May 2014 | 

Leaning in Without Falling Over

Leaning In

A new conversation about women, business, and leadership is gaining momentum. From CEOs working to create a more diverse leadership pipeline, to Sheryl Sandberg’s call to “Lean In,” to researchers providing more evidence-based knowledge about how to tackle gender differences associated with women leaders, the voices weighing in are more wide-ranging than they’ve been previously.

It’s a conversation Wharton Executive Education’s Vice Dean Monica McGrath is excited to join. “At the center of this dialogue are individual executives who are moving up in their careers and who face a variety of options. The renewed attention to gender in the workplace isn’t focused on the past, on what we can’t control, what we can’t impact on a daily basis. It takes a more holistic view of our careers and our lives. Wharton has an opportunity to lead the conversation. We are in a unique position to help women strengthen their leadership skills and identify their priorities and the choices they are faced with.” As faculty director, Nancy Rothbard, David Pottruck Associate Professor of Management at Wharton, puts it: “Our approach is designed to help women gain clarity around their leadership approach and to build confidence about how to more effectively enact leadership skills. We want women to be able to lean in but also to have the strategies and skills that they need not to fall over.”

A new week-long program, co-directed by Rothbard and McGrath, was designed to meet these objectives. Women’s Executive Leadership: Business Strategies for Success brings women executives together for a week of leadership development and skill building. In addition to Rothbard and McGrath, the program boasts a stellar line-up of faculty including management professor Sigal Barsade, an expert on emotional intelligence and Lori Rosenkopf, management professor and vice dean of Wharton’s undergraduate program, an expert on social networks.

Rigorous core business skills sessions will be led by Wharton faculty, including accounting professor Brian Bushee, who teaches financial reporting; Jack Hershey, operations and information management professor, who discusses critical thinking and decision making; marketing professor Patti Williams, who teaches market centricity; and management professor Matthew Bidwell, who focuses on talent management.

Additional sessions will focus on individual leadership, combining an evidence-based approach with opportunities to reflect on current challenges and learn ideas for navigating them from fellow participants. Rothbard says, “It’s a unique approach that is both interpersonal and skill-based while also valuing and encouraging reflection on your career.”

Rothbard continues, “We’ll be looking at what the research has to tell us about ways in which women and men are different in an organizational context. For example, there are studies on gender stereotypes and leadership and gender and negotiation, which we will discuss.”  The debate about the ‘pay gap’ between men and women, another example, attributes the disparity to a number of causes, including institutional gender biases and the years some women take off to raise their children. But, says Rothbard, what also contributes to this gap are the differences in how men and women negotiate.

“For example, recent research tells us that men tend to negotiate more than women. One study found that 52 percent of men negotiated their starting salary as opposed to 13 percent of women. And throughout their careers, men initiate salary negotiations more frequently,” she says. “Those findings tell us that to help close the pay gap, women need to understand the value of negotiating, to become more comfortable doing it, and to negotiate in a way that doesn’t elicit backlash.”

Women’s Executive Leadership: Business Strategies for Success will focus on strategies that derive from cutting-edge research to understand how women can be more effective leaders and to develop awareness about what their challenges are. What’s more it will leverage the experience of the participants in discussions about managing work and family life and navigating the many choices and considerations that differ from men’s. “These are not the topics that come up in a standard leadership program,” says Rothbard.

“The metaphor of work/life ‘balance’ is a problematic one. ‘Balance’ doesn’t exist. I think ‘finding equilibrium’ is a better metaphor. Equilibrium shifts over time, as do the boundaries between your roles at home and at work. Women have much to learn from each other, and Wharton is excited to help facilitate the conversation.”