In The eLearning Guild’s newest white paper, eLearning author, educator, and business writing coach Cecelia Munzenmaier gathers the most recent research on women in eLearning and provides a framework for launching additional Guild-sponsored conversations on this topic during 2017. Guild research director Sharon Vipond provides a snapshot of 2017 salary survey data that helps us better understand what we know about women in the field. And Julie Dirksen, award-winning author and instructional strategist, contributes an updated assessment of “where we are now” in terms of women within the eLearning field.

Engaging with thought leaders

In addition, eight eLearning thought leaders also provide their practical, positive, and forward-looking insights on the challenges and opportunities faced by women in eLearning. Outreach and connection with thought leaders was one of the goals of this research effort. It was not only important to hear from the best and brightest thinkers in our field, but also from those who have written on the subject of women in eLearning and have contributed substantial insights to this ongoing discussion.

Exploring a spectrum of issues

The topics range from current research to practical suggestions. Here is what you will learn from this valuable white paper:

  • What current research tells us about gender bias in the larger workforce, as well as within the eLearning field
  • Why gender bias is a specific concern for learning leaders and practitioners
  • What we can do, as both individuals and organizations, to help eliminate gender bias in eLearning
  • What snapshot data from the 2017 salary survey reveals about women in The eLearning Guild’s global community, and what gender data comparisons can be made on the basis of education level, years of industry experience, job focus, job level, and tenure in current position

Additionally, industry thought leaders provided insights and advice in response to the following questions:

  • As we begin 2017, what do you view as the most critical issues impacting gender in the eLearning field?
  • What do you see as the single best way that others in the field can encourage and support female eLearning practitioners?
  • What three pieces of practical advice would you give to women in eLearning?

Note: Detailed citations and links for all source materials are provided in the white paper.

What makes gender bias a concern for eLearning practitioners?

The concern about companies’ inability to retain women has particular application to the eLearning industry. Women in technical professions are more likely to feel that they are isolated and don’t fit in, according to a Stanford University report, Climbing the Technical Ladder. Though most women in technology report loving their jobs, this sense of isolation is one reason women leave careers in IT, engineering, and scientific research at much higher levels than men. Another source of attrition is midcareer women’s sense that they have fewer opportunities to advance than their male colleagues. This loss of talent will make it difficult for technology-oriented companies to maintain their current rates of growth and remain competitive, according to Catherine Ashcraft and Sarah Blithe.

In addition, eLearning professionals are in a unique position to either reinforce or debunk gender stereotypes. “Learning professionals are often viewed as the ‘teachers’ of the organization,” notes Koreen Pagano.

We can teach without knowing it through the gender roles we portray in the scenarios we write, says Judy Katz. The images we choose can have tremendous power to model reality, writes Trina Rimmer in an article describing the difficulty of finding authentic images for a training module on human trafficking. “It’s up to us to use our design powers for the greater good—to shine light on all aspects of the human experience, particularly the darkest corners where learning can lead to real, positive change.”

As Katz and Rimmer both suggest, relatively small changes can have a disproportionately large effect on the status quo. What can eLearning practitioners do to promote gender equity within our industry?

What can we do as individuals?

  • Admit you may be biased. Those who acknowledge they might be biased are less influenced by bias. Those who resist evidence of gender bias are more likely to make biased decisions, according to Ian Handley and co-authors.
  • Reverse roles. “If you dislike the behavior of a female employee,” suggest Adam Galinsky and Maurice Schweitzer, “ask yourself if you would have reacted the same way if you had seen that behavior in a man.”
  • Do a “flip test.” Kristen Pressner tests images or remarks for gender bias by switching the genders. It may sound natural for a female police officer to say she enjoys her job because it gives her a chance to work with children; does the statement have the same impact when it’s attributed to a male officer?
  • Model diversity. Janet Crawford reports that G-rated films made from 2006 to 2009 were four times more likely to cast men than women in the roles of working professionals. In reality, slightly over half of professional jobs in the US are held by women. Ask yourself: How well do the images and scenarios in my eLearning reflect gender diversity?
  • Test yourself. Several implicit-bias tests are available at Harvard University’s Project Implicit site (see the white paper for further information about this site).
  • Control “manterrupters.” Women in the Obama White House used the technique of amplification to handle men who interrupted them during meetings. When a woman made a key point, another woman would repeat it and acknowledge the woman who made the contribution.
  • Call out bias. David Kelly gives an example of how to challenge biased language respectfully in “Women in eLearning: Language, Gender Equality, and Leadership.”

What can we do as organizations?

  • Set clear performance standards. This encourages equity in promotion decisions. It also discourages women’s tendency to devalue their worth. “If your work is rejected for an obviously bad reason, such as ‘it’s because you’re a woman,’ you can simply dismiss the one who rejected you as biased and therefore not worth taking seriously. But if someone tells you that you are less competent, it’s easy to accept as true,” notes Ilana Yurkiewicz.
  • Mentor, then monitor. Catalyst found that leadership programs don’t increase the number of women leaders unless companies ensure that women have equal opportunities to fill “hot jobs.”
  • Diversify your board. Companies with stronger-than-average performance typically have three or more women on their boards, according to another Catalyst report. On a related note, McKinsey calculated that racial diversity also benefits the bottom line: “In the United States, there is a linear relationship between racial and ethnic diversity and better financial performance: For every 10 percent increase in racial and ethnic diversity on the senior-executive team, earnings before interest and taxes (EBIT) rise 0.8 percent.”
  • Create an inclusive culture. “Inclusion is a choice. It is about making small shifts every day in our behaviors to help employees feel more included at work,” says Catalyst CEO Deborah Gillis. Some of those choices are small but powerful: declining to laugh at a sexist joke, or ensuring your professional network is gender-diverse. Others, like advocating for family leave policies and supporting the men and women who use them, have implications for employee satisfaction, turnover, and even a company’s stock price.
  • Make gender equity a priority. McKinsey made little progress in recruiting female consultants until it set explicit, top-down gender goals in 2014. Within a year, the firm grew its percentage of female consultants by 5 percent.
  • Take advantage of critical mass. In her book Broad Influence, Jay Newton-Small notes that when women make up between 20 and 30 percent of organizations, change begins to happen. “If numbers of women were lower than 20 percent, women’s voices weren’t heard: either they didn’t speak or men didn’t listen,” she writes. In fields where women have achieved critical mass, she notes, they make things happen. On corporate boards, women have engaged the tough questions and mitigated risks. On the bench, they’ve developed “rocket dockets” to expedite child support cases and so reduced the rate of domestic abuse. In Congress, they’ve collaborated on high-effort, consensus-building strategies to end deadlocks over budget deals and emissions standards. To sum up the benefits of critical mass, Newton-Small quotes the founder of the National Women’s History Museum, Karen Staser: “A better world awaits the generation that absorbs what women and men have to share about life from a joint perspective. Together, all things are possible.”

To achieve that better world, we need to continue the conversation about gender equity at all levels. “This is a problem we can’t procedure our way out of because it happens in our brains, and this is the society we grew up in,” says Joyce Bono, lead author of a study on managerial derailment. “We have to keep talking about it so we catch ourselves and our colleagues’ biases, and work together to reduce their negative effects on the mentorship and advancement of women.”

Reflections on the conversation

As mentioned earlier, outreach and connection with thought leaders was one of the goals of this research effort. In addition to notable women thought leaders, we also asked several men to respond to our questions. This was important because, as Aisha Taylor points out in her response, “we aren’t involving men in the conversation. Any solution to gender issues has to include men as a part of the discussion.”

Recall that we posed three questions to our group of eight thought leaders. In talking to them about their potential answers, we stressed the need for practical, positive, and forward-looking insights that could create momentum for upcoming conversations in 2017 and beyond.

In fact, the common theme that ran through all three questions was forward movement into the future. Although we cannot change the past, we can arm ourselves with knowledge, skills, and insights to make things different in the future.

We encourage you to read the white paper and take a moment to review all of the thought leaders’ insights. Here are several of the main themes and insights that we saw in their comments and advice:

  • Build your visibility and personal brand; clearly articulate your value.
  • Get a mentor who can model female leadership and gender parity, or become a mentor to a female colleague yourself.
  • Build your support system—what Trina Rimmer calls the “professional communities outside your workplace” and “personal learning networks of trusted fellow practitioners.”
  • Embrace the fact that you are a woman. As Aisha Taylor says, “Being a woman is part of the diversity in the office; our opinions are different and valuable and important. You don’t have to hide that part of yourself or help the men in the office forget that you are a woman.”
  • Speak up and raise personal awareness of bias. As Taylor notes, “If you review a storyboard that isn’t inclusive, say something. If you read a paper that feels like it’s missing a perspective, share your opinion.”
  • Keep issues of gender parity front and center. Women should challenge behavior that discounts women, and, as Ellen Wagner says, we should also “provide support for the competent female voices in our respective universe.”

Join the conversation

We now invite you to join the conversation by reading the white paper and expanding your own knowledge base using the resources provided in this paper. You do not need to be a thought leader or industry expert or published author. Your perspective is unique and valuable. In fact, let’s go back to what Julie Dirksen said in early 2015 about participating in this conversation and the advice she provided:

When we were talking, David Holcombe [founder, president, and CEO of The eLearning Guild] also reminded me, “The Guild has always endeavored to also include people who aren’t the ‘gurus’—our mission is to bring up new people and new voices. That’s why we chose a guild as our model—to include the novices, journeymen, and masters, and to encourage people at all levels to step up and share.”

We would like to hear from you. What conversations should we have around this topic? If you have ideas to share, what help or support would make those ideas work for you? What else should we at the Guild be talking about in our forthcoming 2017 events?

Please send your ideas and additional comments about this white paper to Sharon Vipond, The eLearning Guild’s director of research.


Ashcraft, Catherine, and Sarah Blithe. Women in IT: The Facts. National Center for Women & Information Technology, 2010.

Barton, Dominic, Sandrine Devillard, and Judith Hazlewood. “Gender equality: Taking stock of where we are.” McKinsey Quarterly. September 2015.

Bono, Joyce E., et al. “Dropped on the Way to the Top: Gender and Managerial Derailment.” Personnel Psychology. 21 October 2016.

Carter, Nancy M., et al. The Bottom Line: Corporate Performance and Women’s Representation on Boards. Catalyst, 2007.

Catalyst. “Employee Experiences Matter: New Catalyst Report Explores Daily Workplace Realities of Inclusion and Exclusion.” 6 October 2016.

Crawford, Janet L. “But I’m Not Sexist—Right?” Cascadance, 2015.

Dirksen, Julie. “Women in the eLearning Field: Beginning a Conversation.” Learning Solutions Magazine. 22 January 2015.

Galinsky, Adam, and Maurice Schweitzer. “It’s good to be the Queen … but it’s easier being the King.” McKinsey Quarterly. October 2015.

Handley, Ian M., et al. “Quality of evidence revealing subtle gender biases in science is in the eye of the beholder.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Vol. 112, No. 43. October 2015.

Hunt, Vivian, Dennis Layton, and Sara Prince. “Why diversity matters.” McKinsey Quarterly. January 2015.

Katz, Judy. “Gender Representation in eLearning.” Learning Solutions Magazine. 22 October 2015.

Kelly, David. “Women in eLearning: Language, Gender Equality, and Leadership.” Learning Solutions Magazine. 21 May 2015.

Newton-Small, Jay. Broad Influence: How Women Are Changing the Way America Works. New York, NY: Time Inc. Books, 2016.

Pagano, Koreen. “The Gender Riddle in Learning and Development.” Learning Solutions Magazine. 19 February 2015.

Pressner, Kristen. Are you biased? I am. YouTube video posted by “TEDx Talks.” 30 August 2016.

Rimmer, Trina. “The Lack of Diversity in Stock Images Hurts Your eLearning—and What to Do About It.” Learning Solutions Magazine. 17 September 2015.

Silva, Christine, Nancy M. Carter, and Anna Beninger. Good Intentions, Imperfect Execution? Women Get Fewer of the “Hot Jobs” Needed to Advance. Catalyst, 2012.

Simard, Caroline, et al. Climbing the Technical Ladder: Obstacles and Solutions for Mid-Level Women in Technology. Anita Borg Institute with Stanford University Michelle R. Clayman Institute, 2013.

Yurkiewicz, Ilana. “Study shows gender bias in science is real. Here’s why it matters.” Scientific American: Unofficial Prognosis Blog. 23 September 2012.

All Contributors

Julie Dirksen

Learning Strategist, Usable Learning