Courses for female leaders are increasingly supplemented by DEI issues being incorporated into general programmes © Brand New Images Ltd

Approaches to developing female business leaders are changing as the executive education market responds to growing corporate awareness of diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI).

A twin focus is evolving, with women-only courses supporting individuals while, elsewhere, DEI is increasingly incorporated into broader programmes.

Demand for executive courses for women remains strong: they are an important string to corporates’ bows for promoting DEI, and can provide a safe space for women to hone leadership skills.

Daniela Camberos, for example, enrolled on the Cambridge Judge Business School’s Rising Women Leaders programme in 2022, travelling from her home in Mexico. “I am a very creative person, but I was always shy to talk in meetings,” recalls the head of people at DD360, a fintech based in Mexico City. She says the course helped her to identify and focus on her strengths, giving her the confidence to lead.

Daniela Camberos travelled from Mexico for a course at Cambridge Judge for female leaders

However, in America and Europe, business schools report that the market for DEI courses is maturing — despite a significant US political backlash — as customers look to embed the topic into custom courses for leaders rather than treating it as a separate issue. Customised programmes are tailored to the needs of a particular organisation.

DEI is not a “standalone topic anymore”, says Qiao Zhang, programme director of executive education at ESMT. Customers do not ask for a gender DEI solution, she notes, but rather have business or transformation challenges that require leaders — and the organisational culture — to be more inclusive.

“We see more and more that [DEI] is embedded into a lot of other bigger leadership- [or] business-related topics — creativity, innovation, building high-performing teams, inclusive leadership — all that,” she says.

Similar patterns are reported in custom leadership courses at other European business schools, including IMD in Switzerland and Mannheim in Germany.

“Where we see the biggest change is more and more clients asking us to include sessions on inclusion, in particular, in the regular leadership development programmes that we designed for them,” says David Bach, professor of strategy and political economy and dean of innovation and programs at IMD.

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In 2019, according to IMD, DEI was included in about 7 per cent of its customised programmes. By the end of last year, this had risen to 31 per cent of courses.

At Headspring — a joint venture between Madrid’s IE Business School and the Financial Times that provides custom executive education courses — 45 per cent of programmes currently include DEI as a topic. Over the past four years, there has been a 20 per cent compound annual growth rate in programmes that include DEI, according to the company.

In the US, Harvard Business School also reports a shift in focus on custom courses. There is “persistent demand from corporate clients to cultivate senior women executives within their organisations,” says Patrick Mullane, executive director of HBS online and executive education.

But, at the same time, “requests from organisations that were previously framed explicitly as initiatives for diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) are now being defined as a broader need to attract, develop and retain executives who mirror the diverse demographics of a company’s customer base,” adds Mullane.

This shift towards building broadly inclusive cultures is important to both schools and companies. While leadership courses for women hone their skills, the wider focus is intended to ensure that they — or other under-represented groups — return to a workplace in which they can thrive.

“There’s no point in creating a little bubble for women and then launching them to the real world,” says Teresa Martín-Retortillo, executive president responsible for life-long learning at IE Business School. “So of course you need to equip them. But, if you don’t change the real world in which they operate, it’s just going to undermine or undercut all the efforts you put in the group you want to support.”

The shift towards inclusive culture also reflects a change in mindset among women and employers. Fifteen years ago, women would focus on themselves and how they needed to adapt, but now “there is a shift in how women are thinking,” says Séverine Guilloux, chief marketing officer at business school Insead. They are now “more aware that it’s not just them that needs to be smart in the leadership side to navigate the environment, but [also an] expectation the environment will change”.

Likewise, among corporates, the conversation a couple of decades ago was about how to support women, recalls Sameer Hasija, dean of executive education at Insead. But, since then, there has been a “big shift in the mindset”, he notes: it is no longer just a “women’s problem”; it is now also about how to support men in building inclusive organisations.

However, there is still an important role for women’s courses, with strong demand reported at a number of schools. For example, Ceibs in Shanghai has run Women in Leadership, an open-enrolment programme, since 2007, and registration numbers are high every year, reports Jean Lee, a professor in management at the school. She says there is a strong emphasis among companies — whether multinationals, private or state-owned — to help mid-level female workers attain more senior roles. 

In Europe, Germany’s armed forces, the Bundeswehr, for example, runs a custom women in leadership programme with Mannheim Business School. This supports the career progression of high-ranking women in the organisation, which has both military and civil staff.

An evaluation of the programme found that participants learned “crucial information” and would recommend it to others, according to Karin Prieur, division leader, and Sina Glock, section leader, both at the Bundeswehr. They add that women became “stronger leaders” who were able to work on “honing their personal strengths and maximising their influence”.

For Camberos at Cambridge Judge, though, it was the small-scale changes that made a big difference. She employed strategies to support her confidence and presence, such as keeping journals and challenging herself to speak up in meetings and undertake public speaking. “I started with small wins,” she says.

Providers see space for both women-only programmes and courses that promote inclusion more broadly. “You have to do both,” says Bach at IMD. “You have to create, I think, settings where women, in particular, can connect, exchange, learn from one another . . . and, at the same time, work on the other side around more inclusion, with everybody — and certainly with men.”

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2024. All rights reserved.
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