As a coach who helps women develop as leaders, I know that there are many leadership development programmes targeted to women. Today these programmes are part of a multi-billion dollar leadership development industry. But research tells us that not all women-only leadership development programmes are equally effective.
It is worth investing the effort to get it right. Because when done well, women’s-only leadership programmes (WOLDs) offer many benefits. They produce women who are more likely to aspire to leadership positions and who lead with greater confidence, sense of agency, expanded networks, skill development, and self-awareness.
Take, for example, the United Nations System Staff College’s (UNSSC) flagship programme “Leadership, Women and the UN” (LWUN), one of the WOLDs I have been honoured to coach on.. Launched in 2015, the programme is designed to prepare mid-senior career women at the UN for the challenges and opportunities they are likely to encounter in leadership roles, improve their leadership impact, and change the existing leadership culture. The programme also allows the UN to model how organizations can help ensure women’s full and effective participation and equal opportunities for leadership, a key part of its 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. The five-month course explores different leadership approaches; interrogates the relationship between gender, culture, and leadership; and looks at the concepts of power, influence, and negotiation.
Women who participate in LWUN tell us that the programme contributes to their personal and professional growth. An internal impact study conducted in 2018 revealed that 76 per cent of the participants had reported a career change, with 19 per cent reporting upward progression and 57 per cent reporting lateral progression. Both male and female managers in the UN report improved performance among LWUN participants that they supervise.
LWUN exemplifies many of the qualities of an effective WOLD: it creates a sense of safety, provides a structured environment to reflect on identity and factors related to intersectionality (how gender, race, class and other identities produce homogenous cultures and structures that normalize certain life experiences), and allows participants to build social capital through networking and connections.
Create a space for learning
Safe learning spaces offer participants an environment for sharing experiences and taking emotional risks that they might not be willing to do in mixed-gendered contexts, helping them learn and grow. Significant research shows the benefits of ensuring a safe environment for women to explore their potential, share successes and failures, and receive feedback, mentoring and coaching. This does not necessarily happen in mixed-gender training programmes, where women feel less free to share concerns unique to them.
A sense of psychological safety is also important for facilitating peer-exchange, which is a key feature of the learning methodology as it allows for exchange of experiences, challenges, and best practices to collaboratively work on solutions in a safe and stimulating environment.
The LWUN programme was designed to promote a high degree of psychological safety, beginning with its women-only space for individual and group reflection, expression, sharing, and practice. There are also dedicated resource persons who monitor and facilitate the shared forum throughout the duration of the programme to signal that there is always someone available to listen and support participants.
The programme also provides safe spaces though individual coaching sessions. Here participants explore their desired leadership identity, or what they want their leadership to look like, and they can also interrogate any perceived incompatibilities between their social identities and leadership stereotypes and identify strategies to navigate these in order to take on more leadership opportunities. Last, the programme design, including its holistic curricula and diverse faculty, promotes a safe learning space by modelling and celebrating a range of learning and leadership voices.
As LWUN programme manager Bridget Harbaugh put it, “All of us create a safe space and are willing to make ourselves vulnerable, human, and our show our true authentic selves. This is where and when true learning happens.”
Be aware of gender, culture, and leadership identities
Gender dynamics are present in leadership, and many of the challenges reported in the shared forums are consistent with what has been reported in the wider research around stereotype and bias. Effective WOLD programmes must provide space to surface and address bias—so that participants can become aware of external and internal sources of bias and consider how these intersect with gender, race, and other identities.
LWUN participants routinely report the programme provides their first professional opportunity to discuss gender, culture, and leadership. Many observe what a powerful experience it is for them to normalize their challenges and experiences; they no longer feel “alone” or “ashamed” when they share stories about their struggles with leadership and identify areas for growth without fear of judgement.
As one participant put it, “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.” Hearing other women reflect on their leadership experiences created an affirming process to objectively review their own challenges and identify areas for leadership development.
Programme participants also report that the training gave them “words,” or a “common language,” to name and talk about their experiences, including being stuck at a certain level despite having impeccable professional backgrounds, skills, and credentials, or routinely being chastised for being either “too nice” or “too aggressive.” One participant reported, “I didn’t have a name for what was happening before.” Developing language around these experiences—such as “glass ceiling,” “cliff,” “double bind,” and “unconscious bias”—was found to be “comforting” and “normalizing,” as well as an “important programme output.”
Build connections – to self, others, meaning, and purpose
Successful WOLD programmes do more than offer women a safe and supportive environment to build connections with other women. They also provide opportunities to connect to their self, their values, and their purpose.
LWUN facilitates connections to the self by focusing on mind, body, and spirit, connecting and validating other ways of being and knowing. As one participant put it, the programme didn’t “just focus on the usual MBA-type content.” Instead, the process of building awareness and facilitating change at LWUN includes yoga, self-reflection, values clarification exercises, journaling, mindfulness, energy management, 360° and personality assessments, interactive lessons and discussions with experts, peer exercises, discussion forums, online resources, individual coaching, and action planning. This is consistent with research that posits that WOLDs offer an enhanced leadership development experience by recognizing gender distinctiveness and putting in place gender-sensitive instructional strategies in this programme with a focus on sharing and relational learning methods.
Another way the UN facilitates learning and connection is by cultivating faculty that includes speakers from different sectors, ranging from international organizations, academic institutions, the not-for-profit sector, the private sector, and the art and culture community. One alum reported: “I loved the number and variety of resource persons (artists, business leader, scientist, UN) – there was so much learning diversity – culture, gender, brain info, hearing from others, new energy, sports, meditation.”
The 2018 impact study found that the LWUN programme created a community of women inside the UN able to advance change and inclusivity in the UN system and its leadership agenda, as well as a network of women who support one another. Facilitating connections between participants and across disciplines is in line with recent research that suggests leaders develop through a “whole-person approach,” drawing on experiences from multiple domains of life (e.g., work, community, friends, and family).
In addition to these key principles, certain tactical ingredients are important if your organization is hoping to create an effective WOLD.
Additional Tips for Success
If your organization is thinking about creating a women’s-only leadership programme, the key ingredients start with safe spaces, an exploration of identities, and facilitating meaningful connections. The LWUN programme has successfully integrated these key ingredients—and more—to create a meaningful leadership development experience.
Palena Neale, Ph.D., is the founder of unabridged a leadership coaching and mentoring practice based in Paris that helps professionals access their power and potential for greater personal and social impact. She researches and teaches on topics related to women’s leadership. You can find her at www.unabridgedleadership.com or follow her on Twitter @PalenaNeale.