The 6 reasons we should NOT invest in leadership development designed specifically for women

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  • To fix the girls who can’t cut it
  • To teach women to be like men
  • To deliver a series of ‘ra-ra’ sessions
  • To have a chance to have a go at the men
  • To deliver a series of ‘remedial’ classes
  • To create a soft and fluffy ‘victim’ environment

None of that is what it is about. Women are still pouring out of talent pipelines and the gender pay gap speaks volumes. So here is the reason we need to really understand the power of working with individual female leaders to ensure women can thrive in senior roles.

It is about better understanding the head wind that women can experience in their careers, and learning how to trim our sails to take full advantage of the prevailing winds. Click To Tweet
How to navigate your leadership journey as a woman

From the Impossible Selves research of Ibarra and Petriglieri through to the research around unconscious bias in the last 20 years, we have much greater insight now into how women step into their leadership identity and what trip wires there are along the way.

One of the challenges is that what works for men doesn’t always work for women. Organisations can deliver thin tracks for what is considered acceptable female behaviour because of our embedded biases. This can make the competence and likeability trade-off challenging to navigate.

These stereotypes, the ‘cognitive shortcuts’ we all use to make sense of the world don’t always serve us well – men or women. It is not done with malicious intent but it permeates our thinking and behaviour. This means that what works for men’s careers doesn’t always work for women, and often what comes naturally for women doesn’t necessarily work for them either.

Here are the things women are told to do to get ahead.

– ask for more!
– be confident!
– tone it down!
– have more presence!
– get a mentor!
– watch those sharp elbows!
– throw your hat in the ring!
– get a role model!
– network more!
– show your ambition!
– be more visible!

All of the above focus on what women are doing wrong – and we wonder why imposter syndrome is rife.

When women often embark on those very things they are not always judged in the same way for the same behaviours. These mixed messages can shut down women’s aspirations and fuel concerns about how they bring their authentic self to their leadership without being a phoney, or feeling like they are selling out.

I have seen that question alone stall brilliant careers in their tracks. Unnecessarily.

The four things leadership development for women delivers

1. Women’s leadership development offers an informed, positive environment where women can interpret the mixed messages they are getting and become deliberate and skilled in their responses. By making the dynamics at play more transparent we are not so caught off-guard and we can be more strategic in our approach.

2. It delivers an environment where women have the opportunity to be vulnerable and realise they are not hopeless or going mad and have the chance to address any mind set and self-limiting beliefs specific to women.

3. Where they can leverage a powerful network. I have heard women so often say ‘I didn’t know anyone else felt like that’ or ‘Oh, so that’s what’s happening there’ while they are also learning to observe and respond for one another. Not as victims but learning a different kind of mastery. One small example is in a meeting where a woman is being spoken over or making a point that isn’t being heard, instead of just fuming about it together afterwards we have the choice to skilfully amplify one another at the table.

4. We know people can’t learn in a threatened state. Through powerful collaborative learning women can help one another practice the subtle dance that is being a powerful leader in an environment that can still remain ambivalent about women in authority.

Why a promotion to leadership is risky

It is critical for everyone to have some head and heart room for leadership identity development. Because transitions feel risky. As you slip one coat off and put on another, wondering if it is a good fit and if it really suits you.

It requires answering some fundamental questions like:

  • Who am I?
  • What do I want and need?
  • What is the purpose of my leadership?
  • How do I manage and develop my best leadership self?
  • What resources do I have in me and around me to make this happen?
This isn’t easy stuff - sailing into a head wind takes grit and determination and stepping back and taking time to figure out how to crack the code is important. So we can step back in. And up. Click To Tweet

It is what all organisations want and need today. It enables us to navigate mindfully, paying attention to what is happening around us and what is happening within us.

No Silver Bullets

Women’s leadership development doesn’t offer slick formulas or silver bullets. For individuals or organisations. We are all different, confronting different challenges at different times in our careers and lives. There are a huge number of legitimate paths for women to forge so it isn’t about women conforming or becoming more like the men. Nor is it about replacing one stereotype for another and assuming all women will make collaborative, inclusive, people-focussed leaders. The point is to understand and work with, but move outside, of our stereotypes.

Having spent 20 years in leadership development and as much time as a female CEO, I know women’s leadership development is one of the most powerful tools at our disposal for keeping women thriving in that talent pipeline. Bring it on.

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