverable by anyone in the organization. This doesn’t necessarily mean implementing a new tech tool: It can be done in a low-tech / low-cost way with spreadsheets, or it can be an add-on to existing learning or HR systems

Making opportunities visible to everyone, even if not everyone gets Access to them, at least enables employees to see more options—to envision different paths they might pursue.

Challenge 2: Different groups of employees use different methods to discover opportunities

Part of what drives inequities in Discovery is the simple fact that not everyone accesses information in the same way.

In our research, we saw some of the largest and most consistent differences in Discovery between frontline and not-frontline workers. Frontline employees often experience challenges using some of the most common methods that L&D functions rely on to share information about opportunities (e.g., email).

Action: Tailor Discovery method by employee group

Leaders said they put a lot of effort into understanding how different groups of employees discover info about development opportunities. Two specific ideas for uncovering these differences are:

  • Experiment with different channels. Do some A/B testing. Try putting the same message in different communications channels (e.g., email, chat, intranet, etc.). Track open rates and clicks by employee group and by channel to find out who’s accessing the message where. Reach out to the IT team for information from systems the L&D function can’t pull data from.
  • Ask for feedback. Many learning leaders said they value their relationships with Employee Resource Group (ERG) leaders and DEIB team members in part because these individuals can provide insight into how certain employee groups find information about development opportunities.

Mike Murphy, Director of Inclusion and Community Programs at CFA Institute, talked about the importance of having data to identify obstacles to Discovery:

Let’s say I've reached the entire 70-person marketing team but only 12 of the huge IT team. You have to have the data and then ask: What was the obstacle? What's keeping me from getting that message to all the places they are?

With a more nuanced understanding of how different groups of employees acquire information about development opportunities, L&D functions can adjust their efforts to utilize the channels that target audiences rely on the most.

Action: Cast a wide communications net

Another approach is for L&D functions to communicate more, and more widely. Many leaders talked about the need to overcommunicate. They suggested:

  • Repeat messaging multiple times in multiple channels
  • Leverage influencers in the organization—such as ERG leaders—to get the word out about development opportunities
  • Don’t assume tech is best: Think broadly about all the communications channels available. Sometimes paper flyers in a break room are most effective

Leaders emphasized the importance of trying multiple ways of sharing info about development opportunities to increase the chances that all employees will find what they need.

Challenge 3: Some employees have more time and ability to find opportunities

To be sure, employees have a responsibility for their own learning—and part of that responsibility is finding relevant development opportunities.

However, it’s also true that employees’ ability to find opportunities can differ based on the strength of their networks, how much time they can spend looking for opportunities on the clock, their position within the organization, their location, their tech capabilities, and more. Some employees are more privileged in their ability to Discover opportunities than others.

Action: Make Discovery easier for all

L&D functions can make Discovery more equitable and inclusive by making it more automatic and embedded in employees’ work. Some specific ideas include:

  • Embed information about opportunities into the places employees do their work—such as chat, browsers, intranet homepages, point of sale systems, time clock systems, etc.
  • Incorporate information about opportunities into processes that all employees go through, such as performance and development conversations, onboarding, required / compliance training, or open enrollment for benefits. All these events offer touchpoints where employees could potentially share information about their skills and interests and receive information about opportunities.
  • Use tech to match employees with opportunities based on their skills, abilities, experiences, and desires. The recommendation engines in many learning tech systems, especially LXPs, are intended to surface relevant opportunities for employees.

One company makes Discovery easier by asking employees, as part of their regular development planning process, to identify and write down the skills they’d like to work on. This information is fed into the LXP so that it can make recommendations based on those skills.

Real-World Thread: Making Discovery a 2-Way Street

Ericsson, a multinational networking and telecommunications company, has over 100,000 employees around the world. Unsurprisingly, these employees have very different development needs and goals.

To address the challenge of enabling such a varied population to discover development opportunities, Ericsson is taking the burden of Discovery off the employee’s shoulders as much as possible.

To do this, the company is implementing a skills-based learning tech ecosystem that will match employees with opportunities based on their skills signature.

CLO Vidya Krishnan described:

The ecosystem should be intelligent enough that you don’t have to find the opportunities. They find you. It’s a 2-way street.

The skills signature will comprehensively and holistically describe not only what an employee can do now, but what they want to do in the future. This will allow matching algorithms to surface highly relevant opportunities to employees of all kinds.

Access

Access to employee development refers to who can take advantage of a development opportunity if they want to. Access is determined by things like:

  • Nominations for select programs
  • Logins / permissions to view / consume certain courses in an LMS or LXP
  • Manager approval to participate in development opportunities
  • Technology (access to computer, tablet, mobile, good internet, etc.)
  • Technical capability / tech savvy
  • Cost (particularly the ability to pay for opportunities that are then reimbursed)
  • Time zone
  • Language

In the past few years, some organizations have been working to make Access more inclusive. For example, RedThread's research on coaching found they’re offering coaching in various forms to more employees. They’re also opening courses to more participants (which, in many cases, became possible as in-person courses were put online during the pandemic) or removing restrictions on inexpensive or free content.

Valarie Williams-Foy, Organizational & Staff Development Lead at the University of London, described how the university opens Access to all employees:

We were founded on the value of access, as we were the first university in the UK to allow women. We allow anyone to register for any development opportunity.

In high-performing organizations, more respondents agree that employees have equal Access to development opportunities (compared to employees in other organizations). Figure 6 illustrates this difference: In high-performing organizations, 84% of employees agree employees have equal Access, compared to 58% of employees in other organizations.

High-performing organizations offer more equal Access to development opportunities.

Figure 6: Respondents who report people in their organization have equal access to development opportunities, to a significant or very great extent, by business performance (n=1521) | Source: RedThread Research, 2021.

Of the 3 aspects of learning equity, Access is the one with the biggest power differential between employees and organizations. No matter how hard some employees try, they may not be given Access to certain opportunities. This means it’s especially incumbent on organizations to ensure the Access they do provide is as equitable and inclusive as possible.

Making Access more equitable and inclusive

L&D functions are taking targeted actions to address 3 challenges associated with making Access to development opportunities more equitable and inclusive.

Challenge 1: The way skills / abilities are defined, prioritized, and measured may cause Access to be inequitable

In many organizations, there are assumptions and implicit biases that influence how skills and abilities are defined for various tasks and roles. If these assumptions are not reviewed, identified, and addressed, then the criteria used to measure skills and match employees with opportunities may be inherently inequitable.

Action: Make decisions about Access transparent and equitable

As with many DEIB efforts, simply bringing transparency to decisions can help improve equity around who gets Access to development opportunities. To make decisions more transparent, L&D functions can do the following:

  • Establish and publicize standardized criteria for any nomination-based opportunities. Criteria can be based on, for example, employees’ current and needed skills, tenure / experience, and career desires. Leaders in this research noted that it’s important to review nominations to ensure they adhere to the criteria.
  • Review and revise any underlying or foundational documentation—for example, skills or competency definitions—that might inform decisions about Access to development. This effort can ensure the inputs to decisions about Access are themselves as unbiased and inclusive as possible. It’s likely that some of this documentation lives outside the L&D function, so partnering with other functions is critical here.
  • Consider removing human decisions altogether. It’s possible to implement tools or matching processes that can automatically give employees Access to content and opportunities. For example, some internship, apprenticeship, and rotational schemes simply assign people to teams or projects, rather than managers selecting people for their teams.

We particularly like the idea of removing human decisions where possible. In our experience, automatic matches (rather than manager selection) can add more diversity of thought to a team—since nobody is selected for “fit”—and are often more successful than managers or employees might expect.

Challenge 2: Legacy systems, processes, and assumptions can make Access inequitable

Most organizations have legacy systems and processes like HiPo nomination schemes or manager approvals for many opportunities that might limit Access for certain people.

In some cases, for example, managers are reluctant to approve employees’ requests to participate in development opportunities. Often this reluctance is driven by a belief that their teams won’t be able to meet targets if they spend work time learning—or, if the opportunity is a rotation or gig, a fear of losing the employee down the line. In other cases, employees aren’t given Access to courses because the courses aren’t deemed relevant to their work or their career path.

All these legacy systems create potential biases in Access that prevent certain employees from benefitting from some (often highly valuable) development opportunities.

Action: Track Access metrics and step in when something isn’t right

L&D functions can make some of these legacy systems more equitable and inclusive largely by shining a spotlight on who has Access to what, so that inequities become more obvious. To do this, L&D functions can track Access metrics, identify gaps, and step in when something doesn’t look right.

For example, one leader shared that for a HiPo program he ran, he noticed only 9% of nominees were women—when women made up 38% of the target audience for the program. He used this data to get buy-in to rewrite the nomination criteria for the program. The number of women nominees rose shortly thereafter.

Other leaders shared similar stories and emphasized that they couldn’t have intervened or made changes without data. They track access metrics such as:

  • Nomination numbers for select programs / opportunities
  • Amount spent per employee on development
  • Number of employees with access to mentor or sponsorship programs
  • Number of employees who have regular career conversations with their managers

These metrics can be sliced and analyzed by categories like frontline status, gender identity, age, seniority, job level, or race / ethnicity (in some countries). Which data cuts are most important will depend on which employee groups are underrepresented in your organization.

Challenge 3: Logistical and operational barriers can make Access inequitable

Logistical and operational factors like timing, language, tech, and cost can all be barriers to Access. For some employees, particularly those on the front line, it can be difficult to Access development opportunities while on the clock. For others, being in the “wrong” time zone or speaking the “wrong” language might prevent them from accessing development opportunities.

When it comes to online and remote learning, tech access is a big issue for some organizations. Some employees may not have the right device(s) or a strong enough internet connection. Some may not be able to afford better internet if they’re working from home, for example.

And affordability is an issue not only for employees but for companies: It can be expensive for organizations to open up access to more employees.

Action: Collaborate to identify and address common barriers to Access

L&D functions should identify and eliminate as many common barriers to Access as possible. In many cases, this means working with leadership, IT, HR, and other teams to make changes.

To address the time challenge, one approach is to try formats or methods that do not require employees to step away from their work for extended periods of time. Some leaders are experimenting with microlearning, for example, so that employees can access development in short snippets. To address some of the other challenges, L&D functions might:

  • Provide devices to all employees
  • Offer learning stipends and / or prepay for outside opportunities rather than providing reimbursement
  • Offer learning methods that allow for flexible schedules
  • Allow local teams to tailor or translate language
  • Offer events at times that work globally, or multiple access times
  • Open opportunities that have little or no marginal cost per employee to all employees, whether or not the opportunities are directly related to their role

These logistical and operational barriers were cited again and again in the course of this research—yet they may not be entirely within the L&D function’s control to fix. In these cases, having strong relationships with other functions can help pay for and provision some of the solutions suggested here.

Real-World Thread: Tracking Access metrics to improve learning equity

South Africa is 1 of a handful of countries with strict reporting requirements on companies’ training spend. Organizations are required to track and report how much they spend to train different groups of employees. These reports prompt companies to show that they have provided equal training opportunities to all employees.

At one major bank in South Africa, the head of learning solutions points out that this reporting isn’t just a check-the-box exercise. It’s the right thing to do, and it’s good for business because it helps increase the quality of all employees at the bank.

The bank tracks Access metrics like how much money is invested in training people from disadvantaged groups. Reports are broken down by job grade, race, gender, and disability status. The reporting requirements have been tightened in recent years to prevent companies from favoring training spend on certain job levels. These tighter requirements complicate the reporting, but ensure a fair distribution of investment across employees at all levels in the organization. Now, reporting targets are set by job grade and job band to drive equity in investment.

Each year, the company spends a percentage of payroll to develop a certain band of employees, with the goal of developing a strong, diverse pipeline of employees moving into job bands and job functions that currently have less representation.

Participation

Participation refers to which and how many employees actually take advantage of the development opportunities available to them. Our past research found that employees participate in employee development by doing 6 things:

  • Planning their development and careers
  • Discovering opportunities (as discussed above)
  • Consuming learning content and experiences
  • Experimenting with knowledge and skills
  • Connecting with others for learning
  • Performing better on the job, and learning while doing it

Participation in development opportunities encompasses all 6 of these behaviors, and there’s a wide variety of methods that employees can use to engage in them. The research we did on learning methods found 66 learning methods, and we’re sure there are more.

High-performing organizations enable more Participation in employee development (Figure 7). For this discussion of learning equity, we broke down our survey respondents’ answers by age, frontline status, gender identity, and race / ethnicity. Across all groups, more employees in high-performing organizations reported their organizations enable them to participate in these 6 employee development behaviors, compared to employees in other organizations. As the saying goes, a rising tide lifts all boats.

High-performing organizations enable more Participation by all employee groups

Figure 7: Respondents who agree their organization enables them to engage in each learning behavior, to a significant or very great extent, by business performance (n=1530). Similar percentages were found when we looked at these 6 behaviors by employee group. | Source: RedThread Research, 2021.

Still, we know that Participation in most organizations isn’t as equitable or inclusive as it could be: Most organizations have groups of employees who aren’t participating in development as much as they could or should. The challenge for L&D functions is to find those groups of people, figure out why they’re not participating, and fix what’s causing those inequities.

Making Participation more equitable and inclusive

We discovered 3 primary challenges associated with Participation, as well as targeted actions that L&D functions can take to address those challenges.

Challenge 1: L&D functions need better insights on Participation

To make Participation as diverse, equitable, and inclusive as possible, L&D functions must understand where the inequities in Participation in their organizations are and what’s driving those differences.

Data is critical to gaining that understanding with some level of detail and nuance. Without data, actions might be well-intentioned and seem reasonable, but potentially lead in the wrong direction.

Action: Analyze Participation data to identify and address inequities

Data about Participation tends to be more readily available than data about Discovery or Access. Most L&D functions track Participation rates: “butts in seats” is one of L&D’s most well-established metrics. If demographic data is available, L&D functions can use it to slice and dice their Participation data to see where there are differences, and to understand who’s taking advantage of which opportunities.

L&D functions can analyze available data to answer questions about Participation such as:

  • How do Participation rates vary by gender, ethnicity, age, frontline status, or other demographics that matter to our organization?
  • What differences in Participation show up if we look at various intersectional identities?
  • Are different groups of employees participating in different types of opportunities—for example, required training vs. stretch or rotational assignments? Who and why?
  • Are some groups of employees spending more time on development opportunities than others? Who and why?
  • Do some groups of employees participate in a greater range of development opportunities than others? Who and why?
  • Do some groups of employees have stronger connections to more senior or more influential people in the organization who can help them grow? Who and why?

Tania Tiippana, an OD consultant working with a multinational manufacturing company, emphasized the importance of gathering data from all employee groups:

I asked, “Do we have data about how things are working in South Korea? In Poland?” We didn’t. So we did a global needs analysis and tracked participation by gender, location, and so on to find the gaps.

Although the answers to the above questions won’t make Participation more diverse, equitable, and inclusive by themselves, they can help L&D functions prioritize and decide where to take action.

Challenge 2: Messaging about opportunities may exclude certain employee groups

The language and visuals used to market development opportunities matter a lot—they’re often what makes the first impression about an opportunity to an employee. If employees perceive that an opportunity is not inclusive of “people like me,” they may choose not to participate.

Many L&D functions are discovering the various ways their organization’s messaging about opportunities isn’t inclusive, from gendered language to images that only show people of particular ages or ethnicities.

Action: Ensure messaging is DEIB

L&D functions appreciate that messaging should be inclusive and applicable to a broad base of employees. We heard of many efforts in L&D functions to broaden the language they used to describe opportunities, particularly ensuring that the language and visuals represented their organization’s employee population. Specifically, L&D functions were:

  • Including broad representation of different genders, ages, races / ethnicities, and worker types (manufacturing, office, retail, etc.) in visuals and language, aligned with the demographics of their workforce
  • Ensuring language does not exclude certain groups of employees—for example, using highly competitive language or analogies that only certain people understand (such as sports metaphors)
  • Implementing processes to regularly review all messaging through a DEIB lens

A number of leaders recommended partnering with the DEIB team to assess how inclusive the messaging for development opportunities is. Many DEIB teams offer fairness audits. They can review messaging and outreach strategies, and make recommendations for improvements.

Challenge 3: Some opportunities aren’t designed inclusively

Sometimes an opportunity might be inequitable or exclusive because it’s not well-designed for certain groups of people. Participant demographics can also be a source of exclusion. If there are no members of underrepresented groups participating in the opportunity—or in the roles an employee might attain through a particular development path—employees considering the opportunity might be less likely to start down that path.

Action: Incorporate diverse perspectives when developing opportunities

One of our favorite insights from this research is that no matter how much we think through something, it's likely to be biased if only a few people are doing the thinking.

Leaders advised doing one simple thing to reduce this bias: Bring more people into the process. There are 2 main ways to do this:

  1. Add perspectives to the L&D function itself. There are lots of ways to bring in new perspectives: permanent hires, special projects, rotations, gigs, internships, apprenticeships, and more. One leader advocated for recruiting people from underrepresented groups to L&D early in their careers, so that there’s a pipeline of more diverse L&D thinkers and leaders into the future.
  2. Ask for feedback. Many, many leaders talked about how they solicit feedback from lots of people in their organizations. They ask for input from ERG leaders, the DEIB team, and focus groups / interviews of employees who are representative of the organization’s employee population.

Based on these diverse perspectives, L&D functions can make changes to things like the format of an opportunity, who participates, or even what opportunities are offered.

Action: Get intentional about demographics

Demographics matter for Participation. But they matter in different ways for different opportunities. Sometimes it makes sense to intentionally build diversity into the participant pool of an opportunity, so that no matter who looks at the opportunity they see someone participating who looks like them. Other times there’s a need to craft development opportunities solely for members of specific underrepresented groups.

The common thread is intentionality. Leaving demographics to chance is where bias and inequity can creep in. This intentionality can also help ensure there is a pipeline of employees from underrepresented groups ready to move into more senior / more visible positions, so that employees coming after can picture themselves on similar paths.

Real-World Thread: Building diverse cohorts

A multinational aerospace corporation has an L&D function that is strongly committed to ensuring diversity within the cohorts that participate in their leadership development programs. There are 3 levels of programs for aspiring, new, and current leaders.

The L&D function believes that if everyone in a cohort looks and thinks the same way, they’re going to get less value from the program. So they scrutinize the demographics of each cohort and ensure each one has diverse representation.

Kevin B., a former DEIB leader at this company and participant in the new leader program, believes that the value he got from the program derived largely from his interactions with other participants. He reflected:

If you have a homogeneous, cookie cutter class, you’re not going to learn a lot. In my cohort, I made tremendous friends with a couple of guys from the UK. I even had someone from the Saudi royal family in my class, which was amazing.

Kevin noted that in some cases it can be helpful to do the opposite—to bring together members from 1 underrepresented group. But in general and for most topics, he believes diverse cohorts learn better from one another.

Wrapping Up

We’ve come away from this research convinced that improving learning equity is one of the best ways L&D functions can contribute to the DEIB efforts in their organizations. Figure 8 summarizes the challenges associated with the 3 elements of learning equity (Discovery, Access, and Participation) and some actions L&D functions can take to address each challenge.

Figure 8: Summary of challenges and actions for the 3 elements of learning equity | Source: RedThread Research, 2022.

Looking forward, we expect L&D functions will continue to make strides to improve DEIB in their organizations—and we think those strides should be focused on learning equity. We hope the ideas in this paper have given L&D functions some concrete ideas about the steps they can take to move their organizations toward employee development that is more diverse, equitable, and inclusive for all.

Note: for Appendices, including study demographics, research methodology, and contributors please download the PDF report.

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.

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