Saying “No” to Professional Development for Women? – I Disagree

by | Feb 2, 2012

Professional development for women

Professional development for women

In Harvard Business Review, Avivah Wittenberg-Cox claims Empowering Women Doesn't Help Them. She goes on to state, professional development for women is not needed to create gender balanced organizations, and that changes to the system are what's needed instead.

I disagree.

There is no room for instead, also known as either/or thinking, at this point on the road to achieving gender balance and finding more women at the highest leadership levels. We need both/and solutions - professional development for women and changes to the system. Furthermore women are and will continue to be the catalysts for change. The system will not change itself, nor will the change be initiated by those who created the system.

The title of the Wittenberg-Cox article, Empowering Women...references an oft used oxymoron. No one really empowers anyone else, and even if it were possible, the person doing the empowering is ultimately the more powerful, and can just as easily disempower. This is not the position any woman, or women in general, should seek. As Dr. Patricia K. Fletcher, Head of Change Management - Global Marketing, SAP, states "Other people can enable me, but no one can empower me. Only I can do that for myself." (Women and the Paradox of Power, 2012)

A Man's World: What's Missing?

Many historical factors account for the fact that business in current day western culture is, and has been, a "Man's World." This needs to change.


Because it's not working - economic meltdowns, climate change, the end of Lehman Brothers, Enron, and more.

Why do these things happen? Because half the available perspectives (and hormones) are missing from the assumptions, questions, problem solving methods and solutions that have been employed for decades. But rarely does the power group that created the system, become the one to change it. Women must be a significant part of the change, because they are outside the system and can therefor read it, see its flaws as well as what works, more readily.

The Paradox of Power

Like it or not, women are in the position of having to gain power in a system that is in many ways foreign to them, at times even distasteful. This is the paradox of power. Just as guides, tips and techniques are helpful to those traveling in foreign countries, so it is with women who are operating in cultures designed by men - simply because they got there first.  Women have to understand the system and the culture.

[Tweet "They have to develop the finesse to simultaneously be in it but not of it."]

Professional Development for Women - Done Differently

Therefore, mentoring and other forms of professional development for women are key. But these programs must address the right issues and go hand in hand with change to the very culture of business. Men must be held accountable for these changes as well. For example, when a senior man in the company mentors and sponsors a woman, he should share accountability for her promotion and success.

Avivah Wittenberg-Cox suggests professional development for women, is focused on fixing women (as if something is wrong with the entire gender). I wholeheartedly agree that this is not the right focus or intent, but I'm also not sure that, "Fixing the women" is what those who put such programs in place intend. Such accusations aimed at the men and women who are making decisions about professional development for women, does more harm than good.

So, what to do? Ensure professional development for women provides the tools to operate in a foreign culture, including guides for the questions below, and more:

  • How does power work in this system?
  • How can I gain power and then use it to change the very way power is gained and on behalf of what it is used?
  • How do I speak with self-assurance in a culture that may hear the female voice in ways that I do not intend or desire?
  • How do I interpret signals in a culture whose signs may not be clear to me?

[Tweet "Let's give women the tools they need to change a system that needs changing."]

Women's Identity

John and Joy Hoffman's model of the identity development for non-whites and women, includes an emersion stage during which members of the not-in-power group seek increased contact with each other. There is a need for dialog, support and validation, an internal strengthening that helps individuals go, with greater confidence, into a world whose terms they did not define. They then return to the group for a booster shot of validation, sustenance and support. This continuous feeding process is critical.

Women Are the Change

If the world of business changes, it will be to a large degree because women, and men who can see the pond that they swim in, decide to refresh the water and bring in lots  of new and different fish.

[Tweet "Someday we will achieve a true vision of gender balance in business and other halls of power. "]

At that point we will no longer need special attention to professional development of women so they can thrive in a Man's World. But that day is not here yet.

Dr. Anne Perschel Subscriber
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