Geeta Sheker
Geeta Sheker: 'Women are slower to embrace networking' © Jaimie Hogge

The number of female-only executive education programmes has steadily increased over recent years.

These programmes invite participants to share their experiences and also help them tackle the challenges of the glass ceiling.

The Rotman Initiative for Women in Business at the Rotman School of Management, University of Toronto, launched Business Edge in 2010.

The Canadian and Ontarian governments gave C$2.5m to fund the programme, which was initially aimed at highly skilled female immigrant professionals to help them advance in their careers in Canada. But its success has led to unexpected developments.

What happened next?

The programme proved equally attractive to men – the husbands, colleagues and friends of the female participants – who saw the course materials and wanted to join.

“We would get phone calls from them saying they wanted to attend and asking why they couldn’t,” says Geeta Sheker, director of the Initiative for Women in Business.

As a result, in October 2011 the programme was offered to male immigrants. There were 25 participants in the first male cohort, nearly equalling numbers on the second female intake of 30.

How does it work?

The programme runs for six months, part-time. Male and female cohorts are separate, although some classes, such as role-play, are shared. The decision to keep the classes divided along gender lines was based on research from HR directors, which found that while male and female immigrants may face similar difficulties with integration into the Canadian workplace, the way they handle these problems is often gender-specific.

For example, immigrant men struggle to relate to and interact with women in the workplace and find it hard to cope with loss of status and professional recognition. They tend to communicate too directly and aggressively by Canadian standards, and do not embrace relationship-building for career management as openly as women, says Ms Sheker.

“We need to help them tone it down a bit so they are perceived as team players.”

Women, she adds, are slower to embrace networking as a strategy for career advancement, and find it harder to ask for help, delegate and promote themselves.

“Women are more passive and shy – they are more hesitant to put their views forward, while men tend to jump in with both feet without considering cultural nuances.”

What do students think?

“I’m comfortable studying with women but I saw some guys were more open to sharing their experiences when we were in an all-male class,” says Gerardo Amaya, a technology consultant who enrolled on the course with his wife (a lawyer), after they moved to Canada from Guatemala.

“We felt we were the only ones [struggling] but then …we found 25 men and women facing the same challenges and that really helped.”

How much does it cost?

Government funding will run out in 2014, so a fee of C$2,000 plus taxes was charged for the first time this year. Rotman hopes that the course can become self-sustaining.

How successful has it been?

Success includes a range of factors says Ms Sheker, including a new job, promotion or a move that aligns a student to their career goal. It can also include a negotiated salary increase.

A year after completing the course the first female graduates have reported an 80 per cent success rate. Ms Sheker has also noticed a ripple effect, with graduates assuming voluntary positions to help other professional women.

Figures for the first male cohort are not yet available, although Mr Amaya says that he has already experienced some benefits – halfway through the programme he was promoted by his employer, Deloitte.

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