Women-only leadership development programmes

When considering the possibility of implementing a leadership development programme focused specifically on addressing the gender gap within an organisation, how do you decide between offering a women-only leadership programme vs. a general leadership development programme open to all?

There are merits to both.  While leadership development experiences should occur several times during one’s career and thus general leadership development programmes serve a critical function, women-only programmes have been shown to yield many advantages and thus women leaders should attend both women-only and mixed-gender programmes to achieve different objectives.

Research findings indicate that a leadership gender gap at any level tells you that there is something missing from your leadership development programmes; one common cause could be that they are not gender neutral.  How so?  The skills gap between men and women is, at times, different and it has been established that most leadership programmes are designed around meeting the skills gaps of men.  However, a caveat here: women-only programmes should not be designed to focus solely on the development of individual skills as this implies that female employees differ from the organisational norm in that they lack certain skills and behaviours necessary for success.

So what are some of the things which greatly impact women’s advancement and are not discussed in general leadership programmes?

  • Teaching women how to seek and get the ‘right’ kind of mentoring or how to earn sponsorship.
  • Addressing gender-specific career derailers (such as assertiveness, self-promotion and asking for opportunities).
  • Understanding how second generation gender bias manifests in organisations and can derail a woman’s leadership transition.
  • Dealing with gender dynamics (the mindsets of managers that create barriers for women) and how to address them.

Of all the forces that hold women back, none are as powerful as entrenched beliefs. While companies have worked hard to eliminate overt discrimination, women still face the pernicious force of mindsets that limit opportunity…”  McKinsey

With the above in mind, what are the advantages for women in attending women-only leadership development programmes?

  • Women feel more comfortable being in a learning environment with other women as they don’t fear any potential post-programme consequences based on possible vulnerabilities that may have been exposed during the programme.
  • A more nuanced understanding of the subtle and pervasive effects of gender bias, how it may be playing out in their development as leaders and what they can do to counter it is presented.
  • Learning is fostered by putting women in a majority position, in contrast to the traditionally male-dominated work context.  This in itself can elicit powerful insights.  In addition, these programmes create a holding environment in which to rediscover a sense of agency in their ongoing leadership development experiences, which aid in advancing them into more senior roles.
  • Subtle cultural and organisational biases can easily turn women’s attention inward as they try to reconcile conflicting messages about how to behave as leaders. Women-only leadership development programmes can assist women to find their own style of leadership by anchoring on their larger leadership purpose, thus redirecting their attention outward toward who they need to be in order to advance.
  • Women-only programmes are an effective and appropriate way of beginning to address the under-utilisation of female human resources.

What remains unclear is whether women-only development programmes on their own contribute to cultural change for gender equity.  Not necessarily so.  However, they do encourage a building of community and, over time, delegates recognise that gender issues are embedded in generally accepted organisational practices and cultural norms.  Through the power of sharing and support this community is then able to act together to start introducing changes in the organisation and its culture.

Women-only development programmes which do not seriously engage in a broader long-term change process might risk alienating the women and eventually result in declining participation.  Without a clear strategy that includes a focus on organisational culture, programmes will continue to help individual women fit into organisational cultures while leaving those cultures untouched.  One is then left questioning the long-term sustainability of the investment for the organisation.


SOURCES (with thanks and appreciation): Ely & Ibarra (INSEAD), Leading Women, McKinsey, Tessens (UWA).

Human rights and gender equality: men are affected too

In a speech made in 1995, Hilary Rodham Clinton stated that “human rights are women’s rights and women’s rights are human rights.  Every woman deserves the chance to realize her own potential. But we must recognize that women will never gain full dignity until their human rights are respected and protected”.


The link between human rights and gender equality was again emphasised by Emma Watson’s opening speech for the HeForShe Campaign (UN Women 2014).  To summarise her message:

Fighting for women’s rights has too often become synonymous with man-hating.  Feminism is the belief that men and women should have equal rights and opportunities. However, feminism has become an unpopular word and, as a result, women are choosing not to identify as feminist.  Why has the word become such an unattractive one?  It’s partly to do with how we ‘language’ feminism – when expressions are used that are seen as too strong, too aggressive, isolating, anti-men; feminist women are even seen as being unattractive.  It’s not the word ‘feminism’ that is important; it is the idea and ambition behind it.  Gender equality is a human right.


Watson points out that men don’t have the benefits of equality either.  Men too are imprisoned by gender stereotypes.  This last point was reinforced in a presentation I attended earlier this week by Kevin Rutter of Fathers, a non-profit research and education organisation whose mission is to champion the role of responsible fatherhood by inspiring and equipping men to be more engaged in the lives of children.  He introduced the audience to the ‘man box’, a model which provides an explanation about masculine socialisation and which (eloquently explained by the Women and Gender Advocacy Center) differentiates between the socially valued roles and expectations that constitute conventional masculinity, versus those roles which confine boys and men into a narrowly constructed definition of manhood and which frequently lead to their being ‘punished’ by other boys and men if they don’t conform to the socially acceptable norm.  As I understand, the message from the HeForShe campaign is not about excluding men from the debate, as they too are victims of gender stereotypes.  Rather, it is to invite them to be actively involved/involved activists in the gender equality journey.  Watson implies that when men are free of their stereotypes then things will change for women as a natural consequence.


Watson asks how we can effect change in the world when only half of it is invited or feels welcome to participate in the conversation.  Gender equality is a men’s issue too.  A description by Watson resonates with me: gender should not be two sets of opposing ideals but should be seen as being on a spectrum.


How can you as a manager, leader, teacher, mentor, parent, partner/spouse, sibling or friend be an ‘inadvertent’ feminist or gender equality ambassador, regardless of your gender?



Sources: Colorado State University: Women and Gender Advocacy Center; Fathers.co.za; Hilary Rodham Clinton speech; UN Women HeforShe campaign (Emma Waton)


The Man Box

Gender balance: the business case for having more women in senior organisational roles

There is much research confirming the business case for having women in more senior levels within an organisation (better balance = better performance). Some of the benefits that have been presented are that gender diverse workforces are more effective and gender equality in the workplace reduces costs to the employer; gender diverse businesses have been found to be more highly engaged and financial performance improves dramatically; gender diverse workforces allow the company to serve an increasingly diverse customer base; and, lastly, the different ideas and insights between men and women enable better problem solving. It has been found that the costs associated with promoting gender equality are more than outweighed by the potential benefits to be gained in terms of the bottom line.

An interesting comment was made by one of the presenters at a gender mainstreaming conference at which we presented last week. While the validity of the research was acknowledged, the point made was that, in addition, women bring a softness due to their different genetic makeup, which the majority of men may not bring. This in itself results in less explicit benefits which positively impact the business at an individual, team and organisational level.

To remain sustainable in the long-term and competitive in the global economy, companies cannot afford to ignore 50%+ of the potential workforce.   And, building on from this, the value of having a gender diverse organisation is that the visible gender balance helps to retain talented women and serves to attract even more women.


Sources: Catalyst, Close the Gap UK, Gallup, Grant Thornton, International Journal of Resource Management, INSEAD, London School of Economics, McKinsey, World Development Report on Gender Equality and Development.