gender equality

Oct 18, 2013

Just curious how others handle gender equality in courses? Right now we alternate every other chapter or section. One chapter is all male references. The next is all female. I try to always write without genders, but sometimes that just gets awkward. I want examples to be personal instead of stating "the patient" (or whatever) over and over. 

7 Replies
Steve Flowers

It's a tough thing to balance. Not just with genders but also other cultural indicators. I don't think I would alternate, only because I don't want anyone to notice a distinction and I really want to show folks working together. 

I think we tend to silently ask a series of questions when planning a module.

Like... Is the gender balance out of whack? More screen time for male representation than female? Is all of the narration male? If so, maybe consider adding more female characterization in visuals and scenarios to balance things out (again, it's subtle - not obvious unless drawing specific attention to make a point is beneficial to the training message).

... How is the ethnic / culture balance?

... Does the module propagate stereotypes?

... Does the gender representation of management types lean male / female / or a particular cultural or ethnic background? Are all the managers male or female while direct reports are the opposite? If so, may want to make adjustments.

I don't think we ever want to look like we're intentionally stacking the deck or attempting to create a fantasy that doesn't represent the audience. If the workplace reflects a healthy blend and the training mirrors that, it's the best we can do. Anything else won't appear genuine.

Training can be an effective part of the message that models workplace equality. But I think it can be distracting if training designs exert energy specifically to make a social statement.

Daniel Brigham

Hi, Jill:

I agree: it's odd to have one chapter have one set of gender references and the next, the opposite. It reminds me of the old writing adage: hide the hand of the writer.

I'd probably focus on the audience: are they mostly female? Go mostly female then.

I'll often make the subject plural to get out of the his/her thing--e.g., Nurses like it when people bring them donuts.

Would you mind posting a sample that strikes you as clunky? Then Steve, I, and others could help a bit more.

Carina Aichinger

I agree, trying to be gender-neutral as often as possible is a very good strategy, e.g. by using plurals.

In general, I would say the most important thing is to avoid stereotypes (e.g. the female secretary and the male CEO). In case of doubt, I try to "inverse" stereotypes (so I choose a male secretary and a female CEO) if gender equality is a requirement. I also try not to overdo it - if I have, let's say, five case studies, it's enough to inverse the stereotypes in two or three of them. However, this is only a good idea if the case studies are more or less separate from each other - if the situations are interrelated and/or if the characters are the same in more or all of the case studies, changing roles can be confusing.

It's also very important to avoid stereotypical (or even potentially pejorative) expressions like "the shy girl" and "the wild boy". Choosing pictures or characters of people from different ethnic backgrounds can also be a good idea.

If you have some freedom in the choice of words and visual elements, I would try to avoid stereotypes where gender-sensitive people can be offended (e.g. the weak and modest woman vs. the ambitious and successful man), but not prefer female over male characters everywhere - for example I am not sure if it makes a difference whether a patient is male or female.

I know this is a very sensitive topic where you will find a lot of different opinions and there is no general "right" or "wrong". I think the most important - and most difficult - aspect is as always to find the right balance for every audience and situation.

Jill Easterday

Plurals are great, as are titles. But when the writing gets clunky, I alternate by module, i.e., Modules 1, 3, and 5 use feminine pronouns and Modules 2, 4, and 6 use masculine pronouns.

A good reference for bias-free writing: The Copyeditor's Handbook, by Amy Einsohn.

Style Guides, like Chicago Manual of Style, also offer many examples.

Douglas Audirsch

I have wrestled with this issue at my company as well.  I have considered the gender balance, the ethnic balance, as well as an AGE balance.  We have a number of experienced employees who should be represented in our courses.  Rather than try to have equal proportions of each category (gender, ethnicity, age, etc.), I've tried to mirror what our company actually is.  If we have more women, I've attempted to roughly imitate that proportion. As was mentioned earlier, I want that to be invisible to the employee so that it is a non-issue.  Speaking in plurals doesn't always work due to the nature of the topic you may be presenting, but it is certainly one strategy in the toolbox. 

I work at a company with fewer than 400 employees currently and I have several times created a course using the built-in characters (either photographic or illustrated).  When I have done that, I actually pick characters to represent specific people in our company.  For instance, in one course I designed I show 3 levels of employee who report up the chain to one another.  I picked characters to roughly simulate a real chain of command in our company by gender, ethnicity, and age.  It's a rough approximation, but it seemed to me that it would, perhaps subconsciously, look "normal" to our employees. 

I guess a possible shortcoming with this approach is if your company does, in fact, have a heterogeneous management team or general workforce.  But then, maybe your courses could end up being an agent for change if it causes people to pay attention to the situation!    Since this isn't an issue for the company I where I work, this process has helped me to have a "template" of sorts to work with.

Hope this helps!

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