women leaders

Achieving Gender Parity in Leadership

Monday, December 16, 2019

It’s exciting to see the growing number of studies proving what many HR leaders have long understood—that gender diversity among leadership is important for the bottom line. (See research.)

So, why are there still so few women in leadership positions? While some improvements have been made, the percentage of women advancing into management jobs during the last two decades has slowed (see study). And in the past few years, the percentage of women in top management positions and on corporate boards has stalled (see research).

Today, women occupy only 10 percent of top management positions in S&P 1500 companies. They comprise just 27 percent of executive and senior officials and managers, 11 percent of top earners, and just 5 percent of CEOs in S&P 500 companies (see research).

This inequity among organizational leadership is not the result of too small a talent pool. Women earn nearly 60 percent of undergraduate and graduate degrees and make up more than half of the college-educated workforce.


In many companies, the problem is not even a lack of professional development opportunities. Companies may send high-potential men and women to leadership training programs where they study strategy, negotiation, communication, and personal resilience. While professional development in these areas is important, such efforts miss the mark because they don’t tackle the most important challenges in women’s leadership advancement.


In contrast, female-specific leadership development programs provide the tools and techniques that are essential for all leaders to thrive as well as give attendees the ability to recognize and address challenges and opportunities that are specific to women, which is, namely:

  • Having a strong network of peer women leaders. Female-specific programs can provide an immediate network of true female leaders who provide critical access to advice, information about professional opportunities, technical knowledge, and strategic insights women need to advance in leadership (see research).
  • Obligations outside of work. Many women reach a stage for potential advancement at the same time that life circumstances also have them at home caring for children and aging parents. Female-specific programs can provide learning that, at its foundation, integrates the work-life juggling act into its curriculum, and provide strategies and tools for success within that reality.
  • A workplace culture that is unaccustomed to women in leadership. Researchers (Blackburn, 2017; Mullet, Rinn, and Ketter, 2017; Wynn and Correll, 2018) also argue that gender biases, nonaccepting cultures, lack of confidence, and lack of mentorship/sponsorship opportunities significantly inhibit women’s ability to advance in leadership positions, especially in male-dominated fields. Female-specific leadership development programs can bring a deep understanding of how to recognize and address the workplace cultural issues that challenge women’s advancement.

What’s more, these programs can present curriculum in a way that caters to women’s preferred learning styles in dynamic, highly interactive class settings.

For nearly 40 years, Smith Executive Education has helped women develop the networks and skills needed to expand their leadership capabilities. Find out how Smith’s online and in-person, custom and open-enrollment learning opportunities can help expand your women’s leadership pipeline.

About the Author

Dina Venezky, PhD, is the executive director for non-degree programs at Smith College. She joined Smith in Fall 2018 as the first executive director for Non-Degree Programs (NDP), part of the president’s initiative to bring Smith’s long experience in women’s education and leadership to broader audiences across the lifespan. Since joining Smith, she has been creating new programming strategies and bringing new innovative learning experiences to all our programs. Education and STEM, in particular, have been passions throughout Dina’s life and she has more than 20 years of advocating for and communicating technical and business concepts in startups, government, and academia. Prior to joining Smith, Dina built online custom programs and grew the marketing and analytics portfolio for Stanford GSB Executive Education. Her corporate experience includes three startups where she consulted on data analytics, created marketing and training strategies for product launches with Fortune 500 partners, and helped build a just-in-time offset and digital printing company.

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