By Melissa J. Anderson

According to new research by Catalyst, companies are putting women high performers through leadership development training earlier and longer than men – yet men are still reaping more rewards from these kinds of programs.

This suggests, the organization believes, that companies should be more strategic around the types of projects people are assigned after they complete these programs – otherwise, companies are missing out on a highly trained and capable segment of their workforce.

“Offering critical assignments to high-potential women as part of an intentional strategy can help break through the logjam that blocks advancement for talented women,” said Ilene H. Lang, President & Chief Executive Officer at Catalyst.

By creating more transparency and accountability around who gets big projects following leadership development training, companies can ensure they retain the best and brightest workers throughout their leadership pipeline.

Leadership Development

According to the longitudinal study of 1,660 MBAs, the most important factor in advancing toward leadership is the kind of hands-on experience individuals get during their career. Specifically, the respondents identified three factors that contribute to the leadership experience that gets people promoted: working on highly visible projects, holding “mission critical” roles, and getting international assignments.

Yet, the study showed, more men than women were accessing these opportunities. For example, within a few years of graduating, male MBAs were working on projects with more than twice the budget of women’s projects, leading teams with more than three times the employees of women’s teams, getting more C-suite visibility than women, and working on riskier projects than women.

They were engaged in more profit and loss work (56 percent of men compared to 46 percent of women). Men were also more likely than women at this stage to have a budget greater than $10 million. And, even in the group of people who said they were willing or very willing to work internationally, more men were getting international experience (35 percent compared to 26 percent).

The study showed that leadership development training was not the cause of the disparity. In fact, women were more likely to have completed these kinds of programs earlier and for longer durations.

Yet, 18 months after completing a program, they were still less likely to work internationally (14 percent of women compared to 23 percent of men), get a P&L job (7 percent of women compared to 13 percent of men), or see their budget increase by 20 percent or more (15 percent of women compared to 22 percent of men). Men were also more likely to get a promotion within a year of completing a program (51 percent of men compared to 37 percent of women).

Strategic Metrics

“Channeling women into development opportunities without a specific advancement goal in mind suggests imperfect execution,” the report says. It continues:

“If talent management metrics don’t dig beneath the surface—for example going beyond a simple count of projects to consider the size and scope of projects or considering the timing and duration of participation in formal development programs—organizations risk missing a crucial piece of the puzzle when trying to determine why women continue to be underrepresented in leadership roles.”

Catalyst believes that companies can help eliminate the imbalance by being more strategic and methodical regarding the kinds of promotions and projects that should result from leadership development training.

The report suggests that companies should consider the goals of each leadership development course and see whether the course is meeting those goals. They should also track the progress of individuals once they have completed a course, and implement accountability metrics around leadership development, to ensure the courses are working and individuals are benefiting from them. The study explains:

“Organizations need to be strategic in their planning and vigilant to ensure that development activities are being effectively leveraged if the ultimate goal is advancement following an employee’s development. To do that, opportunities afforded to high-potential women must be comparable in size, scope, and relative importance to the organization as those afforded men.”

By ensuring leadership development programs are connected to the hands-on experiences that propel careers forward (visible projects, mission critical roles, and international experience) companies will better retain high performing women who are eager to lead.