It is Women’s History Month and although there have been some positive gains in women’s participation in leadership (global figures put women’s representation in senior and CEO positions at 32%) – there is still much work to do. Just to be clear, leadership and gender are non-binary, and this article applies to all who identify as women.
To celebrate this month, I am sharing elements of a women’s leadership experience described by participants as empowering, supportive and effective.
I coach on a women-only leadership development program, and I am always gratified by the superlative feedback. Many participants describe the program as “transformational”. Large companies I’ve consulted, offering similar women-only leadership development, report the same participant enthusiasm. So, in celebration of women’s experiences, here are some observations on why these interventions are so well-received and important.
Speaking with women about their participation in women-only leadership development workshops, I hear sentiments such as:
“It’s been transformational for me as a professional and I plan to use what I learned not only at work but in my family, including my parenting.”
“I loved the sharing and freedom that comes with being in a women-only environment.”
“I felt like I could share and be vulnerable and no one was going to judge or make fun.”
These are just a few of the very positive comments I’ve gathered about women-only leadership development spaces (WOLDS).
Although there is not a tremendous amount of research on the comparative efficacy of mixed versus women-only leadership development, research does suggest that when done well, women-only leadership trainings offer a number of benefits. They produce women who are more likely to aspire to leadership positions and lead with greater confidence, sense of agency, expanded networks, skills development, and self-awareness.
Both the anecdotal feedback and the research suggests that effective women-only leadership development spaces (WOLDS) have three things in common. They create a sense of safety, allow participants to build social capital through networking and connections and provide a structured environment for reflecting on identity and intersectionality (how gender, race, class, etc. produce cultures and structures that normalize certain life experiences).
Women appreciate these women-only opportunities because they provide:
Safe Spaces For my Experiences
“This was a safe space to exchange what it means to be a single mother, head a male-only unit, and learn about my leadership, while revealing my vulnerabilities.”
Many women report a sense of psychological safety and freedom they don’t feel in other leadership learning environments. Specifically, feeling free to share experiences and take emotional risks – which they might not do in a mixed-gendered context. For example, challenging their self-perception as a technical expert versus leader; examining perceived incompatibilities between their social identities and leadership stereotypes, and identifying strategies to take on more leadership opportunities.
Research also highlights the benefits of ensuring a safe environment for women to explore their potential; share successes and failures, and receive feedback, mentoring and coaching.
According to these alumni, spaces that are safe and welcome women’s lived experiences create the essential conditions for women to build and reinforce their leadership identities, connections, and skills.
Intersectionality in Action
“The course uncovered realities that we were previously unaware of, such as the fact that there are certain gender dynamics that are specific to our environment.”
Participants report that these dedicated spaces provide their first professional opportunity to discuss gender, culture, and leadership. Many observe the power of normalizing their challenges and experiences. They no longer feel “alone” or “ashamed” when they share stories about their struggles with leadership, and they can identify areas for growth without fear of judgement.
These opportunities provide them with a “common language” to talk about their experiences of being “stuck,” despite having impeccable backgrounds, skills, and credentials; or their chastisement for being either “too nice” or “too aggressive.” Labelling experiences such as “glass ceiling,” “cliff,” “double bind,” and “unconscious bias” is known to have a powerful emotional regulation effect, and many women describe it as “comforting” and “normalizing”.
In having space for women’s lived experiences, participants identified as crucial the opportunity to surface external and internal sources of bias and consider how these intersect with gender, race, and other identities. It is also an important ingredient of effective WOLD programs.
“Managing my energy for leadership performance and wellbeing spoke to me. I firmly believe that you cannot lead others until you lead yourself.”
Participants report their appreciation for these spaces in bringing together the mind, body, and spirit, to connect and validate other ways of being and knowing. For some, this is about moving beyond MBA-type content to include energy management as a part of self-care and leadership care practice. This aligns with research suggesting that WOLDs offer an enhanced leadership development experience by recognizing gender distinctiveness and establishing gender-sensitive instructional strategies, with a focus on sharing and relational learning methods.
Similarly, feedback indicates the usefulness of exploring a variety of different leadership models, styles, and approaches (e.g. courageous, transformational, adaptive, value-based). In my experience, many women in coaching delight in their initial understanding of leadership – i.e. the traditional role-based authority model – being replaced by a different understanding of leadership. In fact, many report that exposure to more comprehensive leadership models “opened their eyes” in terms of “what leadership is and can be.”
Participants report that the ability to connect to oneself, others, different disciplines, and ways of leading, offer very important opportunities to identify and assume their leadership identity.
Ultimately, successful Women-only leadership programs do more than offer women a safe and supportive environment to build connections with other women. They also provide opportunities to connect to themselves, as well as other bodies of knowledge and ways of knowing.
Not everyone supports women-only leadership programs, and these programs can seem counterintuitive when the world is pursuing greater levels of DEI. Some HR Directors and Academic Advisors are vehemently opposed to gender-specific training or women-only learning spaces, arguing that such interventions are a disservice, rather than a support, to women.
That doesn’t align with the feedback I receive. What is important, is to create more meaningful opportunities for all. For example:
- Protect women-only learning spaces for women who choose this option. I have yet to hear a woman express any regret about women-only formats in my trainings. All report the importance of women-only space to discuss their lived leadership experiences. Again, the research supports this. Hearing other women’s reflections creates an affirming process to objectively review their challenges and identify areas for leadership development.
- Create more leadership development opportunities for all. There are other opportunities for male allyship that can be pursued, and there are other leadership development opportunities for mixed training. Women-only programs don’t preclude organizations from increasing the overall leadership development pie!
When investing in your leadership development, consider a women-only intervention. When done right, you will have an opportunity to build on your experiences and resources, so you can develop, experiment with, and refine your leadership in a safe environment.
An earlier version of this piece appeared in on LinkedIn to celebrate International Women’s Day, 8 March.
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