Executive Programs for Women Leaders: Breaking the Glass Ceiling

Executive Programs for Women Leaders: Breaking the Glass Ceiling

Business schools aim to increase substantially the number of women who are leaders, but real change must come from within companies themselves

As companies worldwide come under pressure to appoint more women to senior leadership positions, business schools are seeing a rush of demand for executive education programs that build the networks and tools that can help women in their leadership development.

These courses aim to increase substantially the number of women who are leaders, or business owners, in top positions. Women tend to face several barriers throughout their careers, which makes it less likely for them to reach the upper echelons of business.

“Traditionally, corporate environments have been set up for and promote people who display typically ‘masculine’ leadership styles and ways to negotiate and network,” says Nuria Chinchilla, Women and Leadership Chair at IESE Business School in Barcelona, and academic director of IESE’s executive courses in women and leadership.

These cultures also fail to give the flexibility needed to help promote work and family conciliation. “Research shows that women are often the principal caregivers in families,” says Chinchilla. “The pressures of balancing work with family responsibilities, alongside rigid work schedules, can be a stumbling block to career progression.”

She believes that executive education can help increase the number of women leaders throughout the talent pipeline. “The formal training a business school education provides can help by arming women leaders with the tools, techniques, and knowledge to help them navigate some of the barriers to their progression, and provide concrete business credentials,” Chinchilla says.

Executive education courses aiming to help break the ‘glass ceiling’

The strong — and diverse — networks that business schools can provide are also invaluable. “In male-dominated environments, it is more likely that various important business decisions and relationships are nurtured through informal networking in casual settings where women are either not likely to be included or where the dynamics change if they are,” she says.

In IESE’s Women and Leadership programs, participants learn how to identify the main challenges and factors hindering their career progress, develop effective negotiation techniques based on their strengths, and practical tools to help reconcile work-life balance issues.

“There is an enormous impact in terms of participants’ professional lives and career trajectory, with many using it as a springboard to their next role,” says  Chinchilla. “In addition, many also talk about how it has positively impacted their personal lives.”

IESE’s program is one of a growing number of courses that are aiming to help break the ‘glass ceiling’. The Carlson School of Management, at the University of Minnesota, offers the “Women in Leadership: Inspire, Influence & Impact” course. Spain’s IE Business School runs the “Rise Executive Women Leadership” program.

Robust demand for women leadership programs

With companies pushing for equality in senior leadership positions, demand for these training programs is robust. “Current trends indicate that boards are recruiting more widely,” says Carolyn Goerner, co-director of the Women’s Initiative at the Indiana University Kelley School of Business in the US, which offers the Women in Leadership certificate.

On the course, leaders build a personal profile highlighting their current strengths and identifying specific areas where they’d like to improve. They also understand and deal with both conscious and unconscious bias toward women, along with building personal credibility and executive presence that is consistent with their identity and values.

“Many times women have mostly or all male role models, so they may look to enact a masculine leadership style, even if it feels inauthentic,” says Goerner.

IESE’s Chinchilla also reflects this challenge. “One challenge is the temptation to feel they have to fit the leadership mold that is dominant in the work environment, even if they would have more positive business outcomes by taking advantage of what makes them unique,” she says. “The key is understanding your strengths and how to use them to your advantage in leadership settings.”

On the Kelley School’s program, the biggest take-away for women leaders has been a boost in personal confidence. “Our participants leave the program with the belief that they can and should investigate promotions and stretch assignments,” Goerner says. “They work through insecurities to present themselves in professional, credible ways.”

She believes that business schools have an opportunity to prepare more women for corporate leadership, but schools cannot affect the retention and promotion of women directly, particularly in the short term.

“Women are still prone to leave companies with cultures prone to unhealthy competition,” says Goerner. “Companies that don’t address wage inequality or systemic bias also won’t retain women in the long run.”

Business schools can provide insight on these issues through research, consulting and executive education – but real change has to happen within the organizations themselves.


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