At Smith College Executive Education for Women we’re asked about our women-only program model a lot. Why a women-only classroom? Don’t women need to work alongside men to succeed? Although our program has been around for nearly 40 years, we realize that single-gender education is still a bit of an anomaly.
So when we read last week’s Businessweek.com article “Don’t Fall for the Hype About Leadership Programs for Women,” we felt compelled to intervene. Its author, Karen L. Cates, made some bold assertions about executive education programs for women that need to be addressed.
“… some may question whether the ones [women] who gain positions after taking a course really have the chops or were advanced for other reasons (such as completing the program).”
Historically, women have faced all kinds of doubts and criticism from others about their competence as they advance in their careers. But let’s make it clear – there is no reason for women, or the corporations who hire them, to limit the tools they use to advance in their careers. Women should absolutely continue their education as they climb the ladder; a leader’s education is never done. If a woman is advanced after attending a women’s executive leadership program, then she was promoted because she took what she learned while in the program and successfully applied it to her career.
“Some women’s leadership and skill development programs are more like “lite” versions of general offerings open to both sexes.”
We specialize in strategic leadership development for women and our programs at Smith College Executive Education are as rigorous as any other strategic leadership programs out there. We partner with world-class faculty from schools like Kellogg, Darden, Wharton, UCLA, and Tuck to deliver on topics like negotiation, global strategy, multicultural leadership, strategic decision making, professional networking, and more.
Where we differ is in our all-women classroom model. Our learning model supports women’s natural collaborative and participatory conversation style. It mitigates the competitive conversation style and frequent interruptions that women often experience in mixed-gender environments. Research shows that women speak up more and take greater risks when they are not the minority in the classroom.
“When combined with other strategies, general-enrollment executive education—with its exposure to the best academic and industry experts and like-minded peers faced with similar opportunities and challenges—should be a cornerstone for any woman seeking advancement.”
Smith program curriculum doesn’t have a gender focus. Instead, our all-women programs come with a rigorous curriculum similar to other general-enrollment executive education programs. What our programs provide to women that general-enrollment programs don’t is access to the collective wisdom and experience of their true peers: other women executives striving to advance their careers in the face of isolation, subtle bias, and ongoing struggles with work-life integration.
These are issues most men do not have to face and are issues not easily raised in a mixed-gender classroom, especially when that classroom is generally 75-80% male. But these issues are often at the heart of the struggles women face as they climb the corporate ladder. Yes, women need to cultivate sponsors, seek experiences that lay the ground work for advancement, and build technical and cross-functional expertise. And yes, women executives aspire to have similar opportunities to men, but they face many more subtle and overt barriers to career advancement than their male counterparts.
When it comes to building strong leaders, we agree, gender should have nothing to do with it. But unfortunately, even in 2014, it does. The fact of the matter is that it’s not a level playing field out there. The barriers to women’s advancement are myriad, complex, and oftentimes so subtle they evade detection. Women are still earning only 66 cents for every dollar earned by men and shouldering most of the household and family responsibilities, and there is a wide gender gap at the top across nearly every industry.
Women do need a special toolbox of interpersonal and tactical skills and they can’t afford to waste an investment in continuing education on competing for the floor in the classroom. All-women executive education programs might not be the silver bullet when it comes to removing all the barriers women face in career advancement, but it is certainly one part of the solution that can’t be discounted. The “hype” is real.