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Friday, August 31, 2007

Women's Leadership A Hot Topic

In June I was privileged to attend and to speak at the Third Rolls-Royce Women's Leadership Conference in Montreal. A global conference for women role models, the event was an incredible experience, and one of the most creative conferences I've ever attended. Business and leadership topics and speakers, yes, but also performance poetry, drumming, and art rounded out the two-day program.

Rolls-Royce is one of a number of forward-thinking companies that have decided not to short-circuit their leadership pools by grooming only people with Y chromosomes. The company has launched a leadership network for female employees in the UK and plans to support similar networks in other countries as part of its diversity policy.

The conference got started more straightforwardly than you can imagine. Here's what I heard—two years ago, a group of women at the corporate offices in Chantilly, Virginia, suggested the program and were given free rein. As attendees tell it, each successive conference has gotten not only bigger but better.

It's inspiring to see established companies change their culture (contrary to what you may think, RR is not in the luxury automobile business—that part of the business was sold in the 1970s—but in the civil aerospace, defense aerospace, marine, and energy industries, and therefore heavily staffed by engineers with Y chromosomes). I know it hasn't been an easy transition; the women's stories at the conference attest to that.

But change is happening, and from what I heard, it's being genuinely supported by top management. That's good news, especially in view of a new report from Catalyst that cited double-bind dilemmas for women leaders in corporate America.

Despite the "damned or doomed" tenor of the information presented in the Catalyst report, it seems that leadership in all its guises, including mentoring, is enjoying a new groundswell of support. Maybe we're waking up again, maybe we're just seeing things with fresh eyes.

But I'll write more on that, as it pertains to mentoring, next month.

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