During my doctoral research on gender equity in corporate training, the single most frequently heard response I have had from trainers and corporate clients alike has been that their training programmes are gender neutral because they treat everybody the same.
And of course, it is positive that we have become more aware that we need to show an equal and balanced representation of genders, races and ethnicities in the images and case studies used during training. And that we are more aware of our (unconscious) biases regarding gender and other areas of difference. However, that is not the full story. Equity is not achieved by treating everybody the same but by acknowledging differences.
The seminal Training Transfer Model of Baldwin and Ford (1988) can be positioned as the conceptual basis for much subsequent training research. In this model, a system perspective to training is introduced, with three components affecting training transfer: trainee characteristics, training design and work environment. A recent review that I conducted of 62 multi-disciplinary empirical studies from across the world showed a difference between female and male trainees in 90% of the studies, either in work environment, trainee characteristics, interaction with the training design or the outcome of training, or a combination of these. Unfortunately, all research to date is based on a binary female – male dichotomy, not reflecting a more fluid, and I would argue correct, understanding of biological sex and gender. My own research confirms the important role sex and gender play in the training system, for example in the interaction between training logistics and care responsibilities, androcentric models and frameworks, and the social dynamics during training.
While there is an ongoing debate about whether there are essential differences between women and men, academic research increasingly supports the view that any differences, in for example leadership or communication styles, are driven by context and external and internalized gendered norms and expectations. Gender & Organization research has moved from a focus on gender in organizations (why do women not succeed or progress and “fixing the women”), conveniently replacing the term ‘sex’ with ‘gender’ without reflecting on the differences between the two, to researching gendered organizations and interrogating how companies produce and maintain inequalities. Not only from the perspective of sex and gender, but also other areas of difference such as race, ethnicity and sexuality to name a few.
So, let’s focus on the work environment. My own research confirms an abundance of academic and professional research that organizations are gendered, meaning that their policies, practices and cultures are favouring what is called “hegemonic masculinity” (Knights and Tullberg, 2014), especially when moving to more senior levels. This creates an environment that is supportive to some and a barrier to others. In the Women in the Workplace 2017 study, conducted by LeanIn.Org and McKinsey, 37% of women responded that gender played a role in missing out on a salary increase, promotion, or chance to get ahead. And the study finds that women of colour, particularly black women, face even greater challenges.
This brings me back to training. Not recognizing and addressing a reality of difference before, during and after training, does not make training neutral but blind. It means training is providing toolkits and models but may not recognize or address the gendered barriers to implement these, running the risk of maintaining the status quo. Confusing equality with equity and saying everybody is equal, means not recognizing that some people get more opportunities than others, implying that if your trainees are not successful, they have only themselves to blame. The interesting development is that realities of difference are recognized by offering female-only programmes such as female leadership or women in sales programmes, but I would argue this is not a very inclusive approach since it singles out females and does not help other sexes and genders who face similar challenges but who do not have access to these programmes.
Equality is about treating everybody the same, however to create a diverse and inclusive training and ensure fair and equal opportunities for success and progress, or in other words equity, we have to recognize and address gendered realities before, during and after training. The Covid 19 pandemic increases the need for reflectivity on the role of gender equity in training, because the impact is felt especially by women (UN 2020) and years of workplace progress made by women may be lost. In addition, training budgets may have to be reduced given the challenging economic circumstances. In line with governments being asked to ensure gender sensitive budgeting, companies will need to reflect on how gender sensitive their training budget is: who has access to training and whose realities and needs are reflected in the training. This is not an easy task and it means that training providers and their clients need to
- Be aware of the impact of gender before, during and after their training in all aspects of the training system
- Reflect on the gender equity of their training, given realities of differences and gendered norms and expectations
- Include gender diversity and inclusion in the training needs analysis, design brief and evaluation
- Have the ability and willingness to have conversations about gendered experiences, opportunities and barriers without reinforcing stereotypes.
Part of my research is a train-the-trainer pilot to share academic research about the impact of gender in training and discuss how to design and facilitate training that is gender equitable. A group of highly committed trainers from four countries is participating and the experiences to date are exciting and enriching.
Baldwin, T, Ford, J.K. (1988) ‘Transfer of training: a review and directions for future research’ Personnel Psychology, vol. 41, no. 1, pp. 63 - 105
Knights, D., & Tullberg, M. (2014). 'Masculinity in the financial sector'. In S. Kumra, R.Simpson, & R. J. Burke (Eds.), The Oxford Handbook of Gender in Organizations (pp. 499–518). Oxford: Oxford University Press
UN (2020). Policy Brief: The Impact of COVID-19 on Women. New York.