When I work with clients I regularly get invited to engage men in gender diversity. Typically they have already started a women’s network or women’s leadership programmes. But, there has been a back lash. People have started asking questions and the initiative isn’t as well received as they would have hoped.
For instance, senior women have questioned the programmes, saying, ‘If gender balance is a business issue, then why are our male colleagues not involved?’ Or ambitious men have commented, ’Great there is a development programme for women, but surely that’s not very inclusive?’
So how can you avoid this situation? Perhaps women leadership programmes aren’t the answer, or perhaps you just need to communicate about them differently. What is the right thing to do to keep both men and women engaged?
People that say we don’t need women leadership programmes are right. To grow as a leader, both men and women have mostly similar development needs, and they are perfectly capable of learning together in a leadership development programme. In fact, it’s actually very important to have a good gender balance in your leadership development programmes. That way both men and women hone their skills on working together, and both men an women have equal chances to progress to more senior positions. So yes, you definitely need mixed-gender leadership programmes. However, there are real benefits to adding women’s leadership programmes in the mix. Let me show you why.
1. In women leadership programmes, women learn how to be successful in a male culture
Women often work in a male culture, and even in majority female organisations such as in teaching or care, when you get closer to the top the culture becomes more male. In a male culture it is accepted, and in fact even expected, to put yourself forward and share your achievements. However, this isn’t as acceptable in a female culture. This notion is supported by a host of research:
“Men are 60% more likely to say they are qualified for a job, if they have the same credentials as women.” – J. L. Lawless, R.L. Fox, 2012
“Women judge their own performance as worse than it is, men judge their own performance as better than it actually is.“ – S. Scott, Lind et al, 2001
“Women who work with men are far less likely to take credit for their work than those who collaborate with other women.“ – May 2013, Study published in the Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin
In a women leadership programme, women need to learn how they can be successful in a male culture, and still be authentic. Most men don’t have to learn this, and those that do, have often learned it long before they entered the world of work.
2. In women leadership programmes, women learn what works for female leaders
Women can’t always emulate male leadership behavior, and need to learn what works best for female leaders. Men also need to learn what works best for male leaders, but they typically have many role models to learn from. They can easily choose what works for them from observing a variety of leadership styles around them. As there are less female role models, this is harder for women.
3. In women leadership programmes women benefit from working with other women
In women-only groups usually a culture emerges in which personal issues, feelings and stories are shared. By sharing them, issues and feelings get recognized and validated, which helps women gain confidence and courage. Men have different strategies for sharing and gaining confidence.
4. Women leadership programmes can be tailored to female learning preferences
Women-only programmes can be designed so they work particularly well for women, taking into account their learning preferences. Of course it’s also possible to design programmes that take into account both learning preferences, and cater to a mix of styles.
Typical learning preferences of men
- challenges, competitions and rewards
- more support in ‘teamwork’, ‘cooperation’ and ‘sharing’
- encouragement to work on soft skills
Typical learning preferences of women
- Encouragement , someone to regularly check in to show interest in their progress
- more support in ‘individual action’ and ‘overcoming negative thinking patterns’
- encouragement to work on hard skills and look at career strategically
So it is very effective to offer a women’s leadership programme, as long as we still have male cultures.
How to talk about women leadership programmes in the right way
When starting a women’s leadership programme it’s important to communicate clearly. Include in your messaging:
- why there is a programme designed specifically for women
- what development opportunities are available to men
- that gender balance is a business issue, is relevant to all (men and women) and has strategic benefit
In addition make sure you embed a women’s leadership programme alongside a range of wider measures to achieve gender balance, such as measures to change processes and culture. Of course most of these wider measures should NOT be aimed at women, but at all employees and business leaders. Here are some ideas for initiatives you might consider.
If you follow these ideas, your women leadership programmes should achieve it’s aims and keep men, senior and junior women on board, regardless of their ambitions or motivations.