The Learning Coach: Are you on the path to equality?

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Written by Jane Daly on 8 December 2020

Some people devote their life to championing equal rights and helping those who they believe are in need of support to succeed in this world. Others want to support equality more, but they often don’t know how to because they are in fear of getting it wrong, causing conflict or they do not believe their voice will be truly heard.

Learning professionals are probably supporting leaders, managers and workforces to drive equality. This is particularly true at the moment, because so many organisations are trying to showcase how their brand is committed to this cause following many significant global events that have highlighted there is still so much more to do.

One of the overwhelming challenges is who to listen to, due to the significant increase of need, new media coverage, articles, policies, forums and conferences and so on. It’s now harder than ever to know what will really make a difference and lift the feeling of not doing enough to sustain progression.

In looking at what action to drive now, it’s worth taking a step backwards and consider what activities from the past and present have achieved, so we can learn from them, and not just continue to do more ‘stuff’ but instead sustain change.

If equality is the end goal, equity is the means to get there.

A good place to start is by looking at the difference between equity and equality. Social Change, who advise passionate change makers, state: “The difference between equality and equity must be emphasised. Although both promote fairness, equality achieves this through treating everyone the same regardless of need, while equity achieves this through treating people differently dependent on need. However, this different treatment may be the key to reaching equality.”

Put simply they say, “If equality is the end goal, equity is the means to get there.”                                                                                                                                    

Forbes Human Resources Council also stress that not focusing on equity damages trust and does not add impact: “The worst thing an organisation can do is make empty promises around equity. Without being able to demonstrate how equity works and point to specific examples of it in your organisation, it’s a hollow concept that damages trust and only serves to undercut equity in the end.

The other mistake I see organisations make is believing they can skip to the equity stage without first passing through the diversity, inclusion and equality steps of the continuum.”

Building on the concept of equity, it’s now critical that we also think forward. The rapid development of new technologies will bring risks that we have not faced before. The World Economic Forum state: “In the Fourth Industrial Revolution – accelerated by the COVID-19 crisis – technology is no longer simply ‘neutral’ with regard to diversity, equity and inclusion.

Leading companies are increasingly recognising this and proactively leveraging technology for ‘Diversity, Equity and Inclusion 4.0’, while companies uncritically implementing new technologies risk a range of unintended consequences.”

The World Economic Forum are so concerned about the future risks that they have created a toolkit for leaders to accelerate social progress in the future of work. They state that there are a range of characteristics that pose a risk of exclusion, preferential treatment or discrimination. Among these are:

  • Age and generation
  • Gender and gender expression
  • Sexual orientation
  • Mental and physical abilities
  • Level of health
  • Personality traits and behaviours
  • Race, ethnicity and religion
  • Language and nationality
  • Location (such as rural and urban)
  • Social origin and parental background
  • Income, education and socio-economic status
  • Appearance

When you observe these characteristics through the eyes of a forward-thinking learning expert, you notice that the opportunities to add value go way beyond the typical surface responses tried to date such as: getting people together; finding a budget; creating content and courses; marketing and sharing news of commitments and so on.

These responses can be useful but very rarely drive real and sustainable change, what we need now is to reset and mobilise equitable learning at the root of the challenge.

Leading the evolution of corporate learning from the root will require equitable thinking and principles to be embedded within the decision-making systems of organisational culture. For example: What’s the 20% of change required that will provide an 80% return.

A great expression of this would be to create an evidence-informed approach when it comes to learning about whether the organisations rewards and recognition approach helps or hinders equality. Once you analyse the evidence it’s highly likely that you will find that the current approach creates unique and unintended consequences, like gender pay gaps that never seem to close.

These types of consequences will only be closed by applying equitable thinking and measuring equity, until then people will continue to make the most convenient decision available to them at the time. This could be ‘I will do what I have always done’ and this approach will continue to work against the goals of the cause.

If you add the rush to digitise some of this – because people don’t usually like making these decisions – the risks explode further because the algorithms will be based on bias. This friction is where the best learning opportunity is and offers the best chance for change to stick.

This is where learning professionals can support the organisation to learn that making it easier, rewarding and worthwhile for people will pay dividends.

The more learning leaders allow themselves to stand back and observe how people are typically responding and behaving – the ebb and flow of the organic culture – the more friction and opportunity for learning they will see. 

They may also see that by taking an evidence-informed, connective and collaborate approach when it comes to equity, providing learning at the root of the issue will require L&D to do less. By more editing, joining of dots, better guidance L&D can in fact turn the tide and elevate the credibility of the corporate learning function in the process.

There’s no doubt that learning leaders have the best opportunity they have ever had to bring a competitive edge to their organisation and change lives.

Corporate learning at its best humanises business, creates advocates of lifelong learning, shifts mind-sets, increases confidence and capability at scale and makes people more employable, but this can only be achieved through an evidence-informed approach.

Without the right evidence these efforts will continue to generate surface initiatives that lack passion and do not apply equity so they are not truly effective, in fact, they create more capability gaps, while wasting energy, time, resources and money.

Smart learning leaders will jump at this opportunity. Smart professionals will remind themselves that if they are on a path to fulfilling their purpose, it was their passion for equity that brought them to learning in the first place and that now is the time to take simple and practical steps to build multiple sources of valuable evidence that allows them to say ‘no’ because they measure twice and cut once. 


About the author

Jane Daly is the founder of People Star and People Who Know.

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