Do Women’s Leadership Programs Harm Men?


Is women’s leadership development divisive in your organization? In creating leadership programs for women, does your organization end up treating those employees differently and separate female leaders from the rest of the organization?

I believe the overwhelming majority of corporations recognize the value of Diversity and Inclusion (D&I) efforts and programs. Executives in these organizations know that including diverse perspectives is paramount to solving the most complex issues systemically and creatively. Yet most programs focus on “diversity” or dividing up the organization to focus on special interest groups instead of “inclusion”. Why?

I think the answer is that the people who traditionally are in line for the next leadership positions are afraid of losing out on their opportunities.

I am a business executive and a mother of two 20-something sons. Our family has always been sports oriented. We love to watch sports, play sports and debate about sports. Both of my sons played sports in high school and college. During a recent dinner conversation, my sons declared that they had been disadvantaged by Title IX, a law passed in 1972 that requires gender equity for boys and girls in every educational program that receives federal funding, although it is most well-known for athletic programs.  

My sons shared the sentiment that because universities were forced to provide the same number of female scholarships as male scholarships (particularly in sports), they were deprived of an opportunity to receive better funding themselves. Their assumption was that before Title IX, they would have received the funding they deserved as good male athletes and students. After Title IX, they didn’t make the cut because they had to share the funding with female athletes.

To take the argument even further, they stated that male athletes bring in the most money for those very universities (and post-college professional sports) which is another reason why more male athletes should receive scholarships.

I love my sons. I could see their perspective. I could feel the emotion behind what they shared. I understood their logic. I could also see that it was a very competitive, limiting either/or and us/them perspective. Then it struck me:

This is why organizations are stuck in providing equal opportunities for talented female leaders. It’s a pattern that’s repeating itself because the men in the top 2-3 tiers in organizations don’t want to give up their opportunity for a more inclusive leadership team. Also, in organizations where men hold the majority of leadership roles, they tend to sponsor and advocate upcoming talent like themselves — men.

At a subconscious level, men are afraid they have something to lose and they are attracted to mentoring future leaders like themselves. In order to create the organization of the future, both men and women need to recognize these dynamics and have the courage to make some shifts:

  • Commit to a future vision that includes diverse representation (gender, race, age, economic status, etc.) around the leadership table for the sake of the mission, client service and business results.

  • Implement recognition and talent development programming that releases the either/or – us/them – win/lose fears from the men who worked hard to get their chance.

  • Provide mentoring, advocacy and sponsorship programs to help increase the visibility of future talent who might otherwise be missed.

Title IX caused a dramatic impact for women and for female business leaders. In fact, 82% of women leaders proudly share that they played competitive sports. Title IX helped women get into the game. Did it really disadvantage men in the process? I don’t think so. Do you?