Blogs / 23 Aug 2020 7 min

The case for women-only development programmes

“I don’t want special treatment because I’m a woman”. This response isn’t unusual when it comes to invitations to women-only development programmes. Women worry about the perception of being singled out and what it might mean for their careers. No-one wants to feel that their career progression hasn’t been earned. Similarly, some leaders worry about disengaging men by offering single-gender development programmes. It is an evocative topic which can generate strong feelings from all parties.

If this resonates with you, I’m going to ask you to suspend judgement for a moment while I lay out the case for women-only development programmes. I firmly believe that women-only development programmes offer an important, well actually a critical, avenue for women’s leadership development.

To contextualise the importance of this topic, women continue to be under-represented in senior leadership roles across business and government in much of the world. Women represent only 5% of FTSE 100 CEOs, and 7.4% of Fortune 500 CEOs. The reasons for this are varied and nuanced and I delve into these in detail in my white paper: The Three Barriers to Women’s Progression. But the headline explanation is a combination of unconscious biases and stereotypes as well as structural impediments that create subtle but persistent barriers at a societal, organisational, and personal level. The Double Burden of career and domestic responsibilities that is disproportionately carried by women, the lack of access to the right networks and sponsorship, the double bind of being successful but not likeable or vice versa, challenges getting critical experiences or high profile assignments, a lack of role models, gendered career paths and ‘always on’ work cultures. These and many other factors collectively add pressures and barriers to women’s careers in a way that doesn’t impact men. Herminia Ibarra of London Business School calls this second-generation gender bias.

Being in the minority can be very lonely. I recall the shock and surprise of a man at a networking event for the tech sector explaining to the group how he was surprised to find himself as only one of three men in a room of about 50 women. He had never experienced that sense of being an outsider and it felt unnerving and alien to him. But of course, women experience that every day*, and often in leadership development programmes.

Do I think that women should only attend women-only development programmes? No, of course not. Leadership development is not a one-and-done event. It occurs over time, with interventions being formal and informal. It involves mentoring, sponsorship, skills training, leadership development, self-reflection and much more. What I do believe is that at certain career inflection points, such as just prior to or during a career transition, women-only programmes can be incredibly powerful.

There are four reasons I firmly believe that women-only development programmes are important:

  1. Leadership roles involve an identity transition, and this needs to be nurtured in the right environment. As we move into leadership roles, as with other transitions in life, we experience an identity shift. Each move from peer to leader, or from leading a team to leading teams of teams, calls on different behaviours for success. In the process of learning new skills and behaviours we change. This is a very personal transition which needs the right environment to allow us to develop an authentic leadership identity. For women that often involves a different style and identity to the dominant masculine leadership model and needs the right context to allow it to flourish.
  2. Women in women-only groups tend to have more open, honest and personal conversations, which speeds up this identity transition. A KPMG survey of 3,000 women found that 70% of women were more likely to speak about career challenges to other women. In mixed gender groups it is less common for discussion on second generation gender bias to surface, resulting in a missed opportunity for learning and growth. I’ve run mixed gender and women-only development programmes and find that the discussions in the women-only programmes get deeper, faster. The conversations are different, and there is sharing of topics that typically aren’t aired in mixed gender programmes, such as how to juggle family and career, how to manage the maternity leave transition, and how to lead authentically when the predominant leadership style is masculine. Creating a safe space in which women can share and learn from others who have similar experiences can be cathartic and liberating and this intensifies the learning.
  3. By feeding back learnings from these programmes to the wider organisation, the programme can also help positively impact some of the systemic organisational barriers. Women-only programmes yield powerful themes which can be fed back into the system in order to help educate the organisation (and men in particular) on the systemic impacts of second generation gender bias. This in turn benefits future generations of women, thus ensuring a virtuous cycle. Feedback mechanisms can occur in a variety of ways, such as an open feedback and discussion session with business leaders or HR representatives at the end of the programme, or quotes from women played back on audio to executive teams. These can be anonymised and read by third parties if the feedback is particularly sensitive.
  4. Every woman I know who has attended a women-only programme has valued it: even those who initially didn’t want to go. Comments such as this are common: “at first I didn’t want to be in a women-only programme, but having experienced it has changed my mind entirely – it was a lot more open and felt like a very safe environment”. Women often leave these programmes feeling confident and empowered. The networking benefits are often significant, with strong relationships formed, which tend to be supportive and enduring. Many times I have seen women from these programmes continue to support each others’ careers well beyond the formal development programme has ended.

And in contrast to the sometimes cited (and quite unfounded) stereotypes of women viewing each other as competition, women are far more likely to support than diminish each other. Catalyst (a global non-profit gender research business) found women were more than twice as likely as men to ‘pay it forward’ and develop other women. This has absolutely been my experience with the group programmes I have led.

By designing leadership programmes to cover the specific, often invisible barriers that hinder women’s careers, and giving the space to develop and nurture an authentic leadership identity, you embolden your female leaders. They recognise they are not alone in their challenges and are more aware of their skills and resources. This in turn empowers women to be bolder, to relax into their authenticity, and to take more proactive control of their careers.

To explore how our Breaking Barriers Women’s Programmes can help your leaders, do get in touch.

* This experience is, of course, shared by any person in a minority group, be it race, LGBT+ status, disability and more.

Sharon Peake is the founder and CEO of Shape Talent Ltd, the diversity, equity and inclusion experts for complex multinational organisations who are serious about gender equality – and what it can achieve for their business.

Click here to learn more about what we do and join our mailing list to be the first to receive our tools, research and updates.

And be sure to follow us on social media:

LinkedIn: and

Twitter: @S_Peake
Insta: @ShapeTalent

Further reading:

  • Catalyst (2012). High potentials in the pipeline: Leaders pay it forward.

  • EY (2015). This isn’t about “fixing” our women! A study looking at the return on investing in female-specific leadership development.

  • Ibarra, H., Ely, R. J. & Kolb, E. M. (2013). Women rising: The unseen barriers. Harvard Business Review.

  • KPMG (2015). KPMG women’s leadership study: Moving women forward into leadership roles.