In the fifth instalment of HRM’s video series, The Big HR Question, two experts unpack the value of female leadership programs.
Despite the many strides we’ve made towards female advancement in the workplace, many women are still seeking further guidance and support to take up leadership roles and hone their professional portfolios. For this, many have turned to female leadership programs to help them become key-decision makers and strategic influencers in business. However, these programs sometimes receive backlash for excluding men from the conversation. And many people question if they actually move the needle on gender diversity.
In HRM’s latest Big HR Question episode, gender experts Jen de Vries, Organisational Development Consultant and Gender Strategist, and Maggie Leavitt, leadership development expert, share their perspectives on the value of these programs in helping to close the gender gap, based on their decades of experience running them.
Here’s what they had to say.
If you want to skip to the part that interests you most, we’ve included some key timestamps below:
7 seconds – Meet our experts
Leavitt’s area of expertise lies in the leadership development space. She has guided many senior managers and leaders to create more diverse organisations throughout her career. She is a recent retiree and ran her own HR consultancy firm for over 35 years.
De Vries is a gender strategy expert and Organisational Development Consultant. She has partnered with many organisations throughout her career to help them become more gender equitable and inclusive in their managerial approach.
Both women have been working together for many years to deliver female leadership programs to organisations.
1 minute and 27 seconds – Why do you think women-only spaces are necessary?
The thinking behind women-only spaces has always been about helping women to step into leadership roles. It’s not about changing their behaviour to better fit into toxic workplaces, says de Vries.
“A safe place provides that communal sigh of relief for women. [They feel like] ‘it’s not just me’ but the system and how the workplace is designed that’s creating some of the [negative] experiences.”
According to Leavitt, a female-only space enables more effective learning opportunities for both men and women.
She also shares an anecdote of a woman who worked in policing, who was quite high up in the ranks. She broke down in tears during one of their leadership sessions when she realised that she’d been putting up with a lot of sexist behaviour throughout her career in order to fit in. The people in this ‘safe space’ gave her the ability to come to this realisation, says Leavitt.
4 minutes and 17 seconds – What are effective strategies HR can implement to facilitate equitable leadership?
One of the first things HR needs to understand is what kind of leadership is recognised and rewarded in their organisation, says de Vries.
Often team meetings act as “microcosms of the culture” in the organisation. This is an interesting opportunity for HR and leaders to watch how people interact with each other – who speaks up, who stays quiet, and how do leaders interact with the people in their teams?
AHRI’s ‘Women in HR Leadership’ course is a great starting point for female HR professionals to build strategic leadership skills.
5 minutes and 56 seconds – Leavitt says there can be value in setting up peer-to-peer learning groups.
“They’re not project groups… it’s about asking the women, ‘What will be helpful to you to work on?’… or ‘How can we deepen your learning?’ It might be about being more strategic, handling conflict with staff more effectively or a specific influencing agenda.
“They then go back to their workplaces… and try things, but they have this very supportive group within the program to come back and look at what’s happened and identify principles of practice,” says Leavitt.
7 minutes and 6 seconds – Is there a risk of running one-off programs?
De Vries says they should never be standalone approaches as this can come across as a ‘feel-good’ initiative. She says in-house programs work best, as they allow women to work within the context of their own organisation, as opposed to going to a one-off offsite event with people from other organisations.
8 minutes and 58 seconds – Leavitt talks about the value of creating opportunities for women to shadow more senior figures in the workplace to get a realistic view of what their work-week entails.
“The [program] participant goes to meetings with them, hangs out as they take calls and develops strategies and plans. It gives the women a very important view of how things happen at a senior level in the organisation,” says Leavitt.
What are some of your biggest learnings after conducting female leadership programs?
10 minutes and 28 seconds – Leavitt notes the importance of making clients aware of the value of such programs and reminding them of their obligations to take meaningful action to advance women at work.
It’s important to emphasise that the learning doesn’t end when the program ends, she adds.
11 minutes and 5 seconds – It’s also incredibly important to include men in these conversations, says de Vries. It needs to be a shared learning experience.
Thinking about what she might have done differently, de Vries says, “We could have parallel sessions with men looking at gender and intersectionality, then bring men and women together to have those courageous conversations.”
Men and women should be able to talk about gender from their respective experiences, she says.
Although both experts agree that female leadership programs have helped many women work their way up the ladder, the work environment is still not easy on women. There’s still plenty of work to do, says de Vries.
12 minutes and 35 seconds – De Vries says some women are operating in a “climate of discouragement”.
“They were told not to apply for a promotion yet. They were discouraged from stepping up. They were told they weren’t ready yet… I know from other research that I did that men were being encouraged and tapped on the shoulder.”
She says it was also harder for women from diverse backgrounds to be elevated in the business, such as those from different cultural backgrounds or people living with disability.
“They’re not being mentored and sponsored and that’s an enormous waste of talent.”
In saying that, both the speakers are optimistic because many organisations are putting in the work to empower women more so than ever before.
Watch the other episodes in HRM’s The Big HR Question series.