January 2021 | 

Empowering Women to Lead in the Recovery

Empowering Women to Lead in the Recovery

It’s been almost 40 years since the term “glass ceiling” first appeared. Then there were Lean In, the #Metoo movement, and mandates like California’s board of directors gender diversity law, which was preceded by similar legislation across Europe. There has been no shortage of conversation — or measurable gains — when it comes to greater equality in the workplace.

Then came the coronavirus, which reversed some of those gains. But as Julia Gillard, prime minister of Australia from 2010 to 2013, notes, “I do hope that we emerge out of this with a new dialogue around women’s leadership, a new understanding about the benefits of combining strength and empathy in our leaders, and we ask that of all leaders, men and women.”

Women are poised to take the lead in that dialogue, helping not only to reframe leadership, but also to identify and generate opportunities for their organizations. Doing that, though, often requires more and different efforts than those expected of their male counterparts. Nancy Rothbard, chairperson of Wharton’s Management department, says despite gains in the past few decades, women still face unique challenges as they work their way to senior levels in their organizations.

Rothbard directs a program designed specifically to help women meet these challenges. Now offered online, Women’s Executive Leadership: Business Strategies for Success creates a dialogue between participants, faculty, and executive coaches around the specific skills and knowledge required to succeed at the top. “Women enter organizations in equal numbers to men, but often get stuck somewhere on the way to the C suite. We think through the barriers women face, and how we can help them rise through those layers, that are often very sticky, and get to the top.”

Cindy Shaw, director of The Haverford Fund and a program participant, agrees with her assessment: “We face obstacles in the workplace that men do not face. It takes so much more in some cases for us to advance professionally and to achieve the outcomes we are seeking.” For many of the women who attend, though, it is more than just individual aspirations that bring them to the program: their organizations are also interested in growing their leadership to make a greater contribution.

Nicole D’Souza says discussions with her C suite and leadership team at Ramboll, an engineering, architecture, and consultancy company based in Copenhagen, led her to Women’s Executive Leadership. “A conversation we have been having has been about diversity of thought, not only within our own walls, but in our industry [engineering] in general. One of the challenges and opportunities that my company gave to me was starting to think about how I can get more engaged.”

D’Souza, head of communications, Americas, says, “When I got back, within two days I had a few members of our leadership call me and say, ‘What can we do better? What should we be doing?’ It was really impressive that it wasn’t just sending me out to find a great course. It about what I am bringing back and how are we as a company are learning and how we are changing for the best.”

D’Souza specifically cites sessions on emotional intelligence and negotiations for teaching practical skills that can be applied immediately. Other sessions explore critical competencies including influencing others (with and without authority), team leadership, and critical thinking and decision making. Skill building is just one focus, though. The program also strengthens business acumen in specific business disciplines, such as finance and talent management, which help build the enterprise mindset needed to succeed at top levels.

“What’s special about this program is our evidence-based approach,” says Rothbard, “and the opportunity to learn with and from other women.” D’Souza concurs. “One of the unexpected benefits was the network of friends and colleagues I came away with. It was unexpected because I have gone through leadership programs before in my area of expertise and although you walk away with a lot of information and are empowered to do your job better, at best you connect with two or three colleagues you can check in with from time to time. In this case I truly walked away with a new circle of colleagues and friends. We have committed to each other to meeting once a month online, and if someone has a great idea or wants to check in on a key business question, we are there for each other. I didn’t expect that. It’s a great benefit.”

The most important benefit, though, is tangible results. Maureen Clancy, head of project and portfolio management at Endo Pharmaceuticals, says when she came to Wharton she struggled with getting promoted to the next level. “Nancy’s session on how to lean in without falling over included some excellent tips, including core capabilities and competencies. I went ahead and leveraged those, then I had that crucial conversation with my management. It was taken under consideration, and I was promoted.”

That’s not a surprise to Rothbard, or to the hundreds of women who have been through the program. “We harness the best of Wharton, the best faculty, the best coaches, the best of Executive Education,” says Rothbard. “We provide the space to reflect on where you are and where you want to go, and the tools you can use to get there. The women who go through the program with us come through transformed.”