Who needs Women’s Leadership Programmes anyway?

Womens Leadership


I am often asked why, in the 21st century, we still need to run women’s leadership programmes.  And I am not surprised by that question.

The People Development Team is a female owned, female managed global business, and unsurprisingly, for the first 10 years of our existence we were constantly being asked to speak about women in leadership.

And for the first 10 years I constantly refused, passionately stating that great leaders would rise to the top whatever their gender……

You won’t hear me saying that today; around five years ago, I completely changed my mind.

In 2015, seeing the results from the World Economic Forum which puts the UK in 18th place falling from 9th in 2006, I stand by that decision.  Looking at facts that state that women in the UK are 54th place for Parliamentary roles and 59th place for ministerial jobs just convinces my change of heart was absolutely right!

I am a great believer in being awake to what is happening around you, and for me there were many things happening simultaneously that drove me to design and have my organisation run women’s leadership programmes.

At that time I was coaching three female senior executives who fundamentally were all dealing with the same issue; all in their 40’s, all undergoing IVF treatment and all trying to fall pregnant. And all having to hide the fact from bosses who had subliminally made them feel over the preceding 15 years that getting pregnant would be an end to their careers.

Now did these bosses actually come out and say that in so many words?  In one case yes, but in many cases it is the subtlety that does the damage, the almost imperceptible drip of what we refer to as unconscious and hidden assumptions that eventually can change behaviours, destroy self-confidence and alter the path of many peoples’ lives.  So my coaching had me begin to understand for the first time that it was a very different environment for women, than it was for men.

Secondly, I remember seeing a speaker who developed an algorithm proving that, in the FTSE 250 and Fortune 500 companies, it wouldn’t be my daughter that would stand the same chance as my son of being the next CEO, it wouldn’t be granddaughter either…

At our current rate of progress across Britain and the US, it would be my great granddaughter that would stand at piety with my great grandson – and only then if she were Caucasian and definitely only if she were heterosexual!

The final piece that really brought me to designing and having my organisation run women’s  leadership programmes, was speaking to a group of women in professional service firms that had exited or been exited just before achieving partner status. Many of these women had left university with honours and had built what, on the outside, appeared to be great careers within the firms.  However, I was in the position of being able to interview a sample of them, and the feedback was startling, almost to the last woman. Not one could tell me the exact date, time and place that they knew that they weren’t going to make partner – yet they all described a ‘feeling’, a dawning truth that crept up on them over a period of time. They went from being deeply confident, high achievers in many cases, to questioning themselves and to questioning their own capability, which in the cold, hard, light of day made no sense.

I would love to say that the great work that we do with organisations – helping them to set practical, gender led diversity targets, reduce their unconscious bias and understand the importance of creating an inclusive environment to developing their strategy  –  is enough…

Sadly I am not able to say that we are achieving gender balance at the top of our organisations just yet. And while we are waiting for these essential measures to make a tangible difference, the self-confidence of our most shining female talent remains at risk…

I am now a firm believer in offering programmes that help businesses to develop female talent, grow their female pipelines and support women with practical tools and knowledge that will help them to enhance their careers. Only then will we encourage them to put up their umbrellas against the acid rain of the obvious and more hidden biases. Only then will we truly make the difference that we need for the success of their futures and the future of our economy.