Addressing the gender gap – leadership development programmes

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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.

Thornhill has created a Leading Women Survey designed specifically to assess and develop managerial and leadership capabilities for women leaders at middle to senior management level. This provides women with an opportunity to better understand their impact while at the same time allowing companies to measure progress in building leadership capabilities.


Ely & Ibarra (INSEAD), Leading Women, McKinsey, Tessens (UWA).

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