Women in L&D – why they don’t always make it to the top

Alex Watson uncovers some of the important issues that are affecting women in the Learning and Development industry.


Debates around sexism often descend into factionalism. Battle lines are drawn around over-sensitivity on the part of women, accusations of old boys network with men etc and the current discourse seems to centre around the pay gap. Where does it exist?

What might be the reasons? Why are there few women on boards? How might we change function of the pipeline from middle to senior management? Is it because women take time out to have children? It is from these vantage points that we seek to engender the changed deemed necessary to redress imbalances and inequalities in our workplaces.

L&D is no different. The recent results of Training Journal’s Diversity Survey, reveals that women are well represented in the field, but disparities in numbers widen with job responsibilities.

The more senior, the less women are represented. However, there are still many women in senior positions in L&D. Prior to starting my own business, I was one of them and now I’m top of my very own tree.

Here’s my thing. It is my observation that those people who often get ahead in organisations, whatever the industry, normally do so by being best at ‘playing the game.’ You know…the game…the one with invisible parameters and opaque rules where being part of the right internal networks and making the right people look good. Perhaps taking responsibility for failures not of your making, allowing others to gain credit not entirely due or ‘taking one for the team,’ as it is more commonly known.  

Some men are better at this than other men. Some women are better at it than some men…but what I fear is it that it leads to it a deterioration of engagement in relation to the workplace and the work itself. If that’s the game, many just don’t want to play…and women I believe will be the first to opt out of such madness.

Before my sorry three year interaction with a ‘manager’ literally sent from the Gates of Hades by special invitation of Diablo himself…I would have said my best experience of being managed was by a man and my worst by a woman. Incompetence is no respecter of persons.

Yes, I have experienced casual sexism and casual racism throughout my career. I have even been known to make the odd saucy comment myself.  I can take and give a joke as good as the rest of them. Although these microaggression themselves can be damaging in aggregate, especially if they are intentionally directed at a specific target. Often they originate  from ignorance with no real malicious intent behind them or no real harm is done, so we keep it moving.

However, what of cases where there is serious gender disparity? Where there are real cultural organisational barriers damaging to the prospects of women? Where we might focus some of our attention if we are indeed serious about making workplaces where both men and women can contribute their skills, time and talents to best effect?

Firstly, I believe these workplaces rarely have gender disparity as their only dysfunction. Here, you will often see other petty prejudices at play too. These organisations are competitive in the wrong ways and with the wrong people. Departments or individuals are fighting to gain dwindling resources, rather than looking at the overall bottom line, such as we’re on the same team in the same company.

What’s best for the common good? Our competition is out there not in here. The fight is internal with those perceived as weak, the first to be picked off in the organisational scramble for resources or positions.

In order to get my points across to people in organisations, I’ve often employed ‘creative’ tactics. One of these might be telling a man…then getting him to tell everyone else, it works too!

As women, we’ve all been in the meeting where we make our point. That point is ignored. A few minutes later, a man might make the very same point…probably because he just heard you say it and forgot. Suddenly heads are nodding, everyone is in agreement, it’s actually quite comical and also quite sad as it indicates that the heart of these issues might lie in the very fabric of our womanhood. There is something in some women that means some men find it difficult to take them seriously? Perhaps it is because of what The Black Eyed Peas called their lady lumps?

This is something that will not change. My solution? Ladies will have lumps. Get over it!

Alex Watson is a Learning Consultant for SQUISH Media and regularly writes in her blog.

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