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Succession Planning

Strategies for Effective Women’s Leadership Development in Your Organisation


Women hold less than half of all leadership roles, despite making up around 50% of the working population. And the disparity is even larger for women of colour. Leadership development programs are essential tools for all organisations in ensuring effective succession planning, but why do they leave women behind?

This is where women-centric leadership programs come into play. In this article, we’ll discuss how to design a women’s leadership program to enable effective leadership development for women despite the challenges they face in the workplace.

What is women’s leadership development? 

Women’s leadership development refers to initiatives and development programs designed to support women’s leadership skills and opportunities. Its purpose is to promote gender equity and diversity and inclusivity in the workplace, particularly in leadership, to improve decision-making that benefits the business.

The importance of women’s leadership development 

It seems like a no-brainer, but improving gender parity is important both within a business and the global society as a whole. In 2009, Goldman Sachs & JBWere found that Australian economic activity had increased by 22% since 1974 due to the rise in female participation in the workforce. And in 2015, a McKinsey Global Institute Report found that improving women’s equality can increase global growth by around $12 trillion.

In terms of business, potential candidates tend to look towards the overall gender diversity of companies before making a decision about where to work. This includes 61% of job-hunting women, who investigate the diversity of potential employers’ leadership teams before making a choice. So, if you want to create a workforce of more diverse talent, you’ll want to champion not only inclusive leadership, but offer leadership programs targeting women.

With more women being developed as leaders, you’ll also find:

What are the barriers to female leadership?

You’ve probably heard of the glass ceiling. As recently as 2016, there were still only 37 women in management roles to every 100 men (glass ceiling firmly in place). And within that group, there’s also disparity between the ratio of white women to women of colour.

But women face barriers to their careers well before they even reach the glass ceiling, in the form of the “broken rung”. If the path to leadership is a ladder, then the broken rung is the first step, preventing women from advancing to early management positions (the gateway to leadership positions).

There are multiple factors that contribute to this rung being broken.

How to design a women’s leadership development program

Women’s leadership development programs differ from general leadership development plans, in that there are additional considerations you need to make when designing them. It’s not enough to create a standard, one-size-fits-all leadership program and expect to solve gender equity issues in your leadership team in one fell swoop—especially given the additional obstacles women face in their journey to leadership.

A women’s leadership development program comes in five steps. The first two steps tend to be generic, in that they’re the same as in a standard leadership development program, then they start to become more targeted towards women.

  1. Set and define objectives
  2. Assess training needs
  3. Embed DE&I initiatives with development
  4. Implement leadership develop efforts
  5. Evaluate and measure development program effectiveness.

Define objectives

Women are your target audience here, so remember to keep them and the unique leadership challenges they face at the forefront of the decision-making process. Understanding who your target audience is, and what they need and want, will help shape the most relevant and achievable objectives for their development.

When it comes to setting and defining objectives for a women’s leadership development programs, you first need to understand the key leadership capabilities for your organisation. If you don’t have these already outlined, you can do this with a three-step process:

  1. Define the business context the capability exists in. That is, the goals, mission, and values of the organisation and the role leadership plays in that.
  2. Define the capability’s purpose, such as how it helps meet the priorities of the specific team or department, as well as the organisation as a whole.
  3. Define the outcome you want from the capability, such as adaptability or demonstrating accountability.

This can also help you identify your most business-critical capabilities, allowing you to prioritise those that post the greatest business risk if not addressed quickly. Once you have those crucial capabilities defined, you can start building your goals and objectives around them. There’s no right or wrong way to set goals, other than that they need to be realistic, measurable, and actionable.

Conduct training needs assessments

Development can’t happen if you don’t know what you’re developing, so you need to analyse your training needs. You have your key leadership capabilities, but how well do women employees’ skills, behaviours and knowledge compare? The difference between what your capabilities should be and where they currently are is a capability gap—which development programs are designed to close.

You can evaluate competency in current capabilities with a capability assessment. It’s a levelled scale that measures an individual’s proficiency in a capability in three categories:

  1. Needs development
  2. Meets expectations
  3. Exceeds expectations.

Even if your emerging leaders meet expectations, you’ll probably want to have them undergo development anyway. After all, the needs of your business and its individual departments will change over time as the industry transforms with new ideas, technology, and processes. So, what is meeting expectations now might quickly fall behind in the future, meaning your leaders’ contribution to the company will have less value.

Embed leadership development with DE&I

Here’s where a women’s leadership program differs from general leadership development programs. They focus on women and the workplace challenges they face to obtaining leadership roles, both culturally and in terms of opportunity.

While women’s leadership development is obviously about women, it actually isn’t useful to focus solely on women here. Even if your C-suite has a 50% split between male and female leaders, cultural gender equality may be completely different.

In other words, men need to be involved in this conversation as well. Biases don’t cease to exist because one woman made it to the top, so introducing DE&I initiatives like allyship, anti-racism, and bias training helps to open the doors to women taking leadership roles. Businesses need to repeat these initiatives regularly so that the workplace culture continues to transform, becoming a more inclusive environment for all employees.

This also means that women should receive more resources and opportunities for development. Think of things like:

So, focusing on the individuals as well as the culture overall plays a crucial role in women’s leadership training.

Develop leadership skills and behaviours

Now that you know your training needs, you just need to create a development plan for them. Leadership capability is broken down into two types:

  1. Business capabilities, which focus on the skills and expertise that powerful leaders need, such as communication skills, negotiation skills, and critical thinking.
  2. Behavioural or human capabilities, which focus on the mindset of effective leaders, such as better emotional intelligence, honesty, decisiveness, and confidence.

It’s important that you build leadership skills with the right methods, which a training needs analysis can help you to pinpoint. A needs analysis will not only tell you what needs to be developed, but will also identify the best methods to do it.

Evaluation & measurement

Just like with any leadership training, it’s not a one-time thing. Leadership development needs to be ongoing and continuous, ensuring knowledge retention and the incremental behavioural change leading to long-term organisational transformation.

But this doesn’t mean you can just reuse and recycle the same development program over and over, and expect it to improve women’s leadership capabilities every time. You need to monitor, evaluate, and measure the effectiveness of the program first. The best way to do this is:

The impact of not offering women’s leadership development

Given women make up around 50% of the workforce, not offering women’s leadership development training, including cultural change, is just unnecessarily restricting your talent pipeline. Not only will women face a lack of development opportunities, but un-inclusive team cultures impact their ability to be effective in leadership roles if they have one. So, you’re missing out on the potential high-performing women leaders who could lead teams—or even the company—through challenges.

It also means that women will be underrepresented in business decision-making. We don’t just mean in terms of strategic business decisions (which can impact your organisation long-term agility and sustainability), but decision-making on a smaller scale, too. Women leaders are able to provide a perspective in the decision-making process that an all-male leadership team might not think about, especially when it comes to decisions that affect female employees. These could be inclusive policy changes that benefit both men and women, versus policies that could have unconscious bias against female employees due to all-male leadership teams overlooking women-centric concerns.

56% of women also look at whether potential employers publicly strive for diversity. In other words, not providing women’s leadership training or making efforts to reach gender equity actively hinders recruitment efforts, and your organisational reputation will suffer in the eyes of prospective employees.

Plus, neglecting women’s advancement leads to lower job satisfaction and employee engagement—particularly among female staff—which in turn decreases productivity and drives talent turnover rates. Not only does lowered productivity affect your bottom line, but now you also have to budget for increased recruitment and onboarding efforts.

At a large scale, it just continues to perpetuate gender inequality. But on a smaller scale specific to your business, it just impedes the journey towards business transformation and success.

Key takeaways

When it comes to leadership roles, women are often at a disadvantage from step one, despite representing half the workforce. This is why DE&I efforts are so important to closing the gap between male- and female-held leadership positions.

The important thing to remember is that while gender inequality still exists, women’s leadership programs can’t be carried out in the same way as your average leadership development program, which tends to favour men. Instead, you need to make sure your women’s leadership program is designed to support and uplift female employees in your organisation to drive success in their career development. To create a leadership development program for women, you need to:

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