Why We Need Women’s Leadership Programs: The Pipeline Is Clogged

Women have entered the professional and managerial ranks of organizations in large numbers since the 1970s and have entered at about the same rate as men for the last twenty-five years in Western industrialized countries. Nonetheless, women remain poorly represented at the senior levels of organizations and constitute only 3 percent of Fortune 500 CEOs and about 15 percent of company board seats in the United States. The numbers are worse for women of color, who represent only three of the 500 CEOs. The situation for women in Europe is no better. It seems fair to conclude that earlier approaches—preparing women to be leaders by teaching basic leadership skills, “fixing” their behaviors to be more like those of men, and then waiting for them to work their way through the pipeline—have not produced the desired result of having more women in senior leadership positions in the West. Research reported in 2009 by DDI (Development Dimensions International), involving 12,208 global leaders in seventy-six countries and 1500 organizations, found that women have not progressed as far as men of similar tenure and age in all major global regions. The study’s authors note that even in the United States, more than 70 percent of the top 1500 US firms have no women on the senior leadership team. The authors conclude that the deck is stacked against women from the start of their careers because women do not have equal access to development experiences. Other scholars at Harvard suggest that it is important for women to learn to use a broader and more theoretical lens to understand why development opportunities are not as available to women, as well as why other barriers to women’s advancement exist. In other words, potential women leaders need to understand that systemic forces are at work to create these barriers in order to change them. It is not enough to learn new tools and skills without learning to use them within a systemic context. These scholars suggest that subtle forms of gender bias, which they call second generation bias, create internal and external barriers for women’s advancement to senior levels. Second generation bias is defined as practices and beliefs that equate leadership with behaviors believed to be more common or appropriate for men, which communicates to both women and men that women are ill-suited for leadership roles. This bias interferes with a woman’s ability to see herself or be seen by others as a leader. For this reason, the authors propose that women’s leadership development needs to be grounded in a coherent, theoretically based, and actionable framework, incorporating both theories of gender and leadership. In other words, leadership skills and topics need to be taught within an analysis of second generation bias as a framework that helps point the way to actions. A review of the best practices literature on women’s leadership development programs reveals a consensus on the importance of women-only programs that foster learning by putting women in a majority experience. The literature reports agreement that women are best able to develop strong and authentic leadership identities in all-woman settings. While many of the topics and skills that women leaders need to develop are the same as those found in leadership development programs for men, it should be noted that to support the development of effective women leaders, these topics need to be taught within the context of understanding the special challenges that women leaders face. For example, women cannot use exactly the same negotiation strategies that men use because recent studies show that women are not seen as “likable” when they do, and therefore are not as successful when using the same approaches. Consequently, women need to develop negotiation strategies that work for them in the context of second generation bias or other ways of theoretically framing the impact of gender differences. An effective women’s leadership development program needs to reflect current research and best practices for leadership effectiveness in the twenty-first century and address the unique issues and advances affecting women in leadership. Many organizations now offer women’s leadership programs internally, and some good public programs also exist. Two of my favorite public programs are the Women’s Leadership Community in Minnesota and the POWER of Self Women’s Leadership Program in Texas. Let’s continue to support the offering of these programs. They’re important.   Image courtesy of stockimages at FreeDigitalPhotos.net]]>