‘Our training programs are gender neutral. We treat everybody the same!’ This is the most heard response from trainers and corporate clients during my doctoral research on gender equity in corporate training.
Fortunately, we have become more aware that we need to show an equal and balanced representation of, for example, 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 role of gender in training
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. I recently conducted a review of 79 multi-disciplinary empirical studies from across the world. This showed a difference between female and male trainees in 92% 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. It is not reflecting a more fluid, and I would argue correct, understanding of biological sex and gender. My research confirms the important role sex and gender play in the training system. For example, in the interaction between training logistics and care responsibilities, the social dynamics and androcentric models and frameworks during training.
There is an ongoing debate about whether there are essential differences between women and men, for example in leadership or communication styles. Academic research increasingly supports the view that any differences are mainly driven by context, and external and internalized gendered norms and expectations. This understanding helps to move away from “fixing the women”. And not surprisingly, Gender & Organization research has moved from a focus on measuring differences between women and men, to researching ‘gendering organizations’ and interrogating how companies produce and maintain inequalities. Not only from the perspective of sex and gender, but also the interaction with other areas of difference such as race, ethnicity and sexuality to name a few.
The role of gender in the work environment
My research confirms an abundance of academic and professional research that organizations are gendered. This means 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 in the work environment. Not recognizing and addressing a reality of difference before, during and after training, does not make training gender neutral but gender blind. It means training is providing toolkits and models but may not address the gendered barriers (or barriers as result of other areas of difference, such as race or sexuality) to implement these. The risk is that the status quo of inequity is maintained. Confusing equality with equity and saying everybody is equal, means not recognizing that some people get more opportunities than others. It implies that, if your trainees are not successful, they have only themselves to blame. The interesting development is that realities of difference are recognized by, for example, female-only programmes. I would argue this is not the most inclusive approach. 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.
Recognizing gendered realities
The goal is to create a diverse and inclusive training, and ensure fair and equal opportunities for success and progress (equity) after the training. Therefore, 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 sex and gender, before, during and after your training
- Reflect on the gender equity of your training, given realities of differences and gendered norms and expectations
- Include gender diversity and inclusion in your training needs analysis, design brief and evaluation
- Have the ability and willingness to have conversations about gendered experiences, opportunities and barriers, without reinforcing stereotypes.
A Gender Equity in Training Pilot was part of my research. To share academic research about the impact of sex and gender in training and discuss how to design and facilitate training that is gender equitable. A group of highly committed trainers from four countries participated and the experiences to date are exciting and enriching. I will share three important lessons learned in my next article.
If you have any questions about my research, do not hesitate to contact me.
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.