Women’s Leadership Ecosystem
  • Leadership

Women’s Leadership Ecosystem

How Smith College Executive Education is upping the ante in leadership development for women


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Why do we still need specific executive education for women? It is almost 40 years since Margaret Thatcher became the UK’s first female Prime Minister, and exactly 40 years since the founding of Smith College Executive Education for Women, the trailblazer in women’s leadership development. So surely the gender equality job is done?

Sadly not, numerous surveys show that women are under-represented in senior management and board-level positions around the world. (E.g. Deloitte’s 2015 Global Survey shows the percentage of board seats held by women as: France 29.9%, Germany 18.3%, UK 15.5%, Canada 13.1%, USA 12.2%, China 8.5%, India 7.7%, Brazil 6.3%, Russia 5.7%, and Japan 2.4%).

This situation is bad from a corporate perspective, as gender-diverse leadership is proven to be good for the bottom line, it is bad for the prospects of individual women, and it is bad from a socio-economic perspective that potential leadership talent is not being harnessed to drive economic growth.

Forty years of experience in the women’s leadership development space has taught Smith College Executive Education for Women that although important – developing women and providing them with the skills to advance in their careers is not enough – it takes the dedication of senior business leaders, frontline managers, and the organization as a whole to build sustainable gender equity in the workplace.

With this in mind, Smith College Executive Education has developed an ‘ecosystem’ approach to women’s leadership. Smith’s Women’s Leadership Ecosystem℠ focuses on building sustainable, systematic change at all levels of the organization to support the development, advancement, and retention of high-potential women. Smith’s ecosystem model has three pillars: Empowerment, Engagement and Culture.


Empowering individual women to lead, supplying them with the skills, confidence, and a network of true peers is the first important pillar of women’s leadership development.

One thing that differentiates Smith from other program providers is its signature women-only classroom. Why a women-only classroom? Don’t women have to work alongside and compete with men in order to advance and succeed?

Research by Smith itself, Catalyst, and other experts in this area, highlight three factors critical to leadership learning for women:

  1. Women learn better and take more risks when they are not the minority in the classroom, as they are in most executive programs. This creates an environment of shared experiences, candour and trust.
  2. Women’s natural conversational style is optimized in an all-women setting, where they are less likely to be interrupted and the flow of discourse is equally accessible to them.
  3. Women learning with women are more able to discuss critical issues such as work-life integration, subtle bias, and challenges to advancement that they face in the work place. The classroom organically evolves as a safe space that is 100% focused on women and the unique challenges they face as leaders.

Smith’s Women’s Leadership ecosystem empowers women: first by educating the ‘whole leader’ – organizationally, professionally, and personally; and secondly by offering programs for women at every level of the organization and every stage of their career, acknowledging that strategic leadership development has a different focus at each level.


Engaging with the leaders of women leaders to gain champions for gender equity is a vital pillar of the ecosystem. Engaging leaders at all levels of the organization, including top-level executives, as well as managers who are on the front lines of employee development, to support, sponsor, and advocate for women’s advancement is essential to the success of any women’s leadership program.

Involving these senior managers as an integral part in maximizing the companies’ investment in a female employee increases the woman’s ability to advance exponentially. When a woman attends a Smith program, a multi-level process ensures that these leaders are incorporated into the learning experience. Managers are required to understand the program the employee is attending and to work with her to set goals as a part of a greater individual development plan, allowing for both the manager and employee to evaluate the impact of the program on her work and contribution to her team and the organization.


Building a culture of inclusion is the final, important piece of the Smith Women’s Leadership Ecosystem℠. Changing corporate culture – especially at global, complex organizations – can be a daunting task. The key is to take it on in small pieces. Your organization can start by offering subtle bias training for managers and senior leaders, or by adopting policies to make the workplace culture more inclusive – think parental leave, flex-time, or remote working opportunities.

Despite the progress that has been made over the past decades and the growing recognition that promoting women leaders strengthens organizations, gender inequality remains a persistent problem. A 2014 Bain & Co study refuted the belief that starting a family is responsible for stalling women’s career advancement. The study found instead that women lack meaningful recognition and support from managers during the mid-level career period, when women crystalize their aspirations, with the result that while nearly half of all new female employees aspired to top management, within five years, only 16% still held that ambition.

Smith Women’s Leadership Ecosystem℠ and its three pillars offers a powerful and sophisticated approach to moving women’s leadership forward. An approach that empowers individual women through exemplary executive development, and engages with senior leaders to help them create female friendly cultures, where managers understand why gender diversity matters and are accountable for promoting it.

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