The demand for women’s leadership development programs is higher than ever. While these programs offer valuable opportunities for women to equip themselves for the challenges of senior leadership roles, there can still be pitfalls along the way.

To avoid some of these challenges and better support developing women for leadership roles, it is important to go beyond superficial gestures and to be more acutely aware of and avoid reinforcing gender stereotypes. 

Women Leadership Programs Produce Results 

There is strong evidence that women leadership development programs, or WLDPs, produce results, including higher promotion rates, higher retention, increased sponsorship, broader networks, increased knowledge and confidence, and better understanding of organizational structure and processes. 

According to McKinsey research, most of the leadership qualities that are most effective in addressing future business challenges are exhibited more frequently by women. Qualities such as inspiration, participative decision-making, setting expectations and rewards, people development, and role modeling are all part of what is called inclusive leadership, which focuses on improving the workplace culture, teamwork, and cultivating a shared vision.

Investing in these programs is also one way for leaders and organizations to show their commitment to gender diversity and equity in leadership positions.

Potential Drawbacks to Women’s Leadership programs 

While seeing initial success is encouraging, companies and organizations should be wary of these common drawbacks of relying too heavily on WLDPs. 

  • The organization does not engage in broader efforts to advance women. This can signal that women are deficient and are unable to compete with men on their own merits.
  • Putting the responsibility solely on women employees. WLDPs are not the end-all to women’s advancement in the workplace and attending these programs can often be a time commitment that does not pay off without appropriate manager support in their development. 
  • WLDPs become superficial allyship. If there are no further efforts to bolster women’s careers beyond these programs, then the growth for women — and their companies — stops there.

Women’s Leadership Should Be Company-Wide 

A one-off leadership program will not automatically trigger systemic change, but there are several clear solutions to these problems. Here are some of the ways to ensure the success of women employees in WLDPs — and beyond. 

Managers must engage with the program

Managers who invest in their employees will see greater overall success in the long run. As women employees engage with WLDPs, managers should offer new opportunities based on their learnings when they return. They can also highlight their employee’s potential and performance, nominate them for stretch assignments, offer strategic networking, and voice their support in promotion decisions. Managers have a responsibility to launch their dedicated employees further in their careers and taking these steps can help both the individual employees and the company as a whole grow together. 

Integrate employees of all genders 

Women may be the target audience for WLDPs, but thoughtfully integrating men — and employees of other genders — offers the opportunity to listen and learn from their colleagues. Holding space for reflection and collaboration can lead to a more inclusive workplace and greater understanding between all members of an organization.

Embed women’s leadership development programs in the organization 

According to a 2018 study conducted by Simmons University, WLDPs must be embedded into organizations to encourage real cultural change. Whether incorporating the programs into the organization’s business strategy or offering WLDP participants opportunities to engage in high-visibility, high impact projects, women’s advancement should go beyond a stand-alone training event. 

Programs for Managers to Attend

When a talented woman is offered the chance to attend leadership training, look for a program where her manager is thoughtfully integrated into the Women Leadership program, so they can have the opportunity to listen and learn from their female reports and where they can reflect on how they can collaborate to make the workplace more equitable.  

Professional & Executive Development at Harvard’s Division of Continuing Education offers Women Leaders: Advancing Together. This is a unique program that includes male senior leaders in two sessions where they work in groups with the women participants to learn about gender dynamics. They also focus on practices that can support the women’s advancement back at the organization. 

WLDPs are just one piece of the puzzle; a holistic strategy to support women’s advancement will take both employees and their companies further toward collective success.