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Are Women’s Leadership Initiatives Misguided?

In my work as CEO for Mentoring Women’s Network, we provide resources to help companies be intentional about their strategies for recruiting, retaining, and advancing women leaders.  We offer a mentoring program and curriculum-based training to start or enhance women’s leadership initiatives.

Too often, I am asked “Why should my company care about gender diversity?”  The reality is, the changing landscape of business environments and the changing demographics require companies to be more progressive when it comes to strategies related to advancing women leaders.   Today, 60% of university graduates are female and a recent Catalyst study showed organizations with a gender balanced leadership teams far outperformed their competition.   According to, Fortune 500 companies having three or more women on the board outperformed other companies with 53% more returns on equities, 42% more return on sales, and 66% more return on invested capital.

The result of mentorship in particular is shown to be extremely powerful and when we invest in one another, we are truly investing in leading our business toward success.  In a Global Study of Businesswomen and Mentoring conducted by researchers, it was found that, “Mentoring isn’t just about boosting careers, and it’s not just the women who are mentored that benefit. Mentoring helps retain the practical experience and wisdom gained from longer-term employees…”

In fact, Sun Microsystems did a published five-year study of 1000 participants in a mentoring program, which showed 40% of mentees were more likely to be promoted and 50% of mentors were also more likely to be promoted. This demonstrates the skill development and sharpened communication skills enjoyed by both mentors and mentees.

Businesses benefit not only from the professional development of their employees (which can in turn improve productivity and reduce turnover), but also from elevating knowledge transfer between disparate sections of the organization” (Boatman & Miller).

According to the Center of Women’s Business Research, in 2004, it was reported that women own 10.6 million businesses in the United States. They employ 19.1 million workers- that is one in every seven employees. Their businesses account for $2.5 trillion in sales. Women are not just coveted leaders, they also represent the buying power and decision-makers of small business.

Why is it then, that only 3% of the Fortune 500 CEOs are women (USA Today, Oct. 2011)?  How should we address this?

The missing link is often misguided attempts at creating women’s leadership initiatives. Often, companies assign a high potential female leader to “create” a women’s leadership initiative, which means, in addition to her full-time job, she is charged with organizing, planning, and providing content. These initiatives often enjoy some benefit – the women who participate enjoy the connectivity and camaraderie, but are missing the skill development, meaningful mentoring experience, and real intention aligned with real outcomes of more women in leadership positions. The problem is that we have this trail of good intentions, but we become so misguided by solutions that are daunting, produce low engagement, are too expensive, or become a full-time job for our female talent.

There is a solution to all of this. Programs aimed at skill development, meaningful connections, and access to mentors can and do provide real resources linked to outcomes. The most progressive companies will find ways to meet the needs of their entire population, rather than a “one size fits all” approach to leadership development.  Those are the companies who will win in the changing landscape of business today.