When it comes to helping senior-level women climb the corporate ranks, business schools are hoping that they have some of the answers.

With relatively few women in top managerial or C-suite roles, executive education courses are tackling what some academics have described as the women’s leadership labyrinth.

Using research on gender-based leadership differences, schools such as Harvard Business School, IMD in Switzerland and Ceibs in Shanghai have created courses to help women become aware of these differences and improve their leadership style. Participants typically have more than 10 years of management experience, work in senior roles and many have MBAs.

“It’s not a programme where we talk about strategy or marketing or any specific kind of content,” says Ginka Toegel, director of the Strategies for Leadership programme at IMD. IMD’s four-day programme began in 2004. It is offered twice a year to women with as much as 20 years’ work experience. This year, IMD further expanded executive education offerings by adding Women in Leadership, a two-day event to encourage further dialogue.

Soft skills are the primary focus of these courses. Women are taught to build far-reaching networks, because research has shown that women tend to have smaller, although more loyal, networks than men. Workplace confidence is also cultivated, since this is something that comes more naturally to male leaders, according to researchers. Balancing work and family obligations is also discussed.

“A lot of different issues came out – how you focus on family, how you have kids and manage your career and professional success,” says Portia Yee, a manager of financial planning for San Francisco-based Pacific Gas and Electric company, who attended the Women in Leadership retreat at University of California Berkeley Haas School of Business.

Professors use cases and experiential exercises to drive home specific concepts. At IMD, participants are asked to lead horses without giving verbal commands. Since horses tend to be intuitive animals, the exercise helps participants understand the importance of inner confidence as a leader. And at Haas, participants build block towers while blindfolded. The leader, who is not blindfolded, gives instructions to her team on building the highest tower. The task aims to help participants understand the impact of effective leadership.

Throughout the modules, reflection is encouraged. At Harvard, executives on the Women’s Leadership Forum programme spend two hours each day dissecting a specific issue led by a programme facilitator. And at Dartmouth’s Tuck School of Business, the Smith-Tuck Global Leaders Program for Women has increased the time spent on reflection by 50 per cent. Participants receive a “wisdom and insight” notebook to jot down their thoughts during the week-long course.

Ceibs began its Women in Leadership programme almost four years ago, with a focus on how women can contribute to China’s economic development, as well as looking at the country’s female chief executives, says Jean Lee, head of the management department. Companies such as Johnson & Johnson and China Mobile send their female executives to the course, with approximately 60 students per cohort. About 20 per cent of participants are entrepreneurs, says Ms Lee, who is considering a separate programme aimed at female entrepreneurs.

Women-only programmes also help to foster long-lasting connections. At Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management, participants from a range of companies come to campus four times during a year to attend open programmes. Participants are encouraged to keep in touch by attending alumni events for senior leaders.

“We’re focused on helping them to create a network of other senior females and to use those other women as a sounding board and as a source of information,” says Victoria Medvec, executive director of Kellogg’s Center for Executive Women. “It can be very lonely [for female] chief executives.”

The school runs two executive-level women-only programmes: one for senior leaders and another for women on the boards of large companies.

However, schools have discovered it is important to pay attention to perceptions when offering such classes. Gender can be a touchy subject for senior executives who have already worked through similar hurdles earlier in their careers. Last year, IMD changed the name of its course to Strategies for Leadership from Strategic Leadership for Women. Participants did not like the [original] name of the programme, says Prof Toegel.

Other schools continue to tweak their programmes. The class size at Harvard’s Women’s Leadership Forum programme increased by 50 per cent this year to 70 participants, after HBS implemented stricter admissions criteria, calling for more years of experience for top-flight executives. And at Berkeley, the leadership programme expanded from three to four days this year due to participant demand, says management of organisations professor Laura Kray. For top female executives these leadership skills are not readily available and participants were requesting an extra day of instruction, she adds.

“That stuff doesn’t get the proper airtime in everyday life, [here] it’s not taught in a touchy-feely mom group kind of way,” says Prof Kray.

Not all schools have been won over by the merits of such classes however. Critics say that men and women benefit from being together when learning about leadership qualities and segregating them can be a disadvantage. Both Insead in France and Singapore and the Judge school at the University of Cambridge have had to shut down similar offerings due to lack of demand for female-only programmes.

“The women didn’t want to be in an unusual or atypical situation in the business sense,” says Allison Wheeler-Héau, director of open programmes at Judge. “It created an artificial environment.”

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