UK: EQUAL OPPORTUNITY TO LEARN. - Views are mixed on the merits of women-only training.

Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

Views are mixed on the merits of women-only training.

Should the training of men and women be segregated? The very idea sounds politically incorrect to a degree - enough to induce cries of outrage from any self-respecting feminist. Nevertheless, women-only courses are by no means a rarity and some say they should be attracting a greater proportion of companies' training budgets.

Jo Gardiner of The Industrial Society sets out the opposing points of view. 'One argument is that while women managers are a minority, and face difficult issues on a day-to-day basis, they can really benefit from a safe environment in which to learn, one which is run by women who understand their peculiar problems - for example, isolation, lack of a support network, or the availability of a mentor. On the other hand it can be argued that, since most organisations are focused on men and women working together, a women-only event does not reflect the reality of the workplace.' On the whole the Industrial Society favours mixed training if a course is skills-based. 'Frankly, if you are on a word processing course, it doesn't matter who is sitting next to you.' However if the course is about managing, or personal or career development, then single-sex training could be more appropriate. 'It should depend on the circumstances of the woman,' Gardiner believes. 'If she feels comfortable with day-to-day working issues, and the organisation has a balanced approach and a positive equal opportunities policy, then it may simply not arise as an issue.' British Airways makes no provision for women-only training. 'We are an active member of Opportunity 2000, and are actively recruiting women into non-traditional roles such as engineers and pilots, but we don't run gender-specific training at any level,' explains equal opportunities manager Linda Moir. BA regards such training as counter-productive. 'We have completely reviewed our recruitment and training procedures to ensure they are encouraging for women rather than putting barriers in their way,' says Moir.

Others have found women-only courses positively beneficial. 'I found the atmosphere particularly open and supportive,' says Helena Brown of change management, coaching and HR consultants Charles Brown. 'I believe that I learned faster and in more depth than in a mixed learning environment.' Former NHS IT manager Sheila Ross-Hamilton, who now runs women-only development workshops, feels that single-sex training helps women to progress faster. 'In mixed groups women sometimes prefer to take a back seat and let men take over. Therefore they don't have an equal opportunity to learn. Women-only may go against the current grain, but if it can prove more effective, who cares about political correctness?' Women-only courses make women managers feel less isolated, argues Dr Donna Lucas, lecturer in organisational behaviour at Cranfield School of Management. Women managers are still hugely outnumbered in business, particularly in senior positions, she points out. Cranfield organises women-only courses for organisations including British Telecom and the NHS. 'Women do not face different managerial problems to men but they do face different issues which concern organisational structure, personal and career development, and the lack of female role models in senior positions,' says Lucas. 'Women also find it easier to accept feedback from other women concerning their managerial style.' Demographic shifts could soon push companies to review their training policies, says Dr Susan Vinnicombe, co-author of The Essence of Women in Management. Research suggests that in the years up to 2025 a very large number of new entrants to the labour market will be female. 'Women will recognise their value as scarce resources and will look to companies with proven track records of managing women ... Those companies whose boards and senior management teams mirror a real commitment to women will have a competitive advantage.' Women-only training could suggest just the right sort of commitment.

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