Gender Representation Considerations Related to e-Learning

Posted by Mark Currier on 1/26/16 8:30 AM
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How a workforce or learning group is depicted in e-learning materials rightly or wrongly conveys attitudes about cultural and gender roles. You may not think that it matters that the depiction of a pharma sales training interaction features two generic, white men in their 30s, but it actually does matter, particularly if that's a common theme in your learning materials.

Diversity among teams leads to better creativity and innovation. Why? Because diversity brings different viewpoints and experiences to the conversation. There's a better chance of novel information being exchanged, and a better opportunity for people to try to see things from a different perspective.

In pharmaceuticals, fortunately, there is terrific potential for diversity. After all, people come to pharma sales from a variety of backgrounds, from clinical to technical to business. All must combine excellent technical understanding with good people skills, but how individuals are able to do this may vary considerably. This is beneficial for your learning environment and your work environment. But do you take the time to make sure your team's learning materials reflect diversity as well?

Evaluating Your Own Company Is Important

Unfortunately, both overt and casual sexism is still alive and well in industry, including industries that depend on specific merit (like scientific understanding) to get ahead. Nobody wants to think they work in a business that holds people back based on gender or other factors that don't have anything to do with how well they perform their work, but it's important for every sales trainer to take a close look and see whether an undercurrent of sexism exists.

Avoiding Gender Biases When Creating Learning Modules

To have sales teams that are diverse and that don't assign value to a person's work based on gender, it's important that training modules reflect that. If the "default mode" of training modules is a male sales rep speaking with a male doctor, ask yourself why that is. The plain fact is, people tend to learn more readily when they learn from scenarios that depict people like them.

And even if your team is not that diverse, reflecting diversity in learning modules is important. Instructional designer Christy Tucker argues that when in doubt, being more diverse rather than more homogeneous is the best way to go, because it shows an aspiration of diversity, even if the audience isn't that heterogeneous. An implicit message is sent to learners about underlying attitudes towards gender and cultural roles through the learning materials they use on the job.

One way to ensure diversity in creation of learning modules is to create multi-dimensional characters, but only assign them initials rather than names at first. Once the scenarios are complete, you can use a random name generator to determine which characters are male and which are female.

The Simple Power of Names

The names of the people in your learning modules have power. Names imply a number of characteristics, including gender, age, race, and ethnicity. Using the most generic names you can come up with has the effect of defining what the default character is, and it's quite often a white, middle class man of indeterminate age. If your learning audience is largely female, or Latino, it's not that easy to make an emotional investment in the training adventures of Jim and Mike.

If you use name generators to determine the gender of your characters, take that extra step and let the name generators reach into other cultures and nationalities. Your new pharma rep who grew up in Mumbai may have trouble identifying with a character named Debbie, but an easier time identifying with one named Rashmi.

This is not to say that you have to meticulously write every learning scenario so that each team member is able to see himself or herself in a given scenario. Rather, it's important to branch out beyond the middle class white male into multiple demographic and ethnic categories to demonstrate that the scenarios apply broadly. Making characters too generic has the effect of establishing a default and highlighting differences between them and your learners who may not reflect that default demographic.

Diversity in Stock Images

Many designers of training modules make heavy use of stock images, and here they have another opportunity to bring in diversity. It's not always easy, because stock images are made to be broadly applicable and rather generic. But you generally have choices in your stock image searches as to what genders, ages, and cultural backgrounds are depicted.

When you choose your stock images, you have the opportunity to reflect the diversity of the actual world and shed light on actual human experience, better preparing your team for the people they will encounter in their work. When the receptionist in a stock photo wears a hijab, or when the IT specialist is a middle-aged woman rather than a 25-year-old man, you make a statement that people in the real world don't come straight from Hollywood central casting of the 1950s, and that you don't expect your learners to either.

Making sure women are represented sufficiently in your training materials is essential for both your female and your male learners. For decades, nobody blinked an eye at learning scenarios presented by a cast of interchangeable white men. The learning scenario represented solely by women (including women of color, women of different ages, and women with accented English) ideally should be just as unremarkable to the audience.

Moving past stereotypes requires moving past them in ordinary, day-to-day situations, including the work situations you portray for your team to learn from. We're committed to training that reflects reality, and we invite you to check out our many free resources for sales trainers, so you can enjoy the best possible return on your training investment.

Topics: eLearning