A number of years ago I was introduced to the term “micro-inequity.” The term means that in everyday actions and language, people tend to dismiss, overlook, ignore, or devalue people based on small phrases, actions, and word choice and that, over time, the inequities oppress and discriminate against certain types or classes of people. So, for example, if I always say in class, “Guys, listen, you need to pay attention,” then I am ignoring approximately 50 percent of my class or sending the message that women don’t need to pay attention. Or if I present case studies in class and every single time the protagonist is a white male, I send the message that white males are the only ones who matter in this field. Or if I constantly refer to scientists or eLearning developers as male, I am, by my words, excluding females from the discussion.


A large problem with micro-inequities, among many, is that they eventually add up to macro-inequities, such as the unintended but very real inequity that kicked off this entire series of articles when The eLearning Guild recorded a number of conference sessions but only one of the sessions was presented by a woman.  

In fact a recent article on the “digitally native news site” Quartz, titled “This mathematical formula shows that all-male panels are sexist,” put forth the assertion that “underrepresentation of women on speakers’ lists doesn’t ‘just happen,’ despite many conference organizers’ claim that it does.” Instead it is a hidden bias that comes to a point when it visibly shows up as an assembled all male (and often all white) panel. The micro-inequities that occur prior to assembling that panel often involve bias toward willingness to submit, submission review, career opportunities, publications, language around the field, graduate school opportunities, and other elements that prevent women and historically underrepresented populations from rising to the level of being considered for the panel. Or that prevent highly qualified women and historically underrepresented populations from being chosen for a panel or to have their sessions recorded.

Ironically, of all the fields I’ve worked in, my perception is that eLearning has a high proportion of women in leadership roles. In our field, it’s not hard to point to examples of female CEOs, CLOs, well-known consultants, entrepreneurs, published authors, influential government employees, and leaders in virtually every area of eLearning, instructional technology, and design. All of which makes it more frustrating and puzzling that women are underrepresented in panels, recorded sessions, and other highly visible venues and that this gender bias is not always seen by members of our field.

However, there may be a scientific answer for why the bias exists and is hard to combat. A study about men’s perception of gender bias in the sciences indicated that the men “would really rather not believe there is any sort of gender-bias problem in science, even when confronted with evidence in support of said problem’s existence.” (Melissa Dahl, New York Magazine’s The Science of Us column: “Men in Science Would Rather Not Believe There Is a Gender-Bias Problem in Science”). So even helping the field see the gender gap related to eLearning can be an uphill battle.

As Judy Katz points out in her article “Gender Representation in eLearning,” maybe we need all female panels and all female recordings because we often see nothing wrong with all male panels or recordings.

Proper coaching

So one of the things we need to try to do as a field is to avoid micro-inequities but we also need to do a better job of coaching women who want to enter the field and help them to see that they need to seek “reach” positions. My small contribution in this area is coaching students in a master’s program of instructional technology at Bloomsburg University in Bloomsburg, Pennsylvania.

I’ve learned through the years that when a female student visits my office and tells me she doesn’t think she is qualified to apply for a certain position, the right answer is not “of course you are, go ahead and apply. You need to be more aggressive.” While it may seem like a right answer, it’s not. Although not everyone agrees with me—see Clay Shirky’s 2010 blog post, “A Rant About Women.”

Helping a person obtain a position needs to be based on evidence of her ability to do the job; telling her to simply be more aggressive doesn’t help her to defend herself in the interview or when talking to the potential employer. To me that is just code for “be more like a man.” I think that is a micro-inequity and it doesn’t help. Women can be forceful, confident, and successful without having to resort to “be like a man” to be successful. The implication is that if you “act like a woman, you won’t be successful.” Women can be successful without having to “act like a man” and I know because I’ve seen female students and colleagues being successful by just being themselves. To be human means we all have a mix of what society calls female or male traits. We need both to be successful in life and business. People who are all one way or another tend not to be successful. Now all this doesn’t mean women shouldn’t be aggressive or can’t be aggressive, but a blind dictate of “be more aggressive” is not helpful.

In fact research indicates that the answer is more nuanced. A research study found that for a woman to be ultra-successful, she needs to simultaneously present herself as self-confident and dominant while tempering these qualities with displays of communal characteristics. (See “Researchers: How Women Can Succeed in the Workplace.”) This means coaching women to be aggressive at all times isn’t good counseling. Studies do show that “all-female traits” are not helpful for promotion or leadership either, so again, the answer is a mixture of traits.

Therefore a better recommendation to a woman entering the field and unsure of her qualifications is to build her confidence in her own skills by saying “let’s look at your resume and past accomplishments and see where you are qualified.” So she can be confident, assertive and, yes, even aggressive when defending her qualifications.

A careful review with a female student about her qualifications and skills tends to lead to an “Aha” moment where she sees that her skills do align with what is being requested and she can apply with confidence to the job. Then when talking to the potential employer, she can be aggressive in those areas where is has a strong foundation and can feel that she can be successful. This highlighting of skills and abilities can short-circuit to some degree the “imposter syndrome” which Julie Dirksen talked about in her article “Women in the eLearning Field: Beginning a Conversation.”

The linking of skills to the needs of the employer might seem obvious to an outsider but is not always obvious to someone who has lived her life with micro-inequities. Making links and connections for women in the field has helped to provide confidence to many of my female students who have then gone on to do great things.


Having more female panels and recordings is an issue everyone in the field needs to pay attention to, but the real problem starts well before the conferences. It starts in the everyday interactions we have with each other, in the unconscious messages both men and women send related to the “role of women” in the field and in society. We all need to examine the words we use and the approaches we take to see if they might not be micro-inequities. Finally, the goal should not simply be more females on panels or in recorded sessions, the final goal is equity in the field. Female panels are just a manifestation of the equity, not the end goal.