Why have a “Women’s” Leadership program?

Why not just a leadership program for everyone?

I often talk or train at corporate women’s leadership programs. Every now and then I’m asked by someone, ‘Why do you support a leadership program that separates women from others? Why not just talk about leadership to everyone?’

I never really know whether the inquirer is really looking for my opinion or just indirectly stating theirs. Assuming the former, this is my response.

“All people need two things to grow. Challenge and Support.”

We need the challenge of having to get out of our comfort zone and learn to operate in demanding environments. This is how we stretch ourselves to learn new things and develop new skills. But being constantly challenged isn’t healthy for us — mentally or physically. Too much difficulty increases stress hormones. And some studies indicate that constant challenge overtakes so much of our limited mental bandwidth that it can lead us to making poorer decisions.

We need to balance challenge with being in a supportive environment where people understand your experiences, share their challenges and are there to support one another. Of course, just like challenge, too much of a supportive environment makes us less motivated to take risks and try new things.

This all makes logical sense — and parents totally get this when it comes to raising their kids.

Being a minority in any situation is a challenge for that minority. (Here, I use the word minority in its mathematical sense — underrepresented in number.) Take this out of the gender context. If your kid is the new kid at a school where all the other kids have been there for 6 years, your kid is in the minority. Your kid is operating in a demanding and challenging environment because the people she is around are all alike in a distinct and manifest way, and she is not like them. And most likely, she is treated as an outsider. As a parent, you know that this is a growth opportunity for your child. You also know it can cause stress to your child. And if she never manages to break in and become the same as the others in this particular way, there will always be that stress and challenge, which might eventually affect her negatively.

Now bring it back to the gender context. Being one of two women in a group of 20 is a challenge for those two women because they are in the minority. Now that’s not all bad, and if you’re one of those two women, this is a great opportunity for you to develop yourself. But it can also get exhausting after a while.

Women’s groups and women’s leadership programs offer environments where you aren’t in the minority for being a woman. You may be in the minority some other way, but not due to your gender. That often results in a supportive environment where you can share challenges and experiences, reduce your stress level and re-energize yourself so you can get back in there and grow more in your challenging environments.

Using the same rationale, this is why the Black Lives Matter movement is so important. Yes, all lives do matter. But Black Lives Matter specifically because the black person in the context of police violence is in a (much more lethal) challenging environment. Just like everyone else, that black person needs the energy of a supportive environment of people who share her challenges and experiences to give her the strength to get back out there and advance their minority position.

Now someone is going to say that I’m assuming all women (or blacks) are alike. That’s not what I’m saying. But I’ve found over the many years of doing this that there’s a consistent set of shared experiences among professional women who have worked in male dominated industries for several years. The women may be different in a number of ways, but regarding that particular shared experience, they find it easy to bond.

So I think there is room for both multi-gender leadership programs, and women’s leadership programs. Perhaps a group of men working for years in a women dominated profession might explore a men’s leadership program.

Mona Sabet is an accomplished software executive, entrepreneur and attorney, with two decades of experience in deal making and new business initiatives, combined with a strong engineering, legal and business education. She is the co-founder of a number of diversity initiatives and speaks frequently on topics of scaling businesses and individuals through professional and team development.