Sorry chaps, you are not invited |

Sorry chaps, you are not invited | The Sunday TimesI have copied this article from this paper as I thought it so good and so apt for me as I am undertaking just such a course at the very moment…

Women looking to hone their leadership skills are finding that they learn more on programmes where all the participants are female

The Sunday Times Published: 26 January 2014

Convert: Tesco’s Nicola Browell said single-sex courses are better because they acknowledge and work with women’s strengths and weaknesses

Tesco’s Nicola Browell said single-sex courses are better (Phil Yeomans)

Sometimes the best way for women executives to develop their leadership abilities is without men, according to Kathryn Bishop, an associate fellow at Said Business School.

That is because women-only groups provide an atmosphere where the participants feel more able to relax and trust each other — and so get into the right mindset for shared personal development — said Bishop, who launched the school’s first women-only leadership programme last year. “If you were a racing driver, you would take your car to the mechanic who specialised in your sort of engine, so that you could be in the best possible shape for the race.”

“The women-only experience was definitely a benefit,” agreed Robyn Tingley, a vice-president at Ingram Micro, a computer wholesaler, and one of the participants in the programme. “From the first day there was instant collaboration, teamwork and camaraderie. The dialogue was free and very transparent. I was hoping to hear what women around the world were truly experiencing, not just more of the typical survey results about what holds women back — and it delivered.”

Samantha Collins, founder and chief executive of Aspire, a women’s leadership-development company, has seen a “definite increase” in interest since the Davies report two years ago on improving the gender balance in British boardrooms.

“There is clear and growing demand for women-only development,” she said. “Not for the traditional ‘wear a power suit and be more assertive’ stuff, but for development programmes that help women find ways to lead in their working lives and that think about their lives as a whole.”

Such courses are not about attacking or criticising men, Collins added, but a simple acknowledgement that it is easier for people to learn when they feel comfortable, and it can be easier to feel comfortable in a single-sex environment.

Ruth Sacks, a senior lecturer who set up Westminster Business School’s Women for the Board programme, agreed. This is not a question of “positive action”, she said, but efficient learning. “I’m not saying that there should only be gender-specific programmes but for this particular one, and the context in which it is being offered, it is very important.”

[This is where I come in – I am attending this course – yeah! I am learning how to run a Board for my charity role – next week is our second session and it will be interesting to hear people’s reflections on what they took away from week 1, week 2 coming up and we shall be learning more about how to present ourselves; communication and emotional intelligence; what makes an effective Board; and strategies for personal leadership – having it all]

A number of years ago one of Collins’s clients gave her the opportunity to put the difference between mixed and single-sex environments to the test.

“Over the years, people have said it’s a mixed world — therefore you need to do mixed events,” she said. “An accountancy firm once asked us to do a test so we did one men-only, one women-only and one mixed. The women-only group gelled much faster and were very supportive of each other … the men-only group was similar. Some of the men were very open but others did find it tough to open up [possibly because Collins’s own presence meant it was not entirely men only]. But the mixed group was poor and we decided never to do it again.”

For example, she said, when a woman in the mixed group became emotional about how much she hated her job, a couple of men tried some banter to cheer her up, while some women attempted to stop her crying — in a sense trying to steer her away from behaviour that is generally seen as a sign of weakness in the (mixed) workplace. In women-only groups, however, people tend not to “freak out”, which means groups get to the bottom of the issue rather than trying to cover it up.

On Bishop’s Women Transforming Leadership (WTL) programme at Said Business School, she and her colleagues were fascinated by some of the differences observed in the group’s behaviour when contrasted with a mixed group. In one exercise, for example, participants had to lead a group of singers in a performance. “In mixed or mostly male groups, what tends to happen is that the participant works very hard at apologising in advance; they step up and say ‘Well I’m not very good at this — I’m very good at selling’ . . . or whatever it may be. But none of the women did this; they just got up and did it.”

Simply not being in a minority can help, added Tingley. “Women typically are the minority. As such, [we] are contributing to a process and dialogue that is male orientated, and have to adjust [our] views and language all too often to follow those rules. That was not the case at WTL.”

But Collins believes there is almost certainly a place for men-only programmes too — that they could benefit from being in a setting where they don’t feel they should adjust what they say, as they might in a mixed group. Adding these to the mix would probably benefit both men and women, she said. “There are tons of great men coming up — a whole generation of them — who want to be able to have conversations in an environment that suits them.”

I expected happy-clappy

Nicola Browell, head of claims at Tesco Underwriting, was sceptical about the value of a women-only training programme but she still decided that Aspire’s Powerful Communicator course looked interesting enough to give it a go anyway.

“I have spent my career in financial services, which is quite male-dominated, and I spend a lot of time saying that there is no difference between men and women,” she said of her feelings before going ahead with the programme. “I had visions of the sisterhood and it all being very happy-clappy.”

What she discovered, however, was not a “fluffy bunny” programme but one that acknowledged and worked with women’s strengths and weaknesses, which meant she learnt more than she would have on a course that catered to both men and women.

It was also a different environment. “As a group of people, we opened up to each other very quickly. A lot of the benefit was from listening to each others’ experiences. The women were much more open about their individual experiences and much more prepared to say, ‘I have struggled with that too — let me tell you how I handled it’.

“It meant that we got to the bottom of things very quickly.”

So I await my working group’s take on my course and hope that we will all stand for each other and listen with all our emotional intelligence in play.

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