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14 February 2014

Cultivating Women Leaders and Building Supportive Communities to Hold Them

Written by
Carolyn Coughlin

“For decades, corporations and other large institutions have sponsored expensive training programs to promote more women into their ranks. They have launched much-needed maternity policies and flexible work arrangements. Most of these initiatives, however, have been pursued to make life easier for the women involved — or, more cynically, to remove the threat of lawsuits or adverse publicity for the firms. But they have not successfully leveled the playing field or created the kind of true diversity that any great organization needs to thrive.”

 The above is from an August 2013 HBR blog post by Debora Spar, president of Barnard College and former professor at the Harvard Business School and author of the book Wonder Women:  Sex, Power, and the Quest for Perfection

Clearly, achieving something that looks more like gender equality in organizations is an intractable issue—while tremendous progress has been made since the 1950’s, we are far from having achieved anything like a world where women are as likely to thrive at the highest level of organizations as are men.  And, as many have recently noted (see here for a link to an October 2013 New York Times op-ed story entitled “Twitter, Women and Power” by Nicholas Kristoff, which has links to other good sources of information about this), it’s not only women who suffer as a result of the lack of diversity, it’s all of us—without more diversity in the top echelons of our organizations, we significantly limit what’s possible.

I argued in my last blog that the issue of gender diversity might best be addressed through a complexity lens—that “in the absence of a set of well-known rules, other subtler rules and attractors have emerged, perhaps equally significant but harder to see and, therefore, to understand and influence….  what’s needed is a better understanding of the present situation from a complexity perspective—in other words, what is the current system inclined to do and why? What are the major attractors? What are the implicit rules that govern the system?  What are the feedbacks that keep things the same?  Where might we see leverage points that could unlock possibilities in unexpected and non-linear ways?  And what’s the future we want—not a specific outcome because of course in a dynamic system there is not one magic “outcome”, but rather what do we want to see more of and less of?  And how will we know we’re moving in the right direction?  And at what level should organizations be looking at this issue?  Expanding the capacity of individual leaders to see different solutions?  Of individual women to manage the complexity of their choices and competing demands?  Of organizational systems to support gender diversity?  Of the broader community?”

 So if we believe what’s needed is more leaders who can engage with this issue in all its complexity, where do we begin? At a minimum, we need to build leaders with the skills and the capacities (cognitive, emotional, and somatic) to lead in complexity.  And we also need to build communities to support them.

My CL colleague, Judy King, and I, with help and input from our Cultivating Leadership partners and associates, and with encouragement from many of our clients, colleagues and friends, have decided to engage in a little safe to fail experiment ourselves….what if we brought together 12 really committed, mid to senior level women across industries, sectors, and organizations, to work on growing themselves and their support communities in service of making progress against this particular question… “How we can evolve organizations that are just as likely to cultivate women leaders as they are to cultivate men? ”  What might we learn?  How might the act of engaging with the issue in this way shift things at a system level?

Attached is a description of the program we’ll be offering beginning in May of this year (please note, this is not  typical “corporate training program” Debora Spar refers to!) I hope, of course, that this might entice you or a fabulous woman you know to join us, but I also invite anyone reading this blog to offer your insights on this or any related issues—dissenting perspectives especially encouraged!  It is through a multitude of perspectives that we grow and learn.  Thanks for offering yours.



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