18 September 2019

Leadership Programs and Conferences: Building Networks for Women

Stacia Garr
Co-founder & Principal Analyst

Emily Sanders
Research Lead


In 2019, we have had the opportunity to talk to organizations and vendors about the use of technology in taking a network-based approach to the advancement of women. This is the first in a series of six articles highlighting our findings. A huge thanks to GSV AcceleraTE for sponsoring this research and to Dr. Inga Carboni for her collaboration!

In the course of our research we identified both four common practices to advance women. These approaches consisted of some of the mainstays in diversity and inclusion efforts. This article will focus on two of the common approaches, leadership development programs and conference attendance.

Leadership development programs

There is significant variety1 in the types of leadership development programs designed to help women advance, including programs that have the following characteristics:

  • Focus on women and have only female participants
  • Open to everyone, with no gender focus, but participants are selected in such a way as to have equal representation among men and women
  • Open to everyone, with no gender focus and no requirement around equal representation

In addition, the ways in which women access these opportunities differs. Some organizations have a process for women seeking out and applying for these programs, while others are based on women being identified as top talent and invited to participate. Still other organizations hold leaders accountable for sponsoring women participants by pushing leaders to seek out top talent, to nominate them for selection, to form relationships with them, and to take responsibility for their development throughout and after the program.

We mention these different varieties of programs because the program type and how women access programs can have significant impacts on the networks women build as a result of the program. To make the most of these programs, we suggest organizations do the following:

  1. Design programs to intentionally build women’s networks
  2. Create earlier-career programs for women
  3. Go beyond traditional approaches to identify program participants
  4. Teach network theory

1. Design programs to intentionally build women’s networks

Leadership development programs can often have the same pitfalls as women-focused ERGs. Specifically, if program participants are from similar functions, units, or levels, these programs can create echo chambers and restrict women from access to information, visibility, and opportunities to display their talent across the organization.

When these programs are designed to provide visibility, opportunity, and experience, they can enhance a woman’s ability to showcase her talent, to collaborate, and to be seen as an energizer among peers. In addition, when organizations are intentional about how they design these programs – specifically ensuring equal gender representation and opportunities for women to forge meaningful connections with other women – they can enable the creation of inner circles for women without being exclusive to women.

Fixing the woman vs. Fixing the workplace

The initiatives that organizations implement to enable the advancement of women tend to rest on one of two basic beliefs that either:

  • The women need to be fixed or
  • The organizational culture, practices, and policies need to change

Organizations may undermine their efforts when they position development as women needing to be fixed. For example, when leadership development programs focus on “business skills for women” or how to “dress for success,” they can be patronizing and discouraging, sending the message that women need to fix themselves or portray themselves in a certain manner.

Organizations can no longer operate from the perspective that women need to be fixed. Not only is this an erroneous conclusion, but organizational policies and practices created in different times have supported cultures in which men have disproportionately benefited. That simply won’t work as the demographics, desires, career interests, and expectations of employees change. As one executive put it,

“Quite often there are assumptions made [about what women want]. Careers are going to change, things are going to be fluid, and workplaces will change. People are trying to give advice on how things have been and that is going to change. The future will not look like the past.”

This point underscores the need for organizations to create environments where women can succeed as opposed to always expecting women to adapt and then being surprised when women are not rising within the organization. If organizations keep trying the same approach, they will keep getting the same result.

2. Create earlier-career programs for women

Many leadership development programs focus on senior-level women or those moving into senior roles. This can be problematic in that, by this point, the pipeline of female talent has already significantly reduced so the impact of the programs is muted. Even when these programs are offered to women in lower levels, they tend to be limited in scale and focused on a small subset of women.

This problem of focusing too late in women’s careers can be magnified when you think about it from a network perspective. Specifically, if women’s primary relationships are with other women at their same level or of a similar age, then the examples they are seeing of how to manage challenges are largely homogenous. One area this may play out, especially for women, is in navigating home and work lives.

A majority of the family responsibilities still fall on women. Therefore, they are more often than men faced with the dilemma of balancing career progression while also “holding down the home front”. Without diverse connections to women across the spectrum of career tenure, talented women who may be struggling with the question of whether to or how to leave the workforce or reduce their workload may end up being surrounded by other women struggling with the same question. These women would benefit from access to diverse perspectives, advice, and resources so they could come to conclusions best suited for their situation. If organizations develop leadership programs that also connect women to others who have grappled with this question, they may be more effective at keeping some of these talented women at their organization or increase the likelihood they will return after taking time away.

3. Go beyond traditional approaches to identify program participants

As alluded to earlier, one of the challenges with many leadership development programs is that they require a senior leader to nominate people to participate. While this may sound good in theory, it requires nominees to already have a network that connected them to senior leaders who know them well enough to make the nomination and a manager or network that connected them to the right opportunities to be eligible. Given what we know about how networks vary by gender, we know this is less likely to happen for women.

There are several ways to address this. The first is to make explicit the existence of the program, the requirements for accessing it, and information on how to be prepared to successfully leverage it (this is similar to what we discuss in more detail later in the “articulating invisible information” section). It is critical to make this information widely available so that anyone can find it. A typical place to locate information about a leadership program is within a company’s intranet site.

However, given the proliferation of business-specific social networking sites, which claim to offer “real” insight into how work happens at companies, it may be worth considering sharing this type of information in one of these alternative formats. While making this information broadly available may give you a moment of pause, consider the potential benefits to your employer brand: organizations can clearly explain how they invest in women and what they expect people to do to advance.

Some of the more obvious business-specific social networking sites to share this on include LinkedIn and Glassdoor, but other sites such as Fairygodboss or Fishbowl could represent new opportunities to share information about leadership opportunities where people are already talking about them. These sites are designed toward sharing “unvarnished” advice. For example, on Fishbowl, individuals can direct questions to others in their organization about any topic – like mistakes younger professionals make or the value of an MBA (see Figure 1) or how one accesses leadership opportunities. Women focused communities can also use Fishbowl to ask questions of other women in the group (also see Figure 1). Further, C-suite leaders can host Q&A sessions on a range of topics, for either individuals only within their organization or for anyone in the industry.2 Finally, Fishbowl also has formal partnerships with a variety of professional organizations such as Time's Up, which provides a safe space for women in a variety of industries, and The 3% Movement, which pushes forward pay equity.3 These specific communities could be excellent new sources of talent for an organization and an appropriate place to share details about how an organization supports and develops women.


Figure 1: Example of dialogue in women-focused groups and "coaching and mentoring at scale" | Source: Fishbowl, 2019.

While sharing information broadly may increase the supply of leadership program participants, it is not the only approach to doing this. New technologies are enabling organizations to identify different leadership development or high-potential (HIPO) program participants. For example, TrustSphere, an ONA provider, believes that HIPOs tend to have more network connections – but those connections may not be part of the network of folks who could nominate them for a HIPO program. To that end, TrustSphere offers a technology that will allow organizations to identify “hidden stars,”4 (see Figure 2) who potentially should be included in HIPO programs based on overall numbers of network connections (see company spotlight below). This could be a way to highlight overlooked female talent. In our full report, due out in October, we describe how Ramco Systems uses ONA to identify HIPO trainees.


Figure 2: TrustSphere’s approach to identifying “hidden stars” | Source: TrustSphere, 2019.

4. Teach network theory

Finally, and this may sound somewhat obvious, organizations should consider teaching women about network theory and the impact it can have on their professional advancement. Despite the obviousness of this fact, we found very few organizations actively teaching their leaders about network theory. In our full report, due out in October, we describe how Unilever is an exception to this rule.

Beyond teaching about network theory, organizations can use technology to provide tools and resources for leaders and employees – women in particular – to conduct an audit of their networks. Organizational network analysis (ONA) is the primary tool we see applied here. This knowledge is helpful when planning out more formalized activities because programs can be created to specifically address any disparities in networks that result in different outcomes between men and women. In addition, this information can be used in trainings to highlight the impact of networks on the advancement of women and can help individuals see how behaviors reinforce and shape their network (see company spotlight, below).

There are a number of different vendors that can help organizations do this analysis. For example, TrustSphere uses ONA5 to help organizations and individuals gain a better understanding of how relationship networks are operating in real time (see company spotlight, in the full report, due out in October). Innovisor, another ONA vendor, helps organizations uncover hidden gender issues in their organization such as how often and to whom different groups of individuals collaborate.

We’ve mentioned a lot of vendors in this section. Figure 3 summarizes those we included.


Figure 3: Vendors included in leadership development section | Source: RedThread Research, 2019.

Conference attendance

Most companies indicated that supporting conference attendance is the primary way women are encouraged to build external networks. Specifically, conferences were cited as a mechanism to

  • Help individuals gain knowledge and insight
  • Ensure individuals stay on top of current thinking and skills
  • Connect individuals to a larger network

Obviously, for the sake of this report, the latter point is of greatest interest. While conferences are great tools to provide employees with information, there is no guarantee that the connections someone makes at a conference will aid in development and/or career advancement. Simply put – conferences increase the potential opportunity for making the “right” connection, but that’s typically by luck of the draw, not by design or intent.

Organizations and women may get more from conferences when they are armed with information on why and how to intentionally develop a network, what steps to take in advance of an event, and how to extend their connections beyond the conference. To help women get the most from conferences from a network-based perspective, we suggest that organizations do the following:

  1. Provide guidance on before-event activities
  2. Create follow-up opportunities

1. Provide guidance on before-event activities

Many people think that conferences start when they show up on the first day and therefore, fail to complete the preparation necessary to connect with the right people at the event. Organizations may want to consider offering bite-sized resources (e.g., one-pagers or 3-minute videos) to employees on how to get the most of events before they even arrive. For example, these resources could cover:

  • Identifying speakers in advance of the event and asking to share a coffee or lunch
  • Posting on social media that they will be attending the event and asking if others will be as well and are interested in meeting up
  • Connecting with conference organizers to see if there are any small volunteer opportunities to:
    • Create and grow a community of attendees on social media before the event
    • Help in a small way at the event to meet specific new people

All these suggestions can give women opportunities to diversify their networks and to energize their networks through their openness to new people and experiences.

We think there’s also an opportunity here for conference organizers and app developers to make technology that can be used to build better networks. For example, before people attend conferences, an app could be used to provide nudges for people that they should meet at the event, based on similar geographies or titles (or potentially interests, which could be identified via LinkedIn profiles or through people’s selection of interests). Further, technology could match people to others who are in the same sessions (based on location services) and who have similar interests.

2. Create follow-up opportunities

No matter how amazing the event, if people do not follow up on those new relationships after the event, they lose a significant opportunity to strengthen their external network. To that end, organizations could create expectations for how women will engage with the individuals they meet at conferences. Again, this could include creating bite-sized learning; sharing ideas for how to build and sustain that external network. Some ideas for what women could do post-conference include

  • Forming social media groups or in-person meet-ups for conference attendees to stay connected
  • Following up with speakers via online social networks to learn more about their sessions
  • Writing about their experience (internal or external blog or on social media) and inviting others to share their reflections or engage in additional dialogue

To date, we have not seen technology that focuses in this space. However, we think there is an opportunity for post-conference technology that can continually nudge and reinforce what was learned and presented at the conference. For example, conference apps could send a nudge reminding the individual to reconnect with someone they met at the conference and share how they have put their insights into action. The technology could send out reminders of key ideas from sessions the individual attended and ask what else they might want to know more about. Development opportunities, based on sessions attended or career interests, could be pushed to the individual throughout the year (other conferences, online courses, books, etc.).


  1. In addition to the variety mentioned, we also found that the structures of these programs also vary greatly from organization to organization. For example, some of these programs are operated by HR or D&I functions, while others are run and funded by ERGs. The length and content of each differs as well, with some programs lasting a few days, while others stretch out for months. In addition, the degree to which organizations rely on external sources to design, develop, and deploy these programs differs. While some organizations use “off-the-shelf” solutions, others design customized programs based on employee input and data.
  2. “Coaching and Mentoring—at Scale: An A.T. Kearney Partner Takes Over Fishbowl,” Kearney, A.T., September 2018. https://www.atkearney.com/atkearney-blog/article/?/a/-coaching-and-mentoring-at-scale-an-a-t-kearney-partner-takes-over-fishbowl.
  3. “Fishbowl App Is Highlighting Agencies That Have Taken a Pledge for Pay Equity,” Smiley, M., June 2019. https://www.adweek.com/agencies/fishbowl-app-is-highlighting-agencies-that-have-taken-a-pledge-for-pay-equity/.
  4. “Using Organizational Network Analytics to Measure the Impact of Leadership Development Programs,” Trustsphere, 2018. https://www.trustsphere.com/wp-content/uploads/2018/12/Leadership-Case-Study-201812-1-Letter.pdf.
  5. According to TrustSphere: “Using passive ONA, data was gathered passively, which means it already existed in corporate communication systems being used like email, instant messaging and voice. Hence the data gathering did not require surveys, online forms and questionnaires. As the data is continuously updating, TrustSphere ingested this data and applied proprietary algorithms to measure network changes. The resulting TrustScore measured the strength of every relationship in the network. The resulting Network Impact Score measured an employee’s ability to exert influence over their network.” See: https://www.trustsphere.com/wp-content/uploads/2018/12/Leadership-Case-Study-201812-1-Letter.pdf.

Written by

Stacia Garr
Co-Founder & Principal Analyst

Stacia is a Co-founder and Principal Analyst for RedThread Research and focuses on employee engagement/experience, leadership, DE&I, people analytics, and HR technology. A frequent speaker and writer, her work has been featured in Fortune, Forbes, The New York Times, and The Wall Street Journal as well as in numerous HR trade publications. She has been listed as a Top 100 influencer in HR Technology and in D&I. Stacia has an MBA from the University of California, Berkeley, and a master’s degree from the London School of Economics.

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