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Five reasons for women only programmes: defending development for target groups

October 30, 2019
December 4, 2019

Women aren't the problem; they don't need fixing

We have come across this statement many times at White and Lime. Both men and women often question the value of women-only programmes, or those for any targeted group for that matter, assuming that our approach seeks to somehow change or modify a person as a means of achieving equity in the workplace. Alongside this, we have been met with a genuine concern that focusing on women, somehow amounts to discrimination; that the positive action of addressing unconscious bias means that we are overlooking or minimising the needs of men in some way. 

Attention on a targeted group will inevitably ruffle a few feathers within an organisation and it is important that any programme forms part of a multi-faceted approach to achieving workplace equality. One where most of the change happens at the organisational level and carefully considers the role of culture and leadership, alongside policy and employment legislation, the working parent penalty and women’s role in society and in history.

Here, in response to the above concerns, I illustrate why a female-targeted programme can form one part of the jigsaw on the path to achieving greater equality for women at work.

1. Treating everyone equally is not the answer

Original image Craig Frohle

If only it was that simple. Treating everyone equally assumes that we are all starting from the same place. This is not always the case as this simple picture by Frohle illustrates. Sometimes our differences create barriers to participation. Take, for example, the tendency of women to be the main parental carer; taking a break from employment can often lead to a loss of income and impeded experience and career growth. Furthermore if she lies at the intersection of more than one historically marginalised group, she is at a greater disadvantage. As Ahmed Olayinka Sule and Dr. Margareth Rungarara Keenan put it, “Since the corporate environment is not immune to what is happening in the wider society, black women are already at a disadvantage even before gender is taken into consideration.”

These societal factors are not the only issues contributing to an imbalance in starting point, as the University of Cambridge has revealed through its recent study by Murray Edwards College. The empirical research, which considered both male and female perceptions, found that although few people are intentionally sexist, unconscious bias against women is perpetuated by staff regardless of gender. 

2. Rationale and perspective can be found in the numbers

The aim is to change the bigger picture. 

As reported in a leading UK newspaper last year, there are more men called “David” holding CEO positions in our FTSE 100 than there are women. Amusing anecdote it may be, but it makes for sobering reading. Women continue to be under-represented in senior positions, particularly at board level and, despite Gender Pay Gap pressure, women's average pay is still significantly less than men’s.

The official statistics speak for themselves.  Women make up just 29% of FTSE boards and 11% of boards have absolutely no women board members, so no female voice. (Department of Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, 2018). The median gender pay gap in the UK is at 11.9%, although this official figure gives a distorted picture, because it doesn’t include part-timers, of which the majority are female. 

These gaps increase significantly when overlapping aspects of discrimination such as ethnicity, class and sexual orientation are at play.     

In reality, the UK’s gender pay gap remains at an unacceptable rate, despite the Government imposed rules that require companies to disclose information. The approach of naming and shaming has brought about some positive changes to the numbers, but I remain sceptical about the authenticity of some of the most recently published FTSE Board figures due to the inclusion of Non-Exec Directors artificially bumping up the female percentages. In my view, the progress is not as positive as we are being led to believe.

3. Targeted workshops create crucial safe spaces for under-represented communities

In my experience, something magical happens when you get a group of women in a room together and allow them to just talk.

Author and entrepreneur, Collette Phillips sums up the importance of a safe space perfectly:      

“I feel strongly that there's the need for a space where you're not 'the only one', ‘one of few’, or 'other'.  It’s important to be able to share experiences with people who know what you're going through, a space to connect with like minds and be vulnerable without judgement.”
“If it's not for you, that's fine. Don't feel excluded if you're not part of it. Don't challenge its existence just because you don't understand it. Don't take up space if you're not there to actively support. Just accept and support the fact that the space exists for the people who really need it.”

4. Male-orientated models of work and women's role in history have led to a Gender Confidence Gap – whether we like it or not

In their book, The Confidence Code, Kay and Shipman suggest that a lack of confidence drives risk aversion, tempers women’s career ambitions, leads to missed opportunities and, ultimately, to fewer women at decision making tables.

It can be hard to accept, particularly if you don’t feel it personally, but there is evidence out there showing that a gender confidence gap exists between men and women at work. This is not because women are in any way weaker, sociologists argue that this gap is largely due to a long history of male-orientated models of work and the role women have played in society. The 2018 Global Well Being Study was one of many recent studies demonstrating that “women experience more self-doubt than men at work” and Bleidorn’s global study of 985,000 showed that this happens regardless of age or industry.

We explore the complex reasons and the solutions to this in our workshops - paying attention to the nature and nurture debate and looking carefully at women's role in history. Far from the days of encouraging women to behave like the archetypal confident businessman (think 80's power suits), we re-define what it means to be confident, promote self-acceptance and ownership of unique strengths. This includes the acknowledgement of some potentially specific female strengths, such as enhanced intuition and empathy, using neuroscience to explain and value the differences between male and female brain structure, function and chemistry. When combined with socialisation many researchers conclude that these key differences, have caused us to think and act differently to men (Annis and Merron, 2014; Rippon, 2019)  

We encourage clients to re-frame character traits that may have previously been perceived as weaknesses (e.g. “being thin-skinned” or “too kind”) as strengths. As we do this, we are careful to highlight the strengths that both genders’ bring, not judging either gender as better or worse than the other. The best workplaces have both men and women operating at their full potential and bringing their contrasting natural styles to work. Women are equal to men, but different, and it is time that we openly acknowledged and celebrated our differences - whether they are caused by biology or socialisation throughout history.  

5. We are not fixing women, we are creating a movement for change

“We are not fixing women, we are getting them in a room together to tell them that they don’t need fixing”

I received this wonderful comment from a participant at the end of a women-only workshop that I ran last year. I feel strongly that in enabling women to get together on our workshops, we are creating a movement for change.  

Whilst having more confident women won’t eliminate unconscious bias and discrimination, it will empower more women to call out bias and inequality when they see it, put themselves forward, take more risks and champion other women. This will see more women moving up the ladder to influential positions which, in turn, will provide the much needed role models, mentors, sponsors and inspiration for women following below.

Targeted workshops and networking for under-represented groups are not going to fix the inequality issue on their own. Far from it. But that doesn't mean they shouldn't form part of the solution. While we wait for Board members to role model inclusivity and change attitudes and policies at the organisational level, marginalised groups are getting some additional support, lighting a few fires and create a burning platform for organisational change. Vital changes in approach to leadership training and education have (in my experience over the last four years) mostly been prompted by the much needed noise coming from women only (or target group only) development programmes and networking groups.  

If you would like to discuss how targeted development programmes for women and/ or leadership development programmes and cultural change can support your organisation to become more inclusive, contact me on 

Much gratitude to Siobhan Swindells for her invaluable contribution to the research for both this article and to the original design of our women only workshops.

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