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Take Heed

A DEIA review process can safeguard against elements of training material being unintentionally harmful or reinforcing stereotypes.


Mon Oct 02 2023

Take Heed

A DEIA review process can safeguard against elements of training material being unintentionally harmful or reinforcing stereotypes.

As I attended a development course, the speaker presented slide after slide on the critical impact of work-life balance and how to thrive in one's career and personal life. At one point, he showed a statistic about how more women struggle with that balance and fulfillment compared to men. As the graphic displayed, the speaker pointed out its importance but quickly moved on to the next slide—an action that downplayed the effect of that significant societal issue on attendees.


I can't recall the exact statistic or, indeed, everything that the speaker said, but I remember feeling the (male) speaker was dismissive in tone and pace as well as in reporting the data. I also recall that dismissiveness was reflected in the presentation's imagery—with male figures, suit jackets, and collared shirts as icons. I immediately walked away with the question, "How can women find balance when we aren't even represented or talked about?"

The original point of the presentation was lost to feelings of being represented but not truly included, which was what I discussed with colleagues upon my return. That, combined with the data and the presenter's commentary (or lack thereof), made me feel like just another statistic.

That story is just one example, but it conveys how crucial it is for us in the L&D profession to drive inclusion within our work—from how we use imagery and icons to portray age, weight, race, and class through clothing, activity, job, or industry to how we use character names in scenarios that can portray gender or ethnicity.

To truly support an inclusive culture, we must go beyond the content topic of diversity, equity, inclusion, and accessibility (DEIA) and consider how we design and message as well. We should closely examine what we show and say to ensure inclusivity throughout. That applies to any topic, for any audience, in any modality in which we can take a closer look at our content (such as scenarios, quizzes, stories, and audio recordings) and imagery (including pictures, icons, videos, and b-roll) to identify elements that may unintentionally hurt others and reinforce stereotypes.

For example, does your L&D team only assess images, or does it examine the intent of all the content elements such as scripts and stories? Does the team carefully review materials for representation and inclusion via names and pronouns? What about within activities, hobbies, and clothing? Or within job role, job level, and industry?


Think about how you can create a culture of learning and inclusive design specific to your individual practice. One place to start is by moving away from designing in a silo and expanding beyond the lens through which you view the world.

That idea is what inspired me to develop a DEIA content review process for my L&D team. I saw the process as a way to provide consistent application and education in inclusive design among L&D staff by bringing in wider perspectives and experiences.

Before getting started, define the why

Consider the existing processes, organizational purpose, support available, and your organizational why behind incorporating a DEIA content review process. The latter will drive the entire structure and how you engage the different elements and considerations shared.

Seek input from multiple internal leaders who can provide valuable insights, including input on identifying the why and guidance on establishing the scope. Think about how the review process will build a culture of intentional, inclusive design; what inclusive content looks like for your organization today and in the future; and how the initiative maps to other strategic initiatives.

While that sounds complicated, the stated goal can be quite simple, direct, and limited in scope. For example, the goal of our first L&D review was to "Review content and imagery to support inclusion and identify labels or content that may be unintentionally harmful and reinforce stereotypes not part of the learning intent." 


As your team learns and grows from the process, you can adjust the goal. Plan to continually engage the group of internal leaders to ensure alignment with your organization's objectives.

Let's build

The components of the review process can be broken down into:

  • Who (reviewers)

  • What (content type, elements reviewed, DEIA focus)

  • When (during what points in the review process)

  • How (moving the review from point A to point B)

Within each component, always fall back on your review process why.

Who: Content review team

Just as reviewing content in a silo can cause unintentional misrepresentation and stereotypes, a review team comprised of staff from only one departmental team or role can too. Therefore, create a review team that includes a variety of people who bring different perspectives, experiences, and passion. Seek individuals who will offer valuable feedback and can use their experiences to engage others in understanding the purpose behind the review, share knowledge and enthusiasm, and secure support and commitment.

If you aren't sure whom to include, collaborate with company leaders and employee resource groups to gather recommendations for individuals with experience in building review processes or inclusive design practices or who have influence in the content-creation process.

When determining the review team's structure, consider including the following roles.

Main driver and decision maker. This person helps guide the DEIA review team, has responsibility and accountability for the process, and holds the authority to make decisions. A candidate for this role could be a department leader or the leader of a DEIA-related committee or an employee resource group.

Functional leaders. These should be L&D staff members; they will be responsible for the content and ensuring the L&D team uses the process. They are positioned to drive the why and steer the review process, educational efforts, and buy-in and alignment on practices affecting the content developers.

To identify the number of reviewers you'll need, think through what it will take to keep the process running smoothly. For example, how much content will your team put through the review process, and what is a reasonable commitment the reviewers can agree to on top of their normal workload? If you're starting small, perhaps identify three reviewers for one hour per week, then grow as the review program requires more work. Pursue reviewers among two groups:

Passionate team members. Engage natural leaders and influencers who will actively use the review process and who are excited to be part of larger DEIA efforts. They will help generate momentum, secure buy-in from submitters, and—because they're close to the process—can provide insights to improve efficiencies.

DEIA experts. Search within the traditional organizational structure and committees or groups (such as employee resource groups or diversity councils) for individuals who can share expertise in DEIA practices. They can also train and upskill reviewers in the process.

What: Content and DEIA review parameters

To prioritize and find balance between review capabilities and project demands, establish initial parameters. Consider factors such as the volume of content relative to the reviewers' time availability, content that allows for recommended changes or revisions, and any budget constraints. It's important to acknowledge that reviewing a two-day training session means a much different commitment than a 10-page guide.

When prioritizing within those parameters, take into account the following details. 

Content type. Will reviewers examine new or existing content?

Audience. Is the material for internal learners or a client? If internal, is it company-wide or for a department?

Topic. Are there specific categories or subtopics of content for that type and audience, such as sales promotional materials, soft skills, or product how-tos? (Each has its own business impact, support team, and project scope.)

Modality. Is the content in the form of a guide, instructor course, video, or e-learning? (Each has its own time, budget, and resource constraints.)

Content elements. Will reviewers look at a course in its entirety, or only an element—such as visual design (icons, images, or videos), texts or scripts (examples, scenarios, or quizzes), or how those combined elements complement and reinforce the learning intent? If the latter, what does that combination look like? For example, will reviewers examine all client guides on how to use the product, imagery in all instructor-led training and self-paced content, or the entirety of self-paced learning on required compliance content for employees?

My L&D team started the DEIA content review with a smaller scope to be able to grow and weave in inclusive design practices. It began with reviewing and updating one existing program. We applied and refined inclusive design practices while mapping out the review process before expanding the DEIA review. Expansion occurred in phases—first to digital compliance content, next to required enterprise content, and then to the full suite of learning content in the L&D department.

The content parameters define what types of materials your team will review and to what part of the content L&D should apply the DEIA feedback. In contrast, the DEIA review parameters define what feedback reviewers will provide. For instance, they could review:

  • Text for gender and gender expression

  • How pronouns and names play a role in character identity and diversity

  • The portrayal of social stereotypes in clothing, hobbies, and interests in images and scenarios

  • Inclusivity in imagery, such as focusing on work location, job roles, industry, and clothing

When defining review parameters, be mindful of a blanket elimination strategy, which can unintentionally be harmful to the learning intent—such as in the case of legal or compliance training, where examples exist to convey protected classes or laws. Instead of generalized removal, such as taking out all pronouns and gendered language, consider a broader goal, such as showing diversity and inclusion through a wide range of pronouns and names.

When: Review process

The question now becomes: When should the DEIA review occur? If your team already has a general content review process in place, look for efficiencies within it where you can add concurrent DEIA content review touchpoints. Consider:

  • Current development phases—how does the intent and scope of the DEIA content review align with your team's development steps?

  • Current review phases—is there a point when content elements regularly go out for review during which a DEIA review could also take place?

  • Reviewers—are the DEIA content reviewers represented elsewhere in the process where you can combine review asks?

  • Turnaround times—is there enough time for the DEIA reviewers to provide feedback before the content must move to the next stage?

  • Cost dependencies—what requires approval before purchasing any additional content or elements?

Take, for instance, a storyboard with a full script. As the subject matter expert is reviewing it, that may be a good time to have a DEIA content review on the text (within scope of your goal, such as reviewing for sayings and expressions). After the storyboard gets approval, determine when a review of the visual design can occur. For example, if the first draft includes image and icon placeholders until designers purchase them, that may be a time for a DEIA review on the graphics and images.

How: Manner of the review

As you think through when in the design process DEIA reviews will take place, determine how it will move from point A to point B. To identify how to facilitate the review process, consider existing tools within the organization. Do general review requests occur over email or shared folder links? Are there programs or software you can integrate into the review process that supports efficiency without compromising a space for feedback? Consider group chats and project management software.

My organization already leveraged request forms and project management software for project kick-off and implementation phases. To help automate the request process, we implemented a review request form with automated triggers and used shared documents to communicate back and forth.

Get aligned on inclusive design

A large part of the review process is the scope of the DEIA review and building toward inclusive design. Set clear expectations and provide training or information on what inclusive design looks like. Without clear guidelines and direction, feedback can take various directions. Therefore, create DEIA content considerations as well as design principles and practices specific to your team and processes. Then, to promote consistency in reviews and design practices, identify knowledge gaps and upskill those involved in the review process.

The reviewer training my L&D team provided was based on the team's inclusive design guide, which outlines what DEIA practices look like within training content. Details range from considerations on how to address storytelling with the use of pronouns and names to what to consider when selecting imagery to support the context. We used that foundation along with real before-and-after content examples to build on practices and align expectations. The training also focused heavily on how to give feedback. For the content developers, we provided the inclusive design guide, as well as videos and other communication on the DEIA review process and its purpose.

A journey toward inclusivity

As you build a DEIA content review process, rely on your North Star. Take stock of where you are today, where you want to be, and how to get there. Don't hesitate to start small, focusing your team's prior knowledge and comfort level. Be open to iterations and adjustments along the way, and seek out diverse perspectives and experiences.

As your team expands the process and it continually evolves, build in opportunities—such as open forums, a community of design creatives, or surveys—to solicit feedback and iterate. Take the time needed to find the right team and define your inclusive design guidelines.

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