I often hear from our program participants that they had some reservations about coming to a women-only program, but after experiencing it, they really understand the value. I see the power of these programs on a regular basis, but until recently I hadn't seen a rigorous investigation of how and why a women-only program can be an important catalyst for transformational learning. We've known that you can't just “add women and stir”, in other words, produce a regular leadership development program with only women in the classroom. We've also known that you can't just “fix the women” by teaching women how to play by men's rules. These approaches can provide some useful skills and tactics, but neither really addresses the organizational realities women face, and they aren't likely to help women develop a sustained capacity for leadership.
Over the past few months I've read two research studies† that have delved into the factors that are necessary for a transformational learning experience for women in leadership development programs. Both papers explore the importance of creating an environment where participants feel a sense of belonging and acceptance, and where they feel free to discuss gender-related concerns. They also point out the need for teaching in a gender-sensitive manner that provides a nuanced view of the subtle and pervasive effects of gender bias.
I'd love to hear your thoughts on the subject. Have you attended a mixed-gender program where you had a transformational learning experience? Have you been to a mixed-gender program where you felt that your specific needs weren't met? What about those of you who attended a women-only program—what has been your experience? I've started a discussion on our LinkedIn group; please join the conversation or email me directly at firstname.lastname@example.org. Your input will help shape the programs that are available to you and your colleagues in the future.
Elisa van Dam
Director, Executive Education Simmons School of Management
†Creating a Safe Environment for Women's Leadership Transformation by Gelaye Debebe can be downloaded here.
Taking Gender Into Account: Theory and Design of Women’s Leadership Development Programs by Robin J. Ely, Herminia Ibarra and Deborah Kolb is published in the September 2011 issue of the Academy of Management Learning and Education.