Developing Women Leaders

by Julie Graber | on 3 Aug 2016

Women’s Leadership Development Programs: Lessons Learned & New Frontiers

The June issue of the Journal of Management Education included a rich discussion of women’s leadership development programs (WLDP). The articles included a review of key themes from the latest research on WLDPs as well as recommendations for WLDP programs going forward. The focus throughout the issue was on understanding how WLDPs can foster transformational change in individuals and organizations while fostering leadership development in both women and men. The following summarizes some of the topics covered in the articles.

Who Participates?

It is not unusual to have individuals question the need for women-only leadership programs. And while there is a place for leadership development activities that include both women and men as participants, there is also a continued need for women-only leadership development programs where transformational learning can be supported through the creation of safe spaces and the use of relational teaching and learning practices. Women need a place where they can be open and honest about their gendered experiences as leaders, and they benefit most from learning environments where they can support each other’s understanding and growth.

Social Identities that Intersect

While gender is the shared identity among WLDP participants, these programs must also acknowledge the impact that race, class, and other social identities have on individual leadership experiences. There should be opportunities to explore these intersections and understand how women’s leadership experiences vary when taking into account the expectations and pressures that come from other social identities. There is no one-size-fits-all when it comes to the ways women develop as leaders and programs should find ways to acknowledge and explore the differences. How that can best be accomplished requires further research according to the issue’s editors.


Theories That Should Drive Design

The editors highlight three theoretical constructs that should be used in the design and implementation of women’s leadership development programs.

  • Transformational Learning Theory: already discussed in terms of the need for safe learning spaces and gender-sensitive learning practices. Transformational learning also assumes there is a need to “transform” - a need to break from past patterns and create new beliefs and behaviors.

  • Leader Identity Development Theory: focuses on how an individual develops a leadership identity, which requires not only an internal sense of self as a leader, but also external recognition and validation of the individual as a leader by others. It is an iterative process with feedback loops that can confirm or challenge the individual’s self-concept as a leader. WLDPs should pay attention to this process and the unique challenges women can face in identifying as a leader and being accepted as a leader by others.

  • Leadership Presence Development Theory: focuses how individuals develop a leadership presence, which is defined as the unique voice, style of engagement and way of making positive contributions as a leader. The authors argue that development activities focused on leadership presence cannot be gender-neutral; they need to take into account the ways that organizational practices, work-life challenges and career trajectory differences impact women’s self-confidence, self-efficacy (belief in one’s ability to succeed at specific tasks/assignments), influence and authenticity.


Program Evaluation

All too often, evaluation activities for leadership development programs are limited to participant satisfaction at the end of the formal portion of the program and don’t include attempts to measure long-term impact and change in either the individual or the organization. The editors call on WLDP directors to develop “more robust and systematic methods of measuring longer-term impacts,” suggesting either follow-on activities that extend beyond the end of the content-intensive portion of the program and allow the opportunity for reflection and coaching, or the use of blended programs that alternate between content-intensive delivery and learning opportunities situated within the individual’s work environment.

WLDPs as Drivers of Organizational Change

For WLDPs to drive transformational change in organizations, they must be embedded in strategic priorities at the highest levels of management. From the initial needs assessment to follow-on activities, WLDPs should be integrated into the responsibilities of the organization’s senior leadership, with specific opportunities of building linkages, creating working relationships and gaining insights into the business practices of the organization. The expectation of the program participants should be that they will be agents of change who will drive innovation and growth in their organizations.

The editors cite the National Science Foundation’s ADVANCE program, which has funded gender equity change initiatives in colleges and universities across the United States, as an example of WLDPs that drive organizational change and personal leadership development. ADVANCE grants have a dual focus; the funded activities address both the leadership development needs of women faculty as well as the identification and remediation of gender bias in the organization’s culture, practices and norms.


From the Same Issue

One of the related articles in this special issue examines differences in general leadership development programs (GLDPs) and women’s leadership development programs in terms of the way they conceptualize leadership and the content included in the curriculum (with a focus on the development of inclusive leadership). The researchers found that while both general and women-specific programs are placing more emphasis on the relational aspects of leadership development, WLDPs have more focus on the co-creation of learning, while GLDPs tend to focus on information transmission and networking. The article provides a learning framework that attempts to balance the need to focus on business priorities with the importance of relationships and the ability to lead a diverse and inclusive workforce. (Bilimoria, Brown, Cavanaugh, Sugiyama & van Esch, 2016).

A second article examines the importance of incorporating the development of social capital (networks and relationships) along with the acquisition of knowledge, skills and abilities (human capital) into leadership development programs. The authors suggest that this is of particular importance for WLDPs given women’s lack of access to strategic networks and their propensity to view networking opportunities as less important than other business activities. The authors argue that it is important to address misconceptions about the goals and purposes of networking and make both men and women aware of the unique challenges women sometimes face in building and using networks effectively. Of particular note are several long lists of activities and resources for incorporating social capital analysis and development into leadership development programs. (Cullen-Lester, Woehler, & Willburn, 2016).


Reference: Journal of Management Education, June 2016 (Volume 40, No. 3). Sage Publications. Individual articles may be available through your local library or university.

  • Anderson, Bilimoria, Debebe & Vinnicombe. (2016). Women’s leadership development programs: Lessons learned and new frontiers. (pp. 231-252).

  • Bilimoria, Brown, Cavanaugh, Sugiyama & van Esch. (2016). Inclusive leadership development: Drawing from pedagogies of women’s and general leadership development programs. (pp. 252-292).

  • Cullen-Lester, Willburn, & Woehler. (2016). Network-based leadership development: A guiding framework of resources for management educators. (pp. 321-358).