Tackling gender equality using action learning – from guest blogger Frances McAndrew

Having spent quite a bit of my career helping organisations find new ways to build equality into their day-to-day business, I now believe that one of the most important skills needed is ‘reflective practice’. Or in other words the ability to review your own work critically through an equality lens.

This skill is needed to challenge the natural assumption that our work is automatically equality neutral.   My experience and quite a bit of evidence suggests that this isn’t the case – systems and process within organisations can be barriers to equality.

This conclusion, about the importance of reflection, partly explains my fondness for Equality Impact Assessments (EIA) – a simple system which forces policy writers and project managers to think again about their plans – although it is hard to deny they also appeal to my desire for order and process (and therefore meritocracy?).  It’s possible I am also just a bit of an equality geek.

It wasn’t easy
It might be tempting to assume that in the UK branch of an international NGO working to deliver an ambitious value driven agenda, my plan to embed equality thinking through the use of EIAs would have been easy. It wasn’t.

Pessimistic perfectionism

Culture stood in my way! An organisational culture where the desire for perfection led to a pessimistic view of the organisation’s ability to make progress, an overwhelming fear of failure and vocal opposition to change.

It was hard for many staff to accept the possibility that their well-intentioned ways of working might unconsciously discriminate. And in an organisation when perfection is the goal, many quietly and (never publicly) doubted the soundness of their equality knowledge.

A new approach was needed

Evolution not revolution

I stumbled upon the work of David Kelleher who had used Action Learning (AL) to progress gender equality in Bangladesh.  AL is not a new technique – it was first used by Reg Revans to support miners in the 1940s – but its use in equality is not widespread and it was certainly a new approach for me.

According to Action Learning Associates, who I was lucky enough to work with on this project, “action learning is a process which involves working on real challenges, using the knowledge and skills of a small group of people combined with skilled questioning, to re-interpret old and familiar concepts and produce fresh ideas”.

I was delighted that one of the underlying principles of AL is that reflection is needed before effective action. When I discovered that one of the outcomes from AL is that those taking part often feel more confident that what they know is ‘good enough’ (i.e. not perfect but good-enough to try)  I was convinced that this technique might just work.

And when I realised that through AL, small incremental actions would take place that when added together could show real change almost without people realising, I was sold! What better way could there be to overcome the fear of change and failure than through actually achieving successful change? Evolution not revolution.

In some ways this reminds me of my approach to learning to run; I try to focus my gaze on the middle distance as this makes the finish point a bit less scary!

Realistic optimism

The AL process is not yet complete but early signs are that real progress is being made. My hope is that those involved with this project and all those they talk to about action learning will be filled with a new sense of realistic optimism.  But even more I hope that those involved will continue to take action – as Peter Honey argued

“The end of learning is action, not knowledge”.


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