The Critical Importance of Women-Only Development Programs

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At WOMEN Unlimited, we are hearing that potential women leaders are resisting women-only programs because they think they don’t need them.

March 22, 2024 published on CLO by Dr. Rosina L. Racioppi

Over my many years of involvement in the development of female talent, I have often encountered a reticence among women themselves to participate in women-only programs. Early on, 20 or so years ago, some women felt that being singled out and set apart could be a liability to their career growth. Additionally, women-only development programs were new then, and women often did not want to be among the first.

Today, that reticence lingers, but for different reasons. At WOMEN Unlimited, we are hearing from top corporations with whom we partner to develop their female talent, that potential women leaders are resisting women-only programs. They think they don’t need them…that society has evolved and that the corporate opportunities are already there for them. Some women also remain concerned about the career dangers of being singled out.

Why women-only programs?

There are many dangers to bypassing or abandoning women-only development programs, especially as we continue to combat the impact of COVID-imposed isolation. While both individuals and organizations largely continued to operate during the pandemic, the focus was almost exclusively on the “busyness” of the business, with little chance to grow and evolve corporate relationships. There was a high price to pay, especially for women.

To be clear, women-only development programs are not, and should not be, the only approach to growth and development. But they definitely need to be part of the mix. Only they provide a safe place for women to learn how to resolve career-related issues that are specific to them. The programs foster an environment for learning, growth and camaraderie that build skills and shift mindsets, resulting in increased confidence and new perspectives on leadership.

In short, women-only development programs send back to their organizations, women who better understand their corporate value. Through close engagement with both male and female mentors, women learn how to be more effective leaders and how to demonstrate their value to corporate leadership. A participant in a research study about the efficacy of these programs summed it up this way: “The tools that they gave me, helped me to learn to listen, look for those opportunities to step into a situation or moment and take charge of it.”

4 ways to get female talent committed to women-only development programs

Individual managers and organizations as a whole need to make it singularly clear that being selected for a women-only development program is a career opportunity and in no way a liability. Women tapped for these programs must understand that they are viewed as future corporate leaders, and that being chosen is an important step in their career growth.

The benefits that accrue exclusively from women-only programs should be discussed in detail. They include program content geared specifically to career advancement for female talent, the opportunity to develop a solid peer group and a diverse network of other talented women,.a clearer understanding that there is a commonality to the issues women face and that there are proven strategies for combatting them.

Organizations need to engage women who have previously participated in women-only development programs as vocal program ambassadors. For example, they can be both mentors and sponsors, emphasizing the role the programs have played in their success.

Finally, managers need to actively seek out feedback from program participants during the program and upon completion. They should also regularly provide their feedback on the growth and development they see as a result of program participation. Two-way feedback is an effective strategy “to get the word out” about the benefits of women-only programs.

Research by WOMEN Unlimited and several other organizations, including McKinsey, points to the critical importance of women-only development programs in retaining female talent and in building a diverse talent pipeline. McKinsey concluded that “these leadership programs can be powerful and empowering, but only if participating companies use them to hold a mirror up to themselves and the way they function.”


See original article on CLO.