Why women only?

Gender balance has become a priority. Many organisations want to increase the number of women at the mid and senior leadership levels. Finding women from outside the organization is not an option, as the pool is small, hence an urgent need to grow the pipeline of women leaders from within the organisation.

Leadership development with a strong focus on growing women leaders and creating an environment that helps them stay and grow, is an approach many companies have adopted. At Nucleus Insights, our WeLead program, which was designed to meet this need, has met with significant success in many organisations. They have stated that WeLead is one-of a kind program, that offers a systemic approach to grow women leaders and makes a deep impact on the women and their managers. It is seen as a strong program to help build a pipeline of women leaders in the organisation.

While the program has been very successful, we have encountered a few questions from some men and women in the organisations where the program is held or being considered.

They ask – Why only women go through this program? Why not have men and women together, as the competencies required are the same for leadership? When workplaces have teams of men and women, shouldn’t programs reflect that reality and have women and men together? And some women ask- why single us out for development, do we need fixing?

Women do not need fixing. Study after study and our collective experience shows that, when a level playing field is provided, women demonstrate leadership in equal or even greater measure than men. What needs fixing is the barriers women experience in their path to development.

Having worked with both women only and mixed gender programs over the last 5 years, here are four reasons why a “women only” program should be considered, if the objective is to create a pipeline of women leaders.

An anchor for the organisation’s commitment and seriousness towards gender balance.

If an organisation is serious about creating a strong pipeline of women leaders at mid and senior levels, it is logical to focus on growing women talent.

Measures like hiring more women at mid and senior levels from the market, training people on unconscious bias, bringing other role-models to the organisation etc are good steps. However, they do not create considerable impact to the leadership pipeline. A women-only program sends out a strong message that the organisation is serious about addressing the issue of gender balance. It shows that the organisation is committed to accelerate the process of increasing the number of women leaders at mid/senior levels. It becomes an anchor to reinforce all the messages around creating a gender balanced workplace.

Women-Men combined development programs have always existed- they do not change the mix.

Every organisation has leadership programs already in place at all levels. Yet these programs have not managed to change the gender ratio. So, doing more of the same doesn’t seem to be the best strategy to address an issue. If a different set of results are desired, a different approach is required.

The objective of adding more women to the leadership pipeline is to change the ratio of men and women available to play leadership roles, when such opportunities arise in the organisation. In most organisations the proportion of women to men consistently falls as you go up the levels. This is despite scenarios where more women join at the junior levels.

For any leadership development program, the participant selection needs to be fair and transparent. If the ratio of men to women is 70:30 at a certain level, it is only fair that the program represents the similar ratio. This would mean more men will go through the program, will be equipped with skills and gain visibility in the organisation. It doesn’t in anyway change the ratio of men to women who can play the senior roles. It just maintains the status quo.

Some say, why not exercise “positive discrimination”, and include more women than men in a combined program? This risk’s creating disenchantment among the men and they will consider some women as not worthy of participating in the program, compared to the men who got left out. When this murmur gets out, it can further harm the development process of the women participants.

Some organisations talk about doing a Women-Men combined program but add some specific modules for women. This perpetuates the stereotype that women are not as capable and hence need some additional input.

 A safe space that helps women redefine leadership in their own terms.

One important dynamic in any individual’s growth and development process, is dealing with the inner barriers one has. Often men and women have a certain image of what leadership means. This image doesn’t match the qualities many women exhibit, and they struggle with recognising the barriers they have created in their own minds. Speaking about these in a combined program makes them vulnerable.

When women have opened up, it is common for men to say,  ” oh come on, get tough”, “that is life, just have to learn to live with it”, or ” when did that happen” or “that is not always like that” or ” there must have been a good reason why it happened”, “ you should have done this and this etc”.  These comments are very silencing, leading most women to either shut down or lash out, neither being productive.  In such a context, they go through the motions of learning without really dealing with the ‘’inner glass ceiling” that holds them back.

In a women-only program, these inner barriers are dealt with directly and openly. Women share their experiences, express their anxieties, and verbalise their insecurities. They dialogue with other women. It is a safe, empathetic and a collegial environment. They are not judged, ridiculed, explained or given some great advice. Women realise that they are not alone in experiencing what they experience. A deeper bond is forged, and common solutions are explored. This helps them redefine leadership from a woman’s lens allowing them to re-articulate their qualities as strengths for the long term. This is an important moment of self-growth and a critical aspect of creating an identity as a leader.

Provides a strong platform for creating visibility for women talent.

Visibility in the organisation is critical for growth. Opportunities go to people who are visible, who have demonstrated performance and potential. There are innumerable studies and research findings that point to the common patterns in managers “promoting” who they are familiar with or comfortable with. Who they can “trust”. Given the large number of men managers in most oragnisations, those getting growth opportunities tend to be men. Even during the promotions, a bit of data mining will show that disproportionate number of men get promoted. This is largely because women talent is not visible or nurtured consciously. Once when this issue was highlighted, a senior executive listed many “good reasons” – cultural, social and ontological – and justified as to why it is so. That kind of thinking is not uncommon.

Women-only program puts a spotlight on women talent. It provides a structure for managers to identify and nurture women talent which they may have overlooked in the past. Some of the components of the program also make the participants more visible to the wider leadership across the organisation.

 Clarity of purpose and courage to act

Currently the gender ratios in most organisations are at less than desirable at mid and senior levels. A program to address this is essential in the current context. When that ratio has become equal, there will be no need for a women-only development program.

If an organisation wants to get more women to lead and yet is reluctant to do something specifically for women, it only shows the poor understanding of the core issue.

In some cases, this highlights the leadership’s inability to manage a politically uncomfortable situation (why one set of population is getting ‘’more attention”) with a clear communication of the purpose of the program-why it is being implemented, what is expected from such a program and provide a strong business case.

It is important that decision makers spend time looking at the entire environment that results in poor gender ratio, see ways to address it most effectively and not get caught in appeasing some constituents that talk from meagre understanding.



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