THIS woman in learning

I decided I wanted to work in learning and development (or training as it was then) before I had even left university.

A decision that wasn’t without its challenges. I knew that it was a tough call for a naïve 21 year old. It would be difficult to convince anyone to let me train people with zero experience of life and work but the idea of doing good work that brought out the best in others absolutely appealed. At that age I was completely ignorant of what it would be like to be a woman carving out a career in this space. What it would take to realise my potential, to contribute, to be heard, to belong.

Learning how to belong

So, straight out of university, I blagged my way into becoming the secretary of the training manager at a 200 year old city firm (yes I know that the algorithms wouldn’t allow that today!). I quickly became fascinated by the technology in the learning centre in the cupboard under the stairs – its application completely made sense in the light of my academic understanding of how adults learned. To be honest I was too new in the field to let the industry’s commitment to the classroom dampen my passion. Within 2 years I was headhunted into the provider of that technology. The account manager at the time was pretty savvy – they figured my enthusiasm to get in on the project was hindering their access to decision makers!

I then spent the next 15 years forging a career in a male dominated EdTech industry. In my first role, it was the women who wanted me to wait to get experience, for the next opportunity and muscling in on the boys club camaraderie didn’t appeal. So I got on and found sneaky ways to do the job that was always a pay grade ahead. Results get noticed (if not by current employers, then by others) and I was headhunted into a ‘younger’ technology company with big ideas to change the world.

As the first woman carrying revenue responsibility, I wasn’t always appreciated by peers who felt that a single girl muscling in on their territory was ‘taking food from their children’s mouths’. Despite overachieving targets from day 1, my approach to collaborating with customers hadn’t been forged in the hallows of that old boys club and as a result my career wasn’t without its political challenges. In my small space of workplace learning, none of us could even spell the word inclusion, let alone appreciate what it meant.

I learned a lot in those tough formative years in L&D but I never felt that I belonged. As a supplier, I wasn’t considered a practitioner, as a woman, I was not privy to the insider trading of the boys club, as a younger person (seriously the EdTech pioneers of the 90’s were OLD!!) my ideas were not noticed. I didn’t stand up to fight for justice in a way that perhaps I would today. Instead, I quickly realised that applying research and evidence amplified my voice. Evidence not only allowed me to be included in the formerly sacred discussion and decision making circles, it also allowed me to be heard.

Most people today know me for my relationship with data. In 2004 I left my employed career to explore why some L&D teams are more successful than others. Curiosity led to the formation of a global benchmark that contributed to conversations about the future of learning around the globe. I spent 15 years developing a data led conversation with the industry, originally under the Towards Maturity banner, that I am thrilled to say, continues today as the Mind Tools for Business Learning Performance Benchmark.

Running a business and establishing something from scratch is a unique privilege that allows us to influence our own destiny. I built the Towards Maturity study in my own way – prioritising the transparent inclusion of voices from across the industry to address common challenges. I’ll be honest with you, the data and approach to collaborative industry learning became my identity – and my key to inclusion, with peers, practitioners, suppliers and government policy across the industry I had chosen to make my home.

As a result, it was tough to let go but I wanted to explore more, to think more widely, to observe in new ways and to contribute in new ways. On the 8th of March, International Women’s day in 2019, I cut my ties!  

Learning how to belong – all over again

Letting go of a job that defined me in 2019 was tougher than in 2004. The language and issues relating to diversity, equity and inclusion were now widely established making me more conscious of what it meant to be included or excluded. I wondered without ‘my’ data who I am? And how can I contribute? Leaving these questions unanswered was rocking my core, opening a door to seeing exclusion all around!

Our unique contribution to the world of work can sometimes be hidden beneath what we do. 

Realising this, I renewed my journey of self discovery to understand what I uniquely bring to my work, my research, my interaction with the industry.

And that is where my journey of learning how to belong started, all over again! We all need to recognise our own uniqueness, the ways of being that not only have shaped our past but will also be carried into our future. It’s my personal experience that recognising this helps us to understand our own potential for inclusion in work, society and in our own future.

This recognition was not always easy or obvious but it was mainly the women around me who helped me on that journey through reflection, observation and mindful caring. Not just the close friends but those who I admired, bumped into, worked with, struggled with, explored and experimented with. Those working with customers who provided permission and safe spaces to try new approaches to difficult issues. Those in longer collaborations that built mutual awareness and understanding. All of these interactions mattered.

What am I learning?

As a result I now understand that there are a number of unique perspectives that THIS woman in learning brings to everything that she does, from the way that she interprets data, communicates ideas, facilitates conversations and reflects on what she observes in others.

I am learning that THIS woman in learning:

  • Believes in the potential of people – not sure where this originated, maybe my faith, maybe my parents. What I do know is that I fundamentally believe everyone has the potential to positively contribute – to work, to society, to family, to art and culture. I believe that with the right opportunities we can all become equipped and ready to become changemakers, included in shaping a changing future. It’s why I believe in the business impact of learning and the potential for L&D to deliver it. I know I am not alone. The most joyous stat I uncovered writing the latest CIPD Learning at work report was that 88% of our industry believe that we are in meaningful work.
  • Uses multiple lenses to see new things – my eyesight has always been poor! I’ve needed help to see since a very young age. As I have got older I need even more help to see clearly. I wear (at least) 2 pairs of glasses at any one time because if I put one set down I won’t be able to see where I have left them! This plays out in all I do. Looking for ways to see opportunities and challenges through multiple lenses meant that I included users in my first study about effective practice, it’s why I included policymakers, suppliers, practitioners and gurus in establishing my research practice. We all see the same issues differently and therein potentially lies an answer!
  • Thinks community trumps ego – finding, contributing to and creating environments where all feel safe to contribute makes everyone smarter. For me this is just my preferred way of drawing on multiple lenses and why I struggle to deliver a webinar,  event or piece of research without maximum participation of those involved.
  • Is a ‘both and’ girl – for me paradoxes feed my innate curiosity and signal an opportunity for creativity rather than a moment of friction. My degree was in Maths AND Psychology – even then I was trying to understand how logic and the craziness of humanity might come together. Over the years I have loved spotting how different disciplines can come together to create something fresh and relevant for our industry.
  • Is learning to learn – releasing potential in others isn’t just a big ego trip – the more I get involved the less I understand and the more I want to learn. Letting go of the familiar, starting something new (I am in the middle of a doctorate programme right now!) or experimenting with a new idea creates tension that takes me out of my comfort zone and reminds me what it is really like to learn.
  • Leverages the outsider advantage! Looking back now I realise that I have always operated from the position of being an outsider – that young girl in a man’s world, a supplier connecting with practitioners, a non academic running a 15 year research programme. This has created more opportunities for me than it has closed, affording me the opportunity to benefit from the cross pollination of ideas rather than commitment to a single perspective. The outsider advantage isn’t driven from a position of exclusion but creates an opportunity to create a new level of inclusivity.

There may be pillars to my work approach that are waiting to be uncovered – I’m on a journey! These perspectives aren’t just values I aspire to, but I have come to realise how the combination of these perspectives uniquely define how I have chosen to behave in the past. Understanding and embracing them also sets the stage of how I chose to behave in the future. They underpin how I contribute to my industry and outline the terms under which I want to be included.

Celebrating the unsung heroes that inspire confidence and courage

My allies over the past 5 years are those who have helped me to see past what I do to understand who I am. They are helping me recognise what I uniquely bring to my field of work. We all need those allies to be mirrors, observers and trusted challengers.

Today is International Women’s Day 2024. With others I celebrate those who are unselfishly tackling the big issues around women’s economic empowerment and creating opportunities to elevate women’s contributions to business, sport, art and the economy.

But I also want to acknowledge and raise up the quieter, unsung heroes who’s small and timely actions inspire insights that allow women to be confident about stepping into where they belong.

I would welcome your thoughts and comments over on LinkedIn

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