New executive education programme to put women in boardrooms

SOURCE: Shutterstock
Only 5 percent of CEOs in the S&P 500 are women.

By U2B Staff 

Read all stories

Despite all the rah-rah surrounding the importance of gender equity in the workplace, there remains a statistical imbalance of men and women in corporate boardrooms.

Recent studies have shown that while women make up 48 percent of entry-level professionals, they represent only 5 percent of CEOs in the S&P 500, 23 percent of C-suite executives, 29 percent of vice-presidents and 21 percent of board seats.

What’s holding them back? According to research, there are many institutional barriers that block women’s progress within their organisations, including lack of executive sponsorship and lack of direct, immediate feedback, in addition to plain old discriminatory practices.


To try and even out the score a little, USC Marshall School of Business has partnered with global professional services organisation BTS USA, Inc, on a new one-of-a-kind executive education programme created just to accelerate women to the executive level.

The Accelerating Women Executives (AWE) programme is a six-month development experience for high-potential women leaders that pairs USC Marshall’s exceptional research faculty with BTS’ expertise in experiential approaches to executive learning.

“AWE expands our offerings to serve an essential growth segment in executive education,” Tim Blakesly, Assistant Dean of Executive Education for USC Marshall, said in describing the programme.

“The combination of Marshall faculty and research, our location in a vibrant city, and BTS’ program insights make for a powerful combination to help bolster women leaders.”

A winning factor of the AWE executive education programme is that it is compact and effective, incorporating what Blakesly says is “every development strategy that has been proven to accelerate learning and growth” into a six-month experience.


According to a press release, there are five critical elements to the AWE:

  • Unique assessments, providing pre- and post-program evaluation examining critical executive behaviors and mindsets;
  • High-impact workshops, allowing participants to practice leading global multibillion-dollar companies while facing realistic challenges in a simulated, risk-free environment;
  • Executive coaching, providing support and learning reinforcement before, during, and after workshops;
  • Executive sponsorship, equipping the leaders who support high-potential women with the skills necessary to support success and addressing one of the major hindrances to women advancing in business;
  • A rich network of peers, connecting executive women across industries.

BTS USA President and CEO Jessica Parisi said the programme was designed to move the needle on current statistics, which she described as “appalling”. 

Previous efforts, she pointed out, have clearly done very little to change the status quo. Earlier this year, a study by the Alliance for Board Diversity said despite some progress in the US the past two years, “advancement is still slow”. 

The study noted that women and minorities collectively occupied just 38.6 percent of board seats at Fortune 100 companies last year, compared with 35.9 percent in 2016. At Fortune 500 firms, the figure climbed to 34 percent in 2018, from 30.8 percent two years prior, but still fell short of the alliance’s 40 percent diversity target.


BTS, however, has made it a business imperative to redefine the leadership marketplace with strategic and innovative solutions like the AWE programme.

According to BTS Senior Director and founder of the AWE executive education programme Anne Wilson, initial testing with clients confirmed earlier research that executive sponsorship was a critical component to accelerating women to the C-suite. 

“Our clients loved the ‘two for one’ nature of this programme – sponsors get educated on the barriers and unconscious biases impacting their high-potential women and learn how to sponsor effectively, while women receive the development and sponsorship they need to attain the stretch assignments critical to advancement,” she explained.

In one fell swoop, the AWE programme addresses both individual and organisational barriers to gender parity, she added.

The programme is also loaded with opportunities for specific feedback, which is necessary to accelerate a participant’s progress.

“We know feedback is critical to performance success, because it clarifies what organisations value and how a leader in that organization is perceived,” said Susan Burnett, former Deloitte Chief Learning Officer and talent executive at HP, Gap Inc. and Yahoo! 

“So, we designed 360⁰ feedback, sponsorship, coaching, and peer feedback opportunities into the six-month experience, as well as ways for women to ask for feedback effectively. 

“We were relentless in designing an experience that is both individual and collective, blowing up the ‘sage on stage’ tradition of executive education and focusing on the individual who works in a distinctive organisational context, brings a wealth of experience and has unique development needs.