“Women Leaders: Advancing Together” meeting.

Emerging female leaders and their senior managers from organizations around the globe attended “Women Leaders: Advancing Together.”

Photo credit: Steph Stevens Photography

Campus & Community

Women take the lead

4 min read

DCE’s professional development program focuses on gender-specific skills

Add to the list of differences between women and men: leadership styles and skills.

To nurture those, this past fall the Division of Continuing Education program “Women Leaders: Advancing Together” aimed to help “women leaders and their senior managers … develop critical skills to advance their careers, while working together to address the challenges facing rising women leaders.” In small group discussions, seven female leaders used real-world scenarios to help participants master critical skills in leadership style and brand, strategic thinking and problem-solving, and creating and leveraging perceptions.

The idea for the program grew from marketplace demand and discussions with leaders in various industries that highlighted the need for more than one person in an organization to be able to mentor high-potential women.

The program brought to Harvard more than three dozen emerging female leaders and their senior managers from organizations such as Amazon.com, the Environmental Protection Agency, the Federal Aviation Administration, international businesses, and higher education institutions across the country. The exclusive focus on women addressed the failing of leadership development programs that “treat all their participants the same,” said Division of Continuing Education Dean Nancy J. Coleman.

“In reality, it is different for women. We need to equip women with appropriate gender-specific tools to succeed,” Coleman said. “With the cultivation of a few skill sets, all participants can walk away as stronger and better leaders.”

For Juliana Leveroni, the director of communications for Experience Kissimmee, Florida, the program’s draw was its focus on “your strengths, how you can leverage your strengths to advance your career, as opposed to a lot of others that might analyze what you don’t do well.” She said she wanted to use her newly honed skills to “empower [her team] as leaders” and help them build roadmaps to achieve their career goals.

Business owner and program instructor Pamela Rucker has seen first-hand the impact professional development and encouragement from a supervisor can have on an employee. She said it can sometimes be the catalyst that propels someone to see themself as a leader.

“For women, specifically, we think that there are specific things that women have to work on, like: Do I understand what real leadership is in this world? And how to mobilize people to really act in the way that we want them to? Do I understand my own leadership identity?” she said.

Pamela Rucker.
Sophia Ahmed

Instructor Pamela Rucker prepares for a presentation. “I’m at a stage in my career where I really want to hone my leadership skills, as I do hold a number of research and clinical leadership roles,” said participant Sophia Ahmed, M.D. ’05, a professor of medicine at the University of Calgary.

Photo by Scott Eisen, photo courtesy of Sophia Ahmed

The program challenged participants to explore how gender differences at work impact leadership strategies, team management, difficult conversations, negotiations, and office politics. They were encouraged to find more inclusive problem-solving strategies.

Rucker praised the program’s setting because, “People can’t change organizational constructs alone. So, I could change you here [in this program] and change your mentality about what needs to occur. And you walk right back into an organization where you’re struggling to break down these organizational barriers.

“But then don’t struggle alone. Come and find out what the best practices are for you that can help accelerate your career. Then you can enable other people, so we turn around and say, ‘Pay it forward.’”

Sophia Ahmed, M.D. ’05, a professor of medicine at the University of Calgary, said the program helped her identify resources that could help her grow as a leader. Ahmed said she also felt a strong connection coming back to Harvard.

“It’s an incredible place, I learned so much. It’s incredibly inspirational,” Ahmed said.

“I’m at a stage in my career where I really want to hone my leadership skills, as I do hold a number of research and clinical leadership roles,” said Ahmed. “So, I was looking for a course that would teach me these skills, and specifically was looking at Harvard, given my affiliation with it and its reputation for excellence. And then when I saw that there was one specifically for women and rising leaders, it really resonated with me.”

Ahmed said she was inspired by the other participants, “talented, hardworking, brilliant” people. Her advice for other women interested in the program:

“Surround yourself with people who believe in you, someone who’s going to champion you, [people who can] silence that negative self-talk. You have the skills. You have the gumption. You are ready.”

Registration for the next cohort is scheduled to open in May 2023.