What place do women-only leadership programmes have in organisations?

Why do women-only leadership programmes exist? After all, it’s not only women who make up the leadership workforce.

It’s a question that Farscape has been asked more than once. Leadership programmes which genuinely promote diversity and inclusion and which increase how effective leaders are at maintaining a high level of business performance are worthwhile.

The key word here is ‘genuine’. Before embarking on any learning and development initiative, careful thought must be given to the desired outcomes. Problems emerge when action is pursued without due consideration. Organisations must examine what they want to achieve before embarking on a women-only programme. Without this careful evaluation, even the best intentions cannot save a programme from failure.

 Define objectives before diving into L&D programmes

Let’s put women-specific programmes to one side for a moment and think about why organisations want to do any kind of L&D initiative.

Often, motivation can be a response to a threat, coming from a place of fear:

  • It’s a response to a crisis situation that has arisen
  • It’s fuelled by a desire to keep up with, or to outrank, competitors
  • It’s an attempt to manage a potentially disruptive situation – large-scale organisational change, for example

Other times, organisations have a more proactive agenda in mind:

  • They are thinking long term and putting in place solid foundations for the future
  • There’s a desire to nurture and support talent
  • The organisation recognises that developing women leaders is good for business

Whether reactive or proactive, motivations tend to come from an emotional place.

The job of the external provider is to distinguish between the emotional motivation and the desired outcome, which comes from a place of reason. When an organisation asks for a women’s leadership programme, the provider has to go through the same process as if they were asked about any other programme. It’s their job to join the dots between the motivation and the desired outcome.

 Why is a women-specific development programme beneficial?

L&D providers must ask this question. There are a number of reasons that an organisation might go down this route:

  • To increase the number of women being promoted, in order to appeal to potential talent
  • A genuine interest in improving people’s working lives, and the sense that providing women leaders with a little extra help will achieve that
  • A response to staff feedback, where there is a feeling that women’s development isn’t supported within the organisation – a female-only programme redresses the balance

These reasons are quite different; all are valid in their own right. What’s critical is that the programme that’s put in place is relevant for the organisation it’s designed for.

So why does women’s leadership development matter?

Coaching creates the space and time to raise consciousness, confidence and develops the coachee into a more effective leader. Farscape has undertaken development work with both men and women and it requires – without exception – a high degree of vulnerability. Female coachees may find it easier to be vulnerable in an all-women environment. So, there are times when an all-women programme is appropriate.

In most cases, it’s not. Whether working with women, with men, with senior leaders, or rising talent, development programmes for women are no different. The common factors would remain: a thorough Training Needs Analysis (TNA) to begin, an open discussion about aims and budget, and delivery of the programme in line with the agreed parameters and to the agreed timescale.

Deciding if women-only programmes have a place is really a question of aims. What do you want to achieve? Will this programme deliver what another programme can’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.

Farscape always recommends caution. Consider whether your women leaders want to be singled out. Sole focus on women might cause men to feel excluded and putting women directly under the spotlight could cause them to feel uncomfortable too. Most people don’t want special treatment or to feel under scrutiny, yet that’s exactly what can happen. An external provider who can elicit a frank response is therefore valuable in ensuring you get the programme that best suits your organisation.

When are women-only development programmes appropriate?

At certain times, development programmes for women are suitable. In particular, when the recipients of the potential training ask for it. This may not always become apparent in the form of an outright request. For example, if during appraisals or, in a worst-case scenario, during exit interviews there’s a strong feeling that women lack development opportunities, it indicates that there’s a good opportunity to develop women leaders.

Other scenarios might include:

  • Improving the diversity of the leadership team
  • Investing in talent
  • Equipping talent with the specific skills needed to succeed as leaders
  • Succession planning, where 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
  • Improving profitability: IMF research shows that a gender-balanced board leads to better financial results

As with all initiatives, the right reasons and the best intentions are the foundation of a successful programme.

 How to get the best from women’s leadership development

Office politics can cause friction at the best of times. This can be exacerbated when one group is chosen to receive development work over another. After all, both men and women sometimes need a little help to achieve their best.

With that in mind, here are a few practical tips to help reduce friction:

  • 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.

 Women-only programmes should be used wisely

All development initiatives should be taken on their merit, and women-only programmes are no different. There’s nothing inherently wrong with developing women leaders and as research suggests, it’s often beneficial. The proviso is that organisations are motivated by the right reasons, not just checking a box.

If developing your women leaders is on your agenda, give Farscape a call. We’ll listen, without judgement, to whatever difficulties or opportunities you’re facing – and perhaps we could even challenge your thinking.

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