LitBits #1: Women-only leadership development programs

Welcome to LitBits! When devising ways to improve gender equity, diversity and inclusion, we’re always asking ourselves: will this action work? And if you’re an old hand at SAGE Athena SWAN: how will I prove that it does? Chances are, someone has already asked the same question. It’s worth checking the academic literature for best practices to try (and which ones to avoid). But with so many studies out there, there simply isn’t enough time to read them all. We’re going to help by breaking down some of the latest research into bite-sized LitBits.

In our very first LitBit, we’ll take a look at Women-only Leadership Development Programs (WLDPs). These programs were mentioned in our webinar[1] as a way to increase the number of women getting promoted. WLDPs are often regarded with cynicism for appearing to “fix” women instead of the system. WLDPs might also prompt backlash from men who feel excluded from these opportunities.

A safe space for affirmation and shaping self-perceptions

Research suggests that properly designed WLDPs offer a host of individual-level benefits for women.[2] In mixed-gender situations, both men and women tend to downplay the existence of gender differences in career progression.[3] Women-only sessions provide a safe space for women to ask questions and exchange stories that they would not normally share at events where men are also present. In doing so, they validate each other’s experiences of being restricted by gender stereotypes rather than their abilities. This creates a conducive environment for women to identify their own authentic leadership styles without feeling pressured to conform to masculine notions of leadership. Being able to view oneself as a leader instills a greater sense of agency, confidence and self-awareness, and lays the groundwork for further skill development.

Designing a WLDP that works

Let’s look at an example of a well-received WLDP at an Australian university.[4]  This program builds on the belief that women are already leaders in some aspects of their work, irrespective of their formal job titles. Its objective, therefore, is to highlight women’s contributions and map them to the institution’s priorities.

This is accomplished through sessions where guest speakers (often senior leaders, promotion panellists or former participants) share insights on career advancement and leadership. Participants also receive leadership feedback from their peers as well as senior academic staff, have their academic portfolios assessed, and construct personal network maps in which they identify sources of support, information and repute-building. The sessions are spread out over 12 months, a design feature which most participants rated positively, though some noted that the course placed additional burdens on their time that male colleagues did not have.

Although participants considered the program very useful on a personal level, they did not believe that it resulted in significant structural changes. WLDPs can be a valuable part of an organisation’s gender equity initiatives, but should not be treated as a silver bullet.  

WLDPs may increase women’s promotion rates over time

The only way to be sure of “what works” is to measure impact. Certainly it is worth evaluating the course itself, for example by recording participation rates and surveying participants’ satisfaction with the course material. However, good attendance and positive feedback are merely pre-requisites to achieving the desired outcomes. By virtue of the name, we can assume that the goal of WLDPs is to increase the number of women in leadership positions. One way to measure this is by monitoring promotion rates into leadership roles over time.

A review of three WLDPs in the US found that academic women who attended a WLDP were more likely to be promoted to Associate Professor or Full Professor within the following 10 years than non-participant women.[5] Compared to their male counterparts, participants were also more likely to be promoted to Associate Professor and as likely to be promoted to Full Professor in that time. These results suggest that WLDPs can help increase women’s representation in senior faculty.

The review also identified challenges in measuring the impact(s) of WLDPs. First, there can be a lag time of several years between WLDP attendance and promotion. This highlights the need for continuous, long-term monitoring. Secondly, it’s difficult to demonstrate causality (although this is true of many gender equity initiatives), especially in WLDPs where participants are selected in a competitive process. At SAGE, we recommend conducting focus groups (or similar) with recently promoted women to find out what they feel helped or hindered their success. Even if we’re unable to isolate the effect of WLDPs on promotion success rates, we can at least rule out scenarios like a) the WLDP was actually counterproductive, or b) their promotion is largely attributed to other initiatives or an ability to work unreasonably long hours, as is the norm in academia. Those who wish to implement such programs should also examine the demographic differences between participants and non-participants in case there are intersectional barriers to participation.[4]

[1] SAGE webinar: Making use of gender equity data

[2] Debebe et al. (2016) Women’s leadership development programs: lessons learned and new frontiers, Journal of Management Education, 40, 3, 231-252.

[3] Tanton (1992) Developing authenticity in management development programmes, Women in Management Review, 7, 20-27.

[4] Parker et al. (2018) Frank and fearless: supporting academic career progression for women in an Australian program, Adm. Sci, 8, 5.

[5] Chang et al. (2020) Increasing promotion of women faculty in academic medicine: impact of national career development programs, Journal of Women’s Health, 29, 6, 837-846.