Driving Gender Equity in the Workplace Through Learning and Development – Best Practices from SXSW EDU

Driving Gender Equity in the Workplace Through Learning and Development – Best Practices from SXSW EDU | Workforce Development | Emeritus

Women’s advancement in the workplace is good for everybody – studies show that companies with more women in senior leadership are both more profitable and more socially responsible. However, while the percentage of women in the labor force has rebounded since the disproportionate impact of the pandemic, overall progress toward gender equity remains slow. The gender pay gap in the United States has seen little change in two decades, and just 74 of US Fortune 500 CEOs are women. For women of color, the representation and pay gaps are even more severe. At our current trajectory, the World Economic Forum predicts it will take 132 years to reach global gender parity.

While many factors contribute to gender inequity within corporations, one significant issue is a lack of advancement pathways and pipelines for women. McKinsey & Company has found that women are promoted into management positions at lower rates than their male colleagues and report less career development support from their managers. These disparities are particularly acute for women of color and are one of the primary reasons women cite for leaving companies and exiting the workforce.

Ashley Chiampo, Chief Learning Officer at Emeritus, recently moderated a SXSW EDU 2023 panel titled How Education Drives Equity and Empowerment at Work that included Loren Hudson, SVP and Chief Diversity Officer at Comcast Cable,Molly Nagler, Chief Learning Officer at PepsiCo, and Tiffany Taylor, Chief People & Impact Officer at GSV Ventures.

These four visionary female leaders shared their best practices for using learning and development programs to build equity in the workplace and help everyone unlock new opportunities. A summary of key takeaways are below. 

1. Provide equitable access to L&D opportunities

Workplace learning and development—and the opportunities it can offer for advancement—are often inaccessible to a large proportion of the workforce. Georgetown University reports that only 1-10% of eligible employees take advantage of degree programs offered by their employers, and that a reimbursement model that requires employees to pay tuition upfront excludes many lower-income workers. Non-degree programs such as digital courses or certifications are often more accessible, yet many organizations only offer them to specific groups of employees. Since women and people of color are more likely to be front-line workers, they often lack access to these opportunities. 

Today, many major corporations recognize that the U.S. education system is not adequately preparing future employees—and that traditional approaches risk exacerbating equity issues. By offering a robust set of employee education offerings, companies can help alleviate these issues and help women build their careers while upskilling their teams.  

“It’s important to offer a portfolio of options that empowers your learners to seize the reins and take their career where they want it to go,” explained Molly Nagler, Chief Learning Officer at PepsiCo.

But all panelists acknowledged that offering learning opportunities isn’t enough. Accessing programs that require time “off the clock” can be particularly challenging for women, who have disproportionate responsibilities outside of work. To create equitable opportunities, companies and leaders need to ensure that employees have the time and bandwidth to engage with learning and development. 

2. Tie learning pathways to career advancement

While offering employees equitable educational opportunities is an essential first step, organizations must also tie those offerings to career advancement. 

“We owe our learners clear links between the skills they are developing and the career they can have at PepsiCo or any other company,” said Nagler. “We need to give employees a lot of freedom in the choices of how, when, and what to learn, but we also need to provide a lot of guidance on how that will move them through the career pipeline.”

To ensure employees understand how skill-building can help them advance, managers should discuss educational opportunities with individual contributors as part of structured career-pathing conversations. At Comcast Cable, many business units hold a quarterly “day of learning” focused on exploring new areas of the business and setting goals. 

“As leaders, we need to be very intentional about making that space for purposeful learning opportunities and investing in your personal roadmap,” said Loren Hudson, SVP and Chief Diversity Officer at Comcast Cable. 

3. Create opportunities for networking and connection

Learning and development programs offer a unique opportunity to build employee networks across geographies and functions, offering women and people of color important opportunities for connection and support. Using tools like network analysis, companies can track the connections employees build through L&D programs, and gain insight into a program’s’ impact on the diversity of participants’ networks. 

L&D programs aimed specifically at women or other underrepresented groups are also increasing in popularity, and Comcast Cable, PepsiCo, and GSV Ventures all have career development and coaching initiatives supporting women.

“It’s about making sure that there’s space for folks to talk about their lived experience, and what it means to disrupt inequities in partnership, to ensure there’s change at the systemic level,” said Tiffany Taylor, Chief People & Impact Officer at GSV Ventures. 

Nagler agreed, noting that at PepsiCo, women’s leadership programs focus on the same skills as any other leadership coaching, but offer participants access to camaraderie and an expanded network. “Being able to surface your concerns and get support is priceless,” she added.

4. Provide equity-focused leadership coaching

Good managers are essential for employee engagement, and they’re often primary gatekeepers of advancement within organizations. Educating and engaging leaders on equity issues, therefore, can have huge ripple effects throughout organizations. In fact, McKinsey has found that an organizational focus on inclusive leadership and a diverse leadership team are two of the biggest contributors to employees’ sense of inclusion in the workplace—and fostering inclusion is essential to driving employee retention and advancement.

As Taylor pointed out, managers need coaching around diversity and inclusion, just like every other aspect of leadership. “We need to help our managers understand how to manage along lines of difference,” she said. “How do you show up for a team member who doesn’t look like you, come from the same place, or have the same educational background and working style?”

To drive equity, managers must pair that understanding of difference with a commitment to education and advancement. The panel’s participants agreed that companies should evaluate managers on both their engagement with DEI and their teams’ engagement with development opportunities.

5. Working Towards an Equitable Future

To truly move the needle on gender disparities, companies need to take concrete action—and investing in women’s learning and development is one of the most powerful steps they can take. When a focus on equity is paired with an effective organizational learning culture, employees can start to overcome systemic barriers—a win-win for individuals and corporations. 


Is your organization committed to driving equity in the workplace through education? Reach out to Emeritus Enterprise to learn about our customizable program options. 

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