Why do we need women-only leadership development programs?

July 8, 2020

Two years ago, we were at the launch of a women leadership development program that we were leading for a client. A senior leader from the organisation spoke about his hopes for the program and opened the floor for questions. A participant raised her hand and asked “Why do we need a women-only program? I’m a leader here and I’d like to be treated like all leaders are”.

To tell you a secret, this was a very live question for us at Navgati when we first started offering leadership development training programsfor women. We graduated from the discomfort of attending training in our own past corporate lives which were based on gender (“I’ll attend one of these the day they launch a men-only training program” said one of us) to realising the transformational value that working in an all women group of leaders can offer.

It is common to view women-only training programs as being focused only on gender-specific challenges. There is also this feeling that such trainings undermine equality at the workplace – Work isn’t just about women. So why do we have women-only leadership programmes?

In our experience, there are gender-specific issues that are unanimously faced by women, irrespective of their backgrounds. Some of the external barriers are unconscious bias, pay gap issues and the gender roles assigned by the society. Then there is the double bind that women face at the workplace – women are often socially and culturally expected to be nurturing and likeable, which in turn makes them a bad fit for a leadership position. On the other hand, if they are assertive and aggressive go-getters, they are deemed to be unlikable, and too bossy to be good leaders. A no-win situation really.

Women are more emotional.
Men are more assertive.
Women cannot handle technology.
Men are better at mathematics.
Women are more caring.
Men make better leaders.
Women are better teachers.

How many of these do you believe? These are all generalized gendered statements that form part of our everyday vocabulary. Traits like confidence, aggression, independence, self-reliance are unconsciously, intrinsically linked to masculinity, and those like empathy, compassion, loyalty and sensitivity are unconsciously synonymous with femininity.

It is not to say that one set of traits are more desirable than the other, but it is important to reflect on how some traits are perceived as prerequisites for leadership positions. How does one then look at these differences critically and take steps to overcome some self-limiting barriers that we often internatise?

It is definitely not easy to question and dismantle years of conditioning, but when in an exclusive women only training group , we get a chance to pause, reflect on these questions and get more comfortable challenging accepted biases.

Adding to the external barriers that women face, there are also internal barriers. In the book, How Women Rise, Helgesen and Goldsmith mention 12 career limiting habits that seem fairly exclusive to women. Reluctance to claim achievements and expecting others to notice the contribution, the desire to please, minimising one’s impact and aiming for perfection are some of the habits that can be considered self-limiting. These internal and external barriers have been well researched and documented.

In our work, we have found that women generally struggle with talking about themselves because they prefer to ‘not blow their own trumpets’ or ‘sound ‘boastful’. It is comforting to attribute their achievements to the team’s efforts.

To demonstrate the point we are making about differences in attitudes and approaches, ask yourself these questions. If you are a woman reading this, ask these questions to a man after you have answered them yourself and vice versa.

  • How easy is it for you to accept recognition and praise?
  • What is the one contribution of yours that you feel has not been acknowledged enough at work?
  • What can you do to bring more attention to it?

Did you notice any difference in the responses?

Another significant difference is the relationship men and women have with ‘ambition’. There is an interesting book by Anna Fels called Necessary Dreams (here is an article on the same). Dr. Fels, a therapist, talks about the role of ambition in women’s lives and explores how hidden, apologetic and guilt laden the subject of ambition is for them. The women she interviewed hated to admit they are ambitious, whereas the men considered ambition as a necessary and desirable part of their life.

Trainings which are gender blind, fail to acknowledge the sociological evidence for these ‘differences’ that exist between how men and women operate and lead.

By no means are we saying that the responsibility for her growth is only on the woman; organizations clearly have a lot to do to correct years of unconscious bias, but exclusive training spaces for women offer them opportunity to address some of the barriers that are holding them back. Creating an environment where women can recognise and talk about the unique challenges they face, and build skills they need to specifically deal with them is essential. We believe that an uninhibited space, where women can share their experiences and learning, can be liberating and the impact, extraordinary.

We started with the story about our reservation with women-only training programs , but we soon realised that the benefits far outweigh the unease one might have regarding such spaces. We believe that women-only programs help women leaders develop the critical beliefs and skills that are needed to navigate the unique challenges they face. It allows them to explore the choices and trade-offs they face, as they juggle personal and professional lives and not feel guilty about those choices. Such training spaces can help women feel a sense of belonging and build a shared community for support which lasts long after the program is over. It also gives them an opportunity to introspect on the beliefs that limit them from claiming their space and gives them the confidence to stand up for their rights. Training programs empower women with tools on how to more effectively use their own power. Such platforms give the women much needed encouragement to question, to reflect, to express, and gently nudges them to claim their rightful space.

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