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Women learn better in single-sex groups

Women adopt different learning strategies away from men.

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One of the world’s top business schools, the IMD in Lausanne, has decided to organise a course restricted to women participants – with encouraging results.

The IMD says that companies with women in managerial posts achieve better financial results – a good reason for assisting them in their careers.

The IMD (International Institute for Management Development) in Lausanne cannot claim to have large numbers of women attending its courses.

The situation at the school merely reflects the general state of the business world: women managers are still a rarity, particularly in senior positions.

The IMD believes this state of affairs is detrimental not only to women, but to the economy.

The business school is proposing to improve the career prospects of women by running a course exclusively for them.

The idea was first mooted by Martha Maznewski, a Canadian professor who teaches in the United States and at the IMD.

swissinfo: For years, the emphasis has been on gender equality. With your women-only course, you are introducing a paradigm change and emphasising differences. Why?

Martha Maznewski: In the world today, men and women are recognised as having equivalent value, but for different purposes.

In business, only 20 per cent of managerial positions are occupied by women. At the senior management level, the figure is a mere five per cent. If in the business environment men and women were really considered as being equal, the proportions would be nearer to 50-50.

These figures have not altered for 20 years, despite the changing face of society. We thought it was time to do something about it.

swissinfo: What are the differences between men and women that justify your decision to offer women-only courses?

M.M.: In business, there are two major – scientifically proven – differences. The first is that men think in a linear way; they go straight for the goal. Women have a “parallel” way of thinking; they can handle several issues at the same time.

The second is to do with the way people interpret relationships. Men prefer to think in terms of hierarchy, while women are more likely to think in terms of community.

One approach is not necessarily better than the other. If you consider companies and their needs, it is clear that both are necessary.

swissinfo: The content of the course is not substantially different to that of the programmes you run for mixed groups. What is different when a class consists solely of women?

M.M.: The group dynamic is different. When women form a minority in a group of men, they adopt different learning strategies.

The fact that they are a minority gives rise to a phenomenon called “tokenism”. A woman student feels as if she is representing all other women. Consequently, she is much more fearful of expressing her feelings or appearing stupid.

The majority – men in this case – are more conscious of her weaknesses than her strengths. This is because the majority does not perceive a person as an individual, but as a representative of the entire minority group, and expectations of a group are much higher.

At the IMD, we observed that when women arrive and find themselves in a minority they dare not ask the questions they would like to ask. Nor do they behave as they would normally behave as individuals. But if we put them in a group of women, they no longer need to behave as if they were representing all women; they can be individuals again.

swissinfo: Was it difficult to persuade business organisations to enrol their managers in this course?

M.M.: Not at all. But it was much harder to persuade women. They felt they were being told there was something wrong with them, that they needed correcting and putting on the right track.

Senior managers have understood that businesses thrive on diversity and that structures based on “masculine” norms and models need to adapt. Moreover, a survey has shown that businesses with women in senior management positions achieve better financial results.

But at the level immediately below, there is still some resistance. Middle-ranking managers do not want to change the way things are organised. Their attitude is: “The present structure has produced good results. Why change it?”

swissinfo: The IMD has now run its first women-only course. What sort of results have you achieved?

M.M.: Outstanding. There was an incredible sense of energy in the classroom. On the final day, the participants said they had never been in a room where there was such diversity. The course has changed the way they see themselves as managers. They were able to see themselves as strong individuals.

Usually, when a course is over, people go home, exchange a few e-mails and that’s it. With this group, it has been different. Three months down the line, they are still in close contact. They exchange messages saying how they have used what they learned on the course to achieve good results for themselves and their companies.

The programme began only last autumn, so it is too soon to say what influence it has had on the workings of major companies. Feedback is just beginning to come in. But the fact that companies such as Nestlé, Philip Morris, Zurich, Swisscom and Japan Tobacco International have sent women on this course is an indication of real interest in this kind of initiative.

swissinfo-interview: Doris Lucini

Key facts

Only 20 per cent of business executives are women.
Women occupy just five per cent of senior management posts.
A study has shown that the companies with the highest number of women in executive positions are up to 35 per cent more efficient financially than companies with few women managers.
In October 2004, 39 managers took part in the first course organised by the IMD exclusively for women.

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In brief

The IMD (International Institute for Management Development) in Lausanne is the result of the merger, in 1990, of schools founded by Alcan and Nestlé in the post-war years. The institution is active in three areas: teaching, research and business consultancy.

It is one of the world’s most highly rated business schools. The Financial Times has ranked it first in Europe and fourth in the world.

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