Women and Career Development — What can organisations do to nurture and grow female talent?

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Career development programs today are no longer optional. Employees want development, and they want it through their workplace. Providing a great career development program is a gateway for improving employee engagement, increasing employee retention, and creating a good company culture. This makes a formal program crucial to the employee experience.

Companies with more women in leadership have been shown to outperform their competition by more than a third. A strong representation of women in higher administrative positions leads to improved organizational health, global competitive advantage, responsiveness to stakeholders, and a better public image. Therefore, giving women an opportunity to work towards filling those positions gives organizations the opportunity to take advantage of these benefits.

Extensive research has identified factors that hinder the advancement of women in organizations. Yet, scarce literature exists about factors that facilitate such development.

Among others, major barriers to advancement reported by women executives include stereotyping, discrimination, the existence of male-dominant cultures in organizations, less access to career development opportunities, and their exclusion from networking. In addition, one of these barriers comes in the form of access to training. Research evidences that women are less likely to be trained than men.

It has been argued that the nature of women’s development is different from their male counterparts {Bierema, 1998 (1); Phillips & Imkoff, 1997(2); Stroh & Reilly, 1999 (3)}. Women do not follow linear or lifespan careers as men tend to do, rather they see themselves interacting between career and relationships {Powell & Mainiero, 1992(4)}. As Bierema (1998) suggested, women’s development is different from men’s because women experience more interruptions in their careers. Interruptions are mostly due to family responsibilities that women face being the primary providers of child and elder care {Albrecht, 2003; ILO, 2004 (5)}.

Besides governmental and organizational policies and support structures, here are a few factors that can make a positive difference to the Development of Women in organisations:

Top Management Support

According to Morrison, White, and van Velsor (1987), in a study conducted with women executives, top management support was found to be among the factors that contributed to women’s career success. Similarly, Catalyst (1990) suggested that organizations’ initiatives were more likely to be successful if CEOs recognized the need for initiatives and implemented strategies for advancing women.


Another factor that contributes to women’s development includes mentors and access to networks (Morrison et al., 1987). It has been suggested in the career development literature that mentors play a crucial role in women’s development in organizations (Henning & Jardim, 1977; Kanter, 1977; Mattis, 2001; Morrison et al., 1987). This is especially true for women who report more barriers to advancement from social processes than men do (Tharenou, 1999). Mentor relationships help women advance by providing them with self-confidence and reducing their levels of stress. This is also confirmed by Nelson and Quick (1985) who found that especially important is the role of female mentors who provide role models to their protégés, helping them cope with discrimination, stereotyping, family/work balance, and social isolation.


Access to experiences such as sponsorship and networking is also crucial to women’s development among women managers. According to Burt (1992, 1998), Catalyst (1990), and Tharenou (1999), women rely on networking with other women to advance to executive levels. Ibarra (1997) found that women need networking ties with other women in order to advance. Although the networks vary in terms of origin, membership, and structure, they share a common goal. Most of them focus on career and skills development; they promote networking and attempt to improve communication among women members and management (Catalyst, 1990). In addition, networking provides women with more information and options than they would have without it. It gives them the opportunity to strengthen ties with prospective sponsors (Burt, 1998).

Training & Development

In general, training and development opportunities are believed to enhance employee overall achievement and performance. A major factor contributing to women’s development and participation in managerial work is access to education and training and development initiatives (Wirth, 2001b). This is corroborated by Burke (2002), who suggested that access to education, training, and development are part of the challenge to support women’s advancement in organizations. Specifically, access to formal management training programs, access to the appropriate and relevant training, tailoring training to the needs of women, and training in gender equity are believed to be factors that positively influence women’s advancement in organizations (Loutfi, 2001).

So far, we have briefly touched upon some of the known barriers that limit the growth of women in organizations and have also explored a few factors which if practiced in an organization will significantly aid the development of women.

  • Put in place a systematic framework for identifying female talent at the earliest career stages
  • Involve the managers in helping women build their confidence and competence through honest feedback. Numerous studies show that women usually do not receive the same career-advancing feedback as to their male colleagues.
  • Help female talent understand that relationships and networking matter for career growth and development. Research shows that young women are much less likely than their male counterparts to seek out mentors and sponsors. Therefore, organizations need to help them understand the differences between mentors and sponsors, their varying roles, and how to engage with each of them.
  • Ensure more women have positions with P&L responsibility. Once future potential is identified organizations need to initiate steps to fast-track them, including exposing them to core business functions including operations and finance.
  • Next, provide stretch assignments. In research conducted by both Catalyst and Korn Ferry, high-achieving women indicated stretch assignments were their most valuable development experience.
  • Finally, connect young female talent with senior women business leaders. In a study by KPMG, 67 percent of respondents indicated they had learned the most important lessons about leadership from other women. Additionally, numerous surveys have shown that women are more likely to stay in an organization when they can point to other women at the highest leadership levels.


Factors that Contribute to Women’s Career Development in Organizations: A Review of the Literature by Helena Knörr University of Minnesota

Albrecht, G. H. (2003). How friendly are family-friendly policies? Business Ethics Quarterly, 13(2), 177–192.

Bierema, L. L. (1998). A synthesis of women’s career development issues. New Directions for Adult and Continuing Education, 80, 95–103.

Burke, R. J. (2002) Career development of managerial women. In R. J. Burke & D. L. Nelson (Eds.), Advancing women’s careers (pp.139–161) Oxford: Blackwell.

Burt, R. S. (1992). Structural holes. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Burt, R. S. (1998). The gender of social capital. Rationality and Society, 10(1), 5–46.

Catalyst. (1990). Women in corporate management: Model programs for development and mobility. New York: Catalyst.

Henning, M., & Jardim, A. (1977). The managerial women. New York: Anchor Press/Doubleday.

Ibarra, H. (1997). Paving an alternative route: Gender differences in managerial networks. Social Psychology Quarterly, 60, 91–102.

International Labor Organization (ILO). (2004). Global employment trends for women 2004. Geneva: Author.

Kanter, R. M. (1977) Men and women of the corporation. New York: Basic Books.

Loutfi, M. F. (2001). Women, gender and work. Geneva: International Labor Organization (ILO).

Mattis, M. (2001). Advancing women in business organizations. Journal of Management Development, 20(4), 371–389.

Morrison, A. M., White, R. P., & van Velsor, E. (1987). Breaking the glass ceiling. Reading, MA: Addision-Wesley.

Nelson, D. L., & Quick, J. D. (1985). Professional women: Are distress and disease inevitable? Academy of Management Review, 10, 201–18.

Phillips, S. D., & Imkoff, A. R. (1997). Women and career development. Annual Review of Psychology, 48, 31–59.

Powell, G. N. & Mainiero, L. A. (1992). Cross-currents in the river of time: Conceptualizing the complexities of women’s careers. Journal of Management, 18(1), 215–237.

Stroh, L. K., & Reilly, A. H. (1999). Gender and careers: Present experiences and emerging trends. In G. N. Powell (Ed.), Handbook of gender and work (pp. pp.307–325). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

Tharenou, P. (1999). Gender differences in advancing to the top. International Journal of Management Review, 1(2),111–132.

Wirth, L. (2001b). Women in management: Closer to breaking through the glass ceiling? Geneva: International Labour Organization (ILO).

Author: Aniruddha Sen (Anirudhha is part of the leadership at WiT India and regularly contributes to our editorial efforts)

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