How Can Women’s Leadership Programmes Boost a Company’s Organizational Health?

At the root of any healthy company culture is a strong learning and development framework. When carefully designed and tailored to grow and challenge people in any role and seniority level, such programs ensure that companies stay resilient, adaptable and ahead of the curve.

According to Grant Thornton, in 2022 women held 32% of the top leadership positions worldwide, the highest proportion ever. Although this is a positive improvement, that is still a glaring imbalance between men and women in leadership positions.

The theme for International Women’s Day 2023 is equity, recognising that often equal opportunities aren’t enough. People start from different places and therefore, true inclusion and belonging require equitable action. For the case of women in leadership, a formal commitment to facilitating more women to progress into top positions through initiatives such as leadership programmes can help create a more equitable, and therefore, healthy organization.

The roots of gender difference

People are widely becoming more conscious about how society, industrial economy and business is rooted in a world designed by men for men and women to inhabit, but for men to lead. This has naturally predisposed the patriarchal biases, stereotypes, language and frames relating to gender difference for centuries.

Without being essentialist (believing simply that women or men have a fixed set of characteristics which differentiates from each other), ancestrally, men tend to take action to affect their current reality – scoping, setting targets and building entities and instilling hierarchies. Historically the larger proportion of this has held status, at a simple level this is because it involved pay or reward. Whereas, women biologically, create ‘containment’ – safe spaces, nourish connection, and cultivate communities. In contrast, these capabilities have not historically been paid, and thereby lack status.

The evolution of leadership theory

The very seedling of leadership theory born in the 1840s, was called ‘the Great Man theory’ – the belief that only certain people (men) were born with the traits and characteristics to lead. ‘Behavioural’ leadership followed with the idea that skills and actions distinguish effective leaders, eventually expanding into the ‘Situational’ and environmental aspects that demand stylistic adjustments to lead effectively.  Classing leadership propensity as innate trait, learned abilities and versatility to act upon current realities to achieve outcomes, were the basis of these perspectives, again reflecting a more masculine paradigm.

Modern leadership theory is evolving towards more complex, fluid, unpredictable interrelationships that exist across wider organisational systems, shining a light on the collective, distributed and less hierarchical forms needed to navigate rather than purely act upon.  This has driven a movement towards inclusive leadership, bringing forward explicit interest and commitment in seeking gender equality, as well as equality in other areas such as race, sexual identity and neurodiversity.

An explicit trend in growing and empowering women leaders

There’s been a spotlight on the need to grow the proportion of female leaders. As an example, the 30% target in female representation at board level, has been achieved by a growing number of significantly sized corporate organisations. Efforts focussed on closing the gender gap in terms of pay, opportunity, progression and functional diversification have flourished over recent years.

Gradual progress, diminishing confidence

Recent surveys are showing some progress although slower than hoped. However, there are diminishing confidence levels in female leaders, especially from younger generations. Socio-psychological studies are revealing the nuances in bias, narratives, language and lenses through which women’s and men’s behaviours, competence and likeability are judged differently. The causalities and effects of gender differences in the workplace are historical, systemic, inter-connected and require multifaceted interventions for change.

The obstacles holding back the scale, depth and pace of societal progress that is needed when it comes to gender equality in leadership are unconscious, shaped by multi-cultural and social conditioning which tends to favour conditions for men.

Recently, drug allegations were made about Finnish Prime Minister Sanna Marin, after footage was leaked on social media that exposed her dancing in a social event with friends and celebrities. Marin was held up and contrasted in the press to so many male politicians; no one would bat an eyelid about their social exploits, but scrutinised Marin.

In a different light, New Zealand’s former Prime Minister Jacinda Arden received a rush of negative coverage for stepping down from her position, and for prioritising herself, her mental health and her family despite serving her country through six challenging years. She gave a message rarely or never heard in the political sphere – one that is vulnerable, feminine and human.

The case for leadership development

Investing in leadership development provides focussed learning for people who have a disproportionate influence and impact on organisational performance, growth, culture, and health.  Getting leaders out of their day-day reality and surrounding them with experts, facilitators, and coaches in a stimulating environment creates needed space. They are a setting where leaders’ thinking, their approaches and behaviours can be interrupted, examined, and enhanced with insights from relevant theory, research, and management science in a peer community.

This is an ideal space for people to have dialogues relating to the evolution of women and men in the modern workplace. Leaders can explore what a contemporary system where assumptions and biases from the past are surfaced and challenged could look like and how to architect the social and cultural fabrics needed for an egalitarian organization.

A Leadership Programme to boost organisational and societal health

Leadership development for women requires attention to create new and different conditions that will help break through the resistance slowing down progress in attaining gender equality. Importantly, these conditions must enable businesses to integrate the quality, influence and wisdom that women leadership have the potential to contribute. When in leadership, these attributes are often better at harnessing performance, innovation and wellbeing in organisations.

Leadership development programmes are a valuable hot house where women (and men) can shape a future concept of leadership; weaving together what has served institutions, businesses and working society to date with what needs to adapt and change. They are an opportunity to identify the mindset, skills, behaviours and additional changes required to generate the movement that organisations need to evolve.

A leadership development programme would enable:

  1. A safe and inviting forum to share experiences. Participants should feel, hear, project voices, be curious, humble and open, and share their vulnerabilities by connecting over adversities and learning from life stories. This creates the opportunity for exchanging the individual experiences of female leaders, generating self-awareness and peer support.
  2. The use of a systemic frame that helps women leaders (and their male allies) to better understand the inter-connected aspects from past, present and future that promote systemic oppression as an opportunity for change. This enables women to constructively understand what needs to change, minimising blame and resentment and maximising curiosity and resourcefulness for the shifts needed.
  3. An inquiry into those aspects from the past, influenced by our male predecessors, that have served the evolution of society, business and leadership well, and develop appreciation and clarity for their position in the present and future. This empowers women to weave new patterns in the social fabric needed by organisations to navigate the challenges unfolding.
  4. An open space to surface, challenge and reframe the assumptions that are no longer valid for the present day, and for the future. This is also an opportunity to integrate generational differences, spirituality, embodied wisdom and mindfulness. This resources women to take tangible steps in their organisation with support from a peer community that reenforces commitments, experimentation and scaling up social movements in ways that drive progress, better organisational performance, culture and wellbeing.

There is still a long way to go to achieving true equity in the workplace, and senior leadership positions are an obvious gap preventing greater gender equity from permeating the workplace from the top down. Leadership development programs will not only empower women leaders with new skills and opportunities, but also dedicated spaces to challenge the status quo and explore what organisations may need to pursue equity even further.

Samreen McGregor

Auther Bio

Samreen McGregor is an executive coach, founder of Turmeric Group and author of Leader Awakened.

She works globally with senior leaders and teams across

industry sectors. With a unique ability to create the conditions leaders need to stretch beyond their existing capabilities and simultaneously preserve wellbeing, Samreen’s interventions lie in the cross-section between business performance, behavioural change and embodied consciousness.