For eLearning professionals, navigating personal variables and differences lies at the very heart of learning-experience design. Whether we call it needs analysis, learner analysis, requirements analysis, or whatever, eLearning designers understand that the best way to create experiences that engage and inspire is to make sure the attributes and artifacts of those experiences are relevant, engaging, and meaningful for their audience. One might even suggest that managing personal differences is one of the fundamental tenets of our practice. Without it, we focus on personal expression. And that’s fine. But that’s more like art, not work product. 

With all of our professional knowledge, skills, and abilities about navigating differences, why do gender differences continue to hamper career path development?

If I think about it for more than a bit I can generally come up with personal examples where “the gender thing” has reared its head. In some cases the disparities were material—being paid less than co-workers, perhaps not being considered for a lead role even though my skills were demonstrably stronger.

But I have also had to come face to face with my own predilection for finding bias where perhaps there was none, remembering a period of time where if I didn’t get what I wanted, and knew I deserved it, that it was “obviously because I am a woman.” Workplace gender bias continues to exist in varying degrees of intensity across the different industries that engage in eLearning so it is important to call it out for what it is when encountered. But one must also guard against creating one’s own personal biases on the road toward professional maturity.

When I first started working in eLearning I was a young academic actively looking for ways to change the world. One such moment of success got me involved as a junior (female) member of a research team of senior academics (all men). Everyone was nice enough. But I could tell I made them edgy. And yes, I admit to having more than a few moments of private intellectual righteousness, wondering why I needed to constantly prove that I was the skilled, competent one that should be given the shot at leading the team, writing the manifesto, or be credited as the one who came up with all the big, shiny ideas.

At the time I was fairly certain that my more conservative institutional colleagues were shining me on, not giving me the shot at leadership that I longed for because I was young and feisty and female. The project ended, we all went our separate ways, no harm no foul, or so I thought. I ran into one of those men not too long ago. Turns out that the reason I didn’t get asked to lead was mostly because they couldn’t figure out why I was angry all the time. And after a while the overhead was just too much.

IS that sexist? Well, maybe. OR is it really more about my awareness of how my behavior affected my colleagues. WAS I angry all the time? Is THAT sexist?? Well, no… but I did have a way with words to let people know exactly how I felt. And in that moment I had a startled appreciation for the power of my words when I creatively expressed myself, which in this particular instance may have actually interfered with my ability to produce work product expected of me. Because really, nobody wants to work with a smart-ass, no matter how righteous he or she may be.

In looking back on early career experiences, when everyone is anxious about being seen as “good enough,” it was also easy to see that my concerns about not being taken seriously as the “only girl in the room,” were often confounded by other variables. I was also, occasionally, the youngest in the room. Sometimes I was the least experienced person in the room. Sometimes I was the pushiest person in the room and had made everyone cranky by not paying attention to all the cues and clues. Sometimes, just sometimes, I didn’t see eye-to-eye with the person leading an initiative. Sometimes my skill-set wasn’t aligned with whatever work-product was needed. Not surprisingly, if any of those factors were out of alignment, the probabilities of my personal success on those teams were dramatically diminished.

But there were also several points along the way where I realized that I WAS gaining the skills that would make me a successful leader, and that maybe I just needed to focus on developing essential ways of being that would serve me well, find the community of practitioners who could help me grow, and quit worrying about what other people thought as I tried to keep my eyes on the prize.

Navigating differences in the workplace—gender differences, skill differences, cultural differences, value differences—are, in and of themselves, things to manage on the way to achieving a goal. From a designer’s perspective, they are conditions to be managed while on the road to achieving the goals and outcomes of the work at hand.

About a month ago I shared a piece in Learning Solutions Magazine in which I reflected on the 10 things I wish someone had told me before I started out in eLearning. Among the reflections, I realized that the things I wish I’d known were more about ways of being than about things to do, or things to know. So my words of advice for finding a professional state of gender parity: strive first to be the person—not the man, not the woman, but the person—that people want on their team. Always remember the people who chose to be on yours.