Staffing Management

Programs Help Women Take the Lead

By Rita Pyrillis

Jan. 26, 2011

Advertising account manager Samantha Reeb-Wilson is clear-eyed about her strengths and weaknesses. She recognizes that honing her negotiating skills will likely accelerate her career. And at age 31, with 10 years of advertising agency experience behind her, she’s ready for the next step.

So when she learned about a new women’s leadership program at Barnard College in New York City, her alma mater, she signed up for a seminar on persuasive argument. “In my role we try to figure out the best way to solve a client’s business problem, and that requires laying out an argument and defending it,” says Reeb-Wilson, whose employer, ad agency McGarryBowen, footed her tuition bill. “It’s hard to find a program where you can learn those kinds of skills. I’ve run into many that focus on project management or financial fluency for women, but I have that. I need more powerful skills, like having a presence in a room.”

Female-focused leadership development programs—such as the Athena Leadership Lab at Barnard College, which was launched last fall and offers workshops costing $199 to $799—are flourishing. Among the schools offering leadership programs for women: Babson College in Babson Park, Massachusetts; Bentley University in Waltham, Massachusetts; Harvard Business School in Boston; Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management in Evanston, Illinois; and Simmons College, also in Boston.

Given the record number of women earning college degrees and entering the workforce, such programs will be increasingly critical in making more cracks in the still daunting glass ceiling. Women have outpaced men for some time in receiving college degrees, and now they are catching up to men in the workforce. According to the U.S. Labor Department, 46.8 percent of workers are now women. Although women have made steady strides into the management ranks, they still rarely reach the top echelons. Only 2.4 percent of Fortune 500 CEOs are women, according to a survey released in December 2010 by Catalyst Inc., an advocacy group that works to improve career opportunities for women. And 13.5 percent of women at Fortune 500 companies are executive officers.

During the 1970s and 1980s, gender diversity was a pressing issue for companies as the first wave of career-minded, college-educated women hit the workplace. Many employers put programs in place to help them advance. But over the years, most of those initiatives have disappeared, says Colleen O’Neill, an Atlanta-based senior partner at the consulting firm Mercer. “As companies have adopted a broader diversity agenda, the spotlight on accelerating the development of women has lost steam,” she says. In fact, according to a Mercer study last October, about two-thirds of 540 organizations surveyed in a variety of industries do not have a program or strategy for preparing women for leadership roles.

Companies seem to believe gender diversity is important, but few are making it a priority, according to a recent survey by consulting firm McKinsey & Co. Seventy-two percent of respondents said they believe that gender diversity and financial success are directly linked, yet the gender gap at the executive level persists. “This is not surprising since the survey shows that diversity isn’t a high priority at most companies,” according to the report.

“There is this popular myth that because women have achieved equity in education, there’s nothing more that needs to be done; the pipeline to leadership has been filled,” says Barnard College professor Kathryn Kolbert. “But the minute they get into the workplace, that pipeline gets clogged.” That is why Kolbert designed the Athena Leadership Lab with middle managers in mind, although women at all career levels are welcome to attend. Workshops and seminars include: Managing to Change the World as well as Resiliency Training: Building Your Ability to Bounce Back. The goal is teaching “risk-taking and resilience.”

Women and men communicate and operate in the work world differently, and it’s important that women understand these differences, says Victoria Medvec, co-founder and executive director of the Center for Executive Women at Northwestern’s Kellogg School of Management. In 2004, the center launched the Women’s Senior Leadership Program to help women find a different path to the top. Courses focus on issues such as: how to motivate people, how to develop better negotiating skills when it comes to pay and resources, and how to promote oneself with confidence.

While younger women tend to be somewhat skeptical about women-only programs, preferring not to be viewed differently than men, Medvec says these initiatives provide women with something men have in abundance—peers. “Women executives are very lonely in their own companies,” she says. “It’s not like they don’t interact with men. They are surrounded by them every day.”

For these programs to be effective, professor emeritus Deborah Kolb of the Simmons School of Management says companies must recognize the business case for promoting women. Kolb, a negotiations expert, is an adviser to the Chicago-based Leading Women Executives program, which was started in 2009 by the Corporate Leadership Center and Hewitt Associates, an HR consulting firm that is part of Aon Hewitt.

Unlike most programs that are open to all women, only those who have been nominated by their company’s CEO can participate in Leading Women Executives. The reason for that requirement, Kolb says, is to ensure that employers are not just window dressing but are fully committed to helping women advance. Participants also must have at least 10 years of management experience and be just two or three rungs below CEO.

Companies “don’t do this out of the goodness of their hearts,” Kolb says. “They do it because clients or customers are looking for it. If the senior team is all white men, that will have consequences for the company. In a more diverse world, the demand for diverse leadership is just getting greater.”

Best Buy Co. began addressing that demand six years ago when it launched the Women’s Leadership Forum, also known as “WOLF.” Its original mission was to empower female workers, but in recent years the program also has been crucial in connecting the electronics retailer with an untapped customer base: women. For example, WOLF packs—local groups of female employees and shoppers—have sprung up around the country to discuss ways to appeal to female shoppers, a segment that the Richfield, Minnesota-based company had been unsuccessful in attracting.

“It’s our best-kept secret,” says Liz Haesler, vice president of home life and trend at Best Buy and co-director of WOLF. The packs have found innovative ways to attract female customers and helped the company increase its appliance and mobile phone sales, she says.

In March 2010, Best Buy introduced the Talent Readiness Program to help WOLF participants in middle management advance in the senior-level leadership pipeline. “With HR, we identified women who were highly thought of, and we’re putting them through a yearlong program focused on leadership development,” Haesler says. “We want to make sure WOLF is growing the future leaders of the company.”

Participants work on their public speaking skills, take classes on meeting effectiveness and career growth planning and learn how to present themselves with confidence. “Say you have an individual who’s got the whole toolbox in terms of abilities, but when it comes to that Monday-morning business meeting, they aren’t able to communicate effectively,” Haesler says. “This program helps them work on those softer skills.”

Some experts believe employers will best bridge the leadership gender gap if they focus on women throughout the middle-management ranks, not just those at or near the C-suite level. In the past, some companies paid too much attention to breaking the glass ceiling by promoting a woman to CEO, says Janice Hammond, chairwoman of Harvard Business School’s Executive Education International Women’s Foundation and Women’s Leadership Programs.

“By thinking of it that way,” she says, “you’re not necessarily thinking about women throughout the organization. We need to work on retention and advancement at the middle-management level to provide the talent pool so that someone could become CEO. Having a sole woman wend their way through an organization isn’t the answer.”

Workforce Management, January 2011, p. 3-4Subscribe Now!

Rita Pyrillis is a writer based in the Chicago area.

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