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Can L&D shape a more inclusive organization?

Eight runners, running on track in arrow formation, visible in bird view.

In a recent article on eLearning trends in 2022, Asha Pandey, Chief Learning Strategist at EI Design identifies a focus on Diversity, Equity & Inclusion as one of the “must-have” eLearning trends of 2022. She identifies the change to hybrid working as a significant driver to this trend since working remotely often prevents colleagues from physically interacting and therefore allows fewer opportunities for a workforce to challenge ingrained biases. Pandey advises that organizations should use DEI training strategies which frequently include bias training, to “make the organization-wide paradigm mindset change needed to achieve this.” Yet, it is well known that bias training is a controversial subject with many questioning the effectiveness of such interventions. An influential report "Unconscious bias training: An assessment of the evidence for effectivenessconducted by the Equality and Human rights commission in 2018 found “a mixed picture and a need for further research to determine the effectiveness of unconscious bias training”.

So is it possible that L&D can shape a more inclusive organization without bias training? I believe it is. As L&D practitioners, as well as being responsible for the transfer of skills and knowledge, much of what we do is also about trying to instill behavior change. As such we are in the uniquely privileged position of being able to challenge bias and shape more inclusive organizations simply by being mindful that our learning content does not make use of the stereotypes which reinforce bias. Although inclusivity needs to be incorporated into every facet of our learning, the two areas where I believe we can make the most significant and sustainable impact is through our use of imagery and language.

Unlike in creative industries such as marketing and communication, there has been little research done on the inclusivity of imagery in eLearning content. My references for this article are therefore based solely on my own experiences of online learning and the many examples of learning content that I assess when I carry out eLearning accessibility audits. These have included a wide range of resources across different subject matters and sectors and often still show a surprising lack of diversity. As an accessibility expert, my focus is necessarily on depictions of disability, but it is important that we are equally mindful of other lenses of identity where bias can creep into imagery such as in representations of gender, race and ethnicity, sexual orientation, age, bodies, religion or socioeconomic status. Anyone who has tried to source diverse imagery, however, is likely to have found that it is not an easy task. In particular, it can be difficult to find images that are authentic and do not fall into the trap of being superficial or tokenistic.

To tackle this, resources such as the recently released "Diversity, Equity & Inclusion Imagery Toolkits" created by Citi and Getty Images can be very helpful in giving us a better understanding of the demographic landscape of the UK and how this can influence the imagery we use. A useful strategy in the toolkit is to include questions to ask when selecting visuals. For example, below are a few suggestions to consider when selecting images representing gender:

  • Are you considering images that help counter gender-reinforcing stereotypes, e.g., male caretakers, female emergency services workers?
  • Are the roles depicted in the imagery you choose equally attributable to women and men, e.g., who is the caregiver, who is featured in a role of power, what activities are they doing?
  • Are you embracing people of all gender identities as possible choices for your portrayal of people, including trans, nonbinary and other gender non-conforming individuals?
  • When focusing on children, are you conscious of stereotypes related to their perceived gender?

Another useful option to consider when trying to combat the lack of diversity in images in eLearning content is to look beyond stock image libraries and source images on the many websites and databases which focus on inclusive imagery. Blogs such as "13 diverse free stock photo sites for your brand" are a great way to find out more about these sites.

Using inclusive language is another way that eLearning practitioners can ensure that we do not exclude any of our learners and shape a more inclusive organization. Inclusive language, as defined in the GSMA Inclusive language guide, “is a form of communication that avoids using words, expressions or assumptions that would stereotype, demean or exclude people.” While most people are on board with using diverse imagery, the concept of using inclusive language can often be more contentious. I believe this is because changing the language we use very often requires us to challenge the use of words or phrases which are often deeply embedded habits. It also forces us to imagine an experience that is not our own where we can begin to understand why some of the language we use may exclude people. When considering accessibility, for example, best practice is to use the instruction ‘select’ rather than ‘click’ because it includes the many people who do not navigate content using a mouse but instead use a range of different devices and assistive technology due to manual dexterity issues. A small change but nevertheless one which can have a powerful impact simply by demonstrating that we are mindful of the different needs and experiences of our learners.

Few people are in any doubt about the business benefits to be gained by a focus on Diversity, Equity & Inclusion, yet the area of L&D is often undervalued, with its contribution being limited to specific interventions such as bias training. I believe the contribution that learning practitioners can contribute to the agenda is much broader than this. The values displayed in our learning should reflect those of an organization and in turn shape what is acceptable good practice. Showing respect and empathy in all aspects of the learning we create, including our use of imagery and language is a key way that all learning content can have a profound and sustainable impact on shaping a more inclusive organization.