Do women-only leadership programmes have a place?

Division, irritation for a large portion of the workforce, and frustration for those who would love the opportunity to take part in a leadership development programme. Work isn’t just about women. So why do we have women-only leadership programmes?

It’s a valid question and one that Farscape has been asked numerous times. Any programme that genuinely promotes diversity and inclusion, increases the effectiveness of leaders and subsequently improves business performance is worthwhile.

So, there may be a place for women-only leadership programmes although, as with any kind of programme, problems emerge when a course of action is pursued without giving careful thought to the desired outcomes. Women-only programmes are often started with the best intentions, even if such a programme is perhaps not the right answer. That’s why it’s so important for organisations to examine what they hope to gain by going down this route.

Leadership development programmes: defining an aim

Before thinking about women’s programmes, it’s useful to consider why most organisations undertake any kind of leadership development programme. Motivations tend to include things such as improving an area of the business, boosting sales performance, or reducing staff turnover, for example.

Often, motivation arises from an emotional place, even a place of fear. Maybe the organisation is responding to a crisis situation or they’re trying to keep up with the competition. Equally, emotional motivations can come from a positive place. Sometimes it really is as simple as wanting to improve women’s development, support and nurture women leaders.

The job of the facilitator, coach or L&D provider is to help draw a line between the emotional motivator and the desired outcome, which comes from a rational place. For instance, raise output from point A to point B, increase profits by 15%, or cut attrition rates by a third.

When asked to provide a women’s leadership programme, the provider has to act in the same way that they would if they were approached about any other programme. They must join the dots between the motivation and the desired outcome.

Why a women’s programme specifically?

This is the question that L&D providers need to ask. Maybe the number of women being promoted is small and the metrics look off-putting to potential talent. Perhaps the organisation is genuinely interested in improving their people’s working lives and feel that giving a little extra help to the women in the workforce will do that. It may also be in direct response to feedback from staff, that women’s development isn’t supported within the organisation and a female-only programme is seen as a way to redress the balance.

All very different motivations, and all more or less valid. It’s about making sure that the programme that’s put in place is relevant for the organisation that commissions it.

So why bother with women’s leadership development?

Farscape has worked with clients to develop their female leaders. The dedicated coaching and the space and time to reflect raises consciousness, confidence and develops the participant into a more effective leader. Developmental work requires a high degree of vulnerability and it’s sometimes easier for female participants to be vulnerable in a women-only environment. In some cases, then, it’s beneficial for a women-only programme to take place.

Most of the time it’s not. Women’s development programmes are not really any different to any other leadership development programme. There would still need to be a thorough TNA, a discussion about aims and budget, and delivery of the programme in line with the agreed parameters and to the agreed timescale.

The question of ‘why bother with women-only development programmes?’ really goes back to the earlier question around aims. What do you want to achieve? What will this programme deliver, that any other programme won’t? If organisations can have a frank conversation and answer these questions convincingly in favour of a women-only development programme, then absolutely, a women’s programme is a must.

Caution must be exercised. Farscape would warn against rushing into such a programme without careful thought. It’s necessary to consider whether the women want to be singled out. While focusing solely on women might cause men to feel excluded, shining the spotlight directly on women might actually make the women themselves feel uncomfortable too. The female participants might feel that they are receiving unsolicited special treatment, or being scrutinised. That’s where an external provider with the courage to hold up the mirror to an organisation and elicit a frank response is a real asset in developing an appropriate programme with you.

When to consider a women-only programme

While not always appropriate, there are times when a development programme for women is fitting. In particular, when the recipients of the potential training ask for it. As suggested earlier, feedback is a useful way to gauge the appetite for women-only programmes, although feedback may not always be so direct. For instance, if a high percentage of women are resigning and cite a lack of development opportunities as their reason for leaving it’s a fairly good indicator that the appetite to develop women leaders is healthy.

Improving the diversity of the leadership team, investing in talent and equipping them with the skills to be successful leaders are triggers for exploring women-only development. Succession planning is another time when we tend to see organisations consider women’s development. Maybe the junior managerial workforce is made up of women and a programme to support them is the most effective way to secure the organisation’s future. The most important thing is that the course of action is taken for the right reasons and with the best intentions.

Get the most out of women’s leadership development

When a group is chosen to receive development work, the potential for office politics and disharmony to be exacerbated is very real. None more so than with women’s development; shutting out colleagues based on their gender can threaten to derail what you hope to achieve. After all, low self-belief, impostor syndrome and a lack of confidence are issues that both men and women need help with from time to time. Excluding men from receiving this help can cause friction.

If a women-only programme is right for your organisation then these practical tips will help you keep everyone included and prevent any upset.

  • Involve men from the start– Ask male colleagues to nominate a female leader they admire and feel would benefit from development. Valuing people’s opinions helps make people feel more positive about what you’re trying to do.
  • Include men and women in the programme – Just because a programme is designed for the development of women, it doesn’t mean that men can’t be involved. It may actually be beneficial and, after all, it’s closer to reality. Men and women work together every day; creating an artificial man-free zone could reduce the effectiveness of the programme once the provider departs and women leaders head back to work as usual.
  • The message to the rest of the business – Frame the programme as a positive thing, which will ultimately benefit everyone. Leadership development programmes should ideally have a trickle effect: coach those at the top and the learning disperses through the business. A women’s programme shouldn’t be any different.

Not bad, but not a saving grace either

Women-only leadership development programmes are not inherently bad. Neither do they represent a panacea for every organisational ailment. All things taken on their merit, and women-only leadership development initiatives should be too. Though perhaps if business and the world at large was entirely the meritocracy we might like to think, the question of singling out a specific demographic for leadership development wouldn’t exist.

If your organisation needs help and you’re considering undertaking women-only leadership development, give Farscape a call. We’d be pleased to hear about the difficulties you’re facing – and perhaps we could even challenge your thinking.

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