We all know the low numbers of women in C-level positions in companies across the United States. The business case for more women in the C-suite has been established, yet little has changed. In fact, it’s worse. In the 2016 Fortune 500 List, the percent of female CEOs dropped to 4.2 percent. According to the New York Times, in 2015, “among chief executives of S.&P. 1500 firms, for each woman, there are four men named John, William or James.” There are more CEOs named John then there are women CEOs.

How do we change these numbers? First, we must realize that traditional leadership development programs do not work for women. They do not help women overcome some of the core obstacles that prevent them from raising their hands. Understanding the challenges women encounter will help your company create leadership development programs specifically geared toward their dynamic needs.

Women’s leadership development programs are most successful when they create a community of women learners who grow, develop and help each other succeed. You can develop these communities by creating a safe, collaborative atmosphere where women are brought together to achieve a common goal. The goal is defined by the organization, and the programming is designed to support that goal. Senior-level women in the organization should play a critical role in the program, including leading it. If no senior women are available within the organization, it is important to bring in senior women from other organizations as role models.

Leadership development groups are most successful when they consist of six to eight candidates and last for 18 months, long enough for participants to form a close, trusting bond. Depending on the size of the organization and on its needs, multiple groups of women can run concurrently.

Women’s leadership development programs are most successful when they include the following elements:

Group Coaching Classes

Group coaching classes occur on a monthly or semi-monthly basis. The facilitator identifies an obstacle that one or more of the participants is facing through one-on-one conversations or by posing a question to the group. During the group coaching, the facilitator presents the obstacle, and each member provides feedback and solutions to solve the problem. The facilitator’s role is to provide coaching and steer the conversation as needed.

Monthly Book Clubs

Assign the women in your leadership development program a book written to help women advance their careers. Each month, review a chapter of the book. Throughout the month, assign participants skills to work on based on that chapter, and then discuss their successes or obstacles during the meeting. Book suggestions include “Lean In” by Sheryl Sandberg and “Playing Big: Find Your Voice, Your Mission, Your Message” by Tara Mohr.

Annual Conferences

Annual conferences are a powerful way to gather both men and women to discuss the successes and obstacles women face in the work environment. They are successful when they introduce the organization to new information and people. Panels and keynote speakers expand the thinking of the women in the group and bring the men in as partners and allies in helping women achieve career progression.


If there are female senior leaders within your organization, it is very beneficial for those leaders to mentor younger female employees. In the absence of female leaders, finding women in other organizations who are willing to be mentors can be just as beneficial. Additionally, look for senior-level men in the organization who are willing to advocate for junior women.

Individual Coaching

One-on-one coaching is an essential component of career development. Coaching allows participants to develop individual development plans based on their unique goals and obtain tailored feedback and guidance for career success.

Fireside Chats

President Franklin Roosevelt gave fireside chats to informally address the American people. Today, business leaders use them to informally address their organizations. Fireside chats are an excellent opportunity to introduce junior- and entry-level women to senior women in the organization. If there are no senior-level women in the organization, introducing women from outside the organization helps program participants visualize the possibilities of achieving higher positions. Sometimes, seeing is believing. If women never see senior-level women, they may never believe that they can rise to that level.

Women make up 52 percent of professional entry-level jobs but just 4.2 percent of CEO positions. It’s time to plug the holes in the leaking pipeline and close the gap.

Jennifer Madrid is a Certified Professional in Learning and Performance (CPLP). She has been working in talent development since 2005 as a facilitator, instructional designer, coach and organizational development expert for both Union Pacific Railroad and Wagner Equipment Co. Jennifer has a passion for adult education and creating meaningful, dynamic training programs for a wide variety of organizational needs.