Learning to Take Charge
By Mark Morris
Only one-third of all businesses in Western Mass. are owned by women, according to a recent survey. In the healthcare sector, one of the largest employers in the region, leadership positions are held by women 41% of the time — with outliers like one hospital where it’s only 16%.
These findings are from a 2019 study commissioned by the Women’s Fund of Western Massachusetts titled “Status of Women and Girls in Western Massachusetts.”
To address disparities like the ones in the survey, the Women’s Fund and Holyoke Community College (HCC) have teamed up on an eight-week training program this spring for women who want to enhance their leadership skills.
Titled “Women Leaning into Leadership: Empowering Your Voice,” the course begins March 25 and runs through May 13.
According to Michele Cabral, executive director of Professional Education and Corporate Learning at HCC, the idea for the course grew out of the Women’s Leadership Luncheon Series, hosted by the college.
Until COVID-19 forced it into a virtual meeting, the college hosted the luncheon every month for the past five years. With attendance limited to 28 attendees, four women leaders would each select a topic relevant to women and leadership, then break out the attendees into four groups to discuss their particular subject. The next month, the groups would rotate so they could discuss a different topic with a different leader. Areas of discussion have included dealing with different leadership styles, the role of communication, and conflict management when you’re the only woman in the room.
When COVID hit, Cabral said they pivoted to a remote video lunch and changed the format to having one person lead the discussion and opening it to anyone who wants to join via video. A recent conversation covered how to deal with changes brought on by the pandemic. Because some women wanted to discuss some of the topics in more depth, Cabral said, developing a course was a logical next step.
“These women want to get to know themselves better, to identify what skills they need to focus on and promote their strengths. They were looking for a more structured program to help guide them through that process.”
“These women want to get to know themselves better, to identify what skills they need to focus on and promote their strengths,” she explained. “They were looking for a more structured program to help guide them through that process.”
A few years back, Monica Borgatti attended the Women’s Leadership Luncheons at HCC. As chief operating officer for the Women’s Fund of Western Massachusetts, she especially liked the cohort-style of learning (a collaborative approach in which individuals advance together in an education program) that took place at the events.
“The cohort model works well in this type of learning situation because people start to feel comfortable with each other, and they are more willing to be vulnerable as they share and learn together,” she said.
The luncheon reminded her of a program the Women’s Fund used to run known as the Leadership Institute for Political and Public Impact (LIPPI). While it had some success, Borgatti and her colleagues thought the program suffered from trying to be all things to all women and fell short in that effort. After compiling feedback from women who had gone through LIPPI, the Women’s Fund put the program on hold.
“LIPPI grads gave the program its highest marks in the cohort learning approach,” she recalled. The graduates also cited networking opportunities and making connections as solid benefits from the program.
After wrapping up LIPPI, Borgatti explained, the Women’s Fund’s emphasis shifted from creating and running programs to identifying leadership programs it could adapt for this area, as well as support for existing programs.
“When I learned HCC was developing a more in-depth leadership program, I thought it was worth exploring to see if there might be a partnership opportunity for the Women’s Fund,” she said.
Engaged in Equity
The course is targeted to women in mid-career, especially those who are emerging as leaders in their careers and the community. As part of its partnership, the Women’s Fund is offering sponsorships of up to $650 to defray the $799 tuition cost.
“The Women’s Fund is contributing in such a meaningful way. With their sponsorships, HCC is able to bring this program to people who would not have access otherwise,” Cabral said, adding that many employers do not reimburse the cost of training, so these sponsorships make the course more accessible for women who struggle to pay for self-development.
“HCC provides the education, the Women’s Fund provides the sponsorship, and together, we bring our common mission out to the community,” she noted.
Borgatti said taking part in the course was an easy call because it allows her organization to reach women who are seeking personal and professional development. “We want to see more women in leadership positions across our region, so we’re proud to partner with HCC to help more women become effective leaders.”
While the goals of the Women’s Fund address gender equity and gender justice, Borgatti also made it clear that her organization also strives to improve racial equity and racial justice.
“We know that women are not in leadership roles as much as men, and there are even fewer women of color in leadership positions,” she said, noting that the HCC course is one way to support the current and future leaders of color in the community.
“HCC provides the education, the Women’s Fund provides the sponsorship, and together, we bring our common mission out to the community.”
Borgatti added that her organization became involved to make sure affordability would not prevent anyone from taking the course. “We want to encourage more women of color in programs like this, and we want to make sure it’s financially accessible for all women.”
Cabral noted several highlights of the course, such as assessing communication styles and techniques, as well as working with each woman to develop a professional roadmap to help her reach her potential. Each program participant will also receive 30 minutes of private, one-on-one coaching from Annie Shibata, owner of Growth Mindset Leadership and Communication Coaching in Cincinnati, who will coach each student via video link.
“Incorporating one-on-one coaching elevates the course to a higher level of really personalizing the experience for each individual,” Cabral said.
One of the main reasons the Women’s Fund got involved was to encourage more representation of women in leadership. Borgatti hopes women who take the course emerge more confident in their skills and abilities to step into all sorts of leadership roles.
“We want to see more women CEOs, more women chiefs of police, more women judges,” she said. “Unless we support women being able to access these opportunities, we’re not going to see real change.”
At the end of the day, Cabral said, she and Borgatti share a common mission: to elevate the skills of women who are willing to put in the work. “We want to make sure those skills are here in Western Mass., and they stay in Western Mass.”