Dr. Léa Cléret talks candidly about why women-only leadership development courses make her blood boil and what's needed to improve diversity at the top.

A few days ago, I received a flyer for a course called Women in Leadership. I was absolutely fuming. After a few days of rationalising about my visceral reaction, here is where I stand.

Personal Power of Leadership

First of all there’s a need for absolute conceptual clarity around the word “leadership”. In this case, the advertised course should be called “Women in decision-making positions”. And this is very different. Leadership is not a free gift that comes automatically just because you get promoted. It’s not about authority power. Leadership is “using personal power to win the hearts and minds of others to achieve a common purpose.”

Which leads me to my next point. WOMEN ALREADY HAVE PERSONAL POWER. If they don’t get to the decision-making positions, it isn’t because they are behind on the leadership skills learning curve, it is because accessing decision-making positions has got nothing to do with leadership skills. It is about “playing the game”.

And if Women in Leadership courses are about learning to navigate a male-dominated environment (and I quote the title of a module: “preparing to progress within a male dominated environment”), then it is about teaching us the rules of a game that we don’t want to play in the first place. Diversity should not be obtained solely by expecting people to fit an archaic mould.

Changing the Guard

There is a whole new generation of workers who no longer want to be shoe-horned into a system which was designed for married men in the aftermath of the Second World War, not involved in domestics or with children, which is no longer suitable 70 years on. It is much easier to blame women for being too shy, rather than rethink the structure of the workplace.

It is indeed easier to think that if women aren’t represented in the board room it is because they never dared to ask rather than acknowledge that the current workplace naturally breeds a certain type of individual for those positions. Because the solution is so easy: just fix women!

It is not that simple.

Segregation and diversity at the top

Interventions to Address Diversity at the Top

As with any change programme, two levels need to be considered simultaneously. One is the long term, where we have to make deep changes in how we operate as a society. The other is how we cater to those who are experiencing the problem now, in order for them not to be sacrificed. And we must be very careful that the short term solution doesn’t breed more of the same, and simply defer the moment when the long term solution starts kicking in.

In my view, the short-term interventions aiming to alleviate the pain of those suffering from the current situation have to concentrate on developing awareness of behaviours which tend to be gender-related. This does, absolutely, involve getting people to realise what they are doing, and making a conscious effort to change. And in my view, this can only be effectively achieved by getting both genders to experientially feel the impact of those behaviours. Not by being segregated and lectured to.

A Symptom not the Problem

The long-term work we have to harness ourselves to requires a complete re-think of the workplace. How we work, what we do, how we break down tasks, what we get paid for, what careers look like, how personal and professional interact, what the role of the employer is, what the duties of the employee are… and all in all, these revolve around what we believe life is about.

This is exactly why this question is so difficult: people don’t give enough thought about what is important to them and how they prioritise that. But until that question is answered, one won’t know what to ask for, and will therefore not obtain it. And will just continue to drift with the system.

So how did we go from getting women in board rooms to the meaning of life? By going from a symptom to the deep-rooted problem. Women not getting access to decision-making positions is not the problem, it is the symptom of a much larger problem of which women are the collateral damage. And everyone is suffering from that lack of diversity at the top, not because women have innate skills that men don’t have, but because structurally eliminating the brain power from half of the capable work force is a rather poor use of resources.

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