Women in agriculture - leadership programme development: research

This report outlines the main findings of research conducted to inform the development of a leadership programme for women in agriculture, which will be funded by Scottish Government through the Women in Agriculture Development Programme.

3. Evidence review findings

The evidence review identified a number of key findings, including:

1. Women have different experiences to men at work, and this has an impact on their career progression, ideas of success and leadership style.

2. When they reach leadership positions, women face a range of challenges including a lack of confidence, concerns around their suitability and resistance within organisations, particularly in male-dominated contexts.

3. A range of studies point to the need for tailored women's leadership development programmes to allow women to share their experiences and develop their own approach to leadership.

This chapter starts with a summary of the main findings of the evidence review, then sets out the wider context of women's leadership programmes, and presents key findings from the literature on the topics of leadership theory and women in leadership; current programmes and best practice; the role of organisations; and the evaluation of leadership courses.

Annex 2 contains a case-study summary of examples of women's leadership programmes from agriculture and other sectors in the UK and elsewhere, with reference to their design and outcomes.

3.1 Main findings

The main findings of the evidence review are as follows:

  • Women and men in various sectors have different experiences in the workplace, and this has an impact on women's career progression and approach to leadership, which in turn has implications for the development of women's leadership programmes.
  • Leadership has traditionally been equated with 'masculine' behaviours and practices, and women can face a number of challenges when they reach leadership roles. Their approaches to leadership will be shaped by multiple aspects of their identity.
  • A range of studies point to the need for tailored women's leadership development programmes, as traditional programmes have failed to meet the distinct needs of women.
  • Research has found that women who are given opportunities to connect with other women and gain leadership knowledge are more likely to aspire for leadership roles.
  • Women-only leadership programmes have a range of benefits, including providing a safe environment for openness, self-reflection and learning.
  • Participants on women's leadership programmes should be given the opportunity to construct a leadership identity and practise using new skills.
  • Leadership programmes should take participants' diverse needs and perspectives into account, including different identity categories such as class, race or disability, alongside specific challenges that women face in particular organisations or sectors.
  • Research highlights the importance of providing participants with diverse role models of women in leadership, and giving them opportunities to hear other women speak about their careers.
  • Women's leadership programmes should teach both practical skills and leadership theory, and lead to tangible outputs, such as mentoring relationships and networks.
  • Women's leadership development programmes often use collaborative learning practices, and can be structured in different ways.
  • Widely used techniques within women's leadership programmes include mentoring, self-assessment tools, peer-to-peer feedback, role models and speakers, action learning, networking, career planning exercises and leadership plans.
  • Wider literature highlights the role that organisations can play in ensuring that women's leadership development programmes are successful and sustainable in the long-term, and the need for wider systematic change in addition to targeted programmes.

3.2 Women in leadership

Women and men have different experiences at work, and this has an impact on women's career progression, ideas of success and leadership styles. Leadership is also shaped by intersections of gender, race, class and other identity categories. This has implications for the development of women's leadership programmes.

Women's career development

Research indicates that women and men have different experiences in the workplace, and that despite progress, in many sectors there is still a gender gap at more senior levels (Sealy and Vinnicombe, 2013). Whilst changes within organisations, alongside developments such as equal opportunities legislation, have benefited women, the number of women in senior roles in the UK remains relatively small (Priola and Brannan, 2009). This suggests that barriers to women's advancement are more complex than direct forms of discrimination (Sturm, 2001).

As O'Neil et al. (2008) state, organisations, particularly male-dominated ones, are 'gendered': they reflect environments where women's performance and success are evaluated differently from men's. In addition, organisational structures and practices can reflect men's lives and behaviours (Debebe, 2011; Ely et al., 2011).

For example, women's career progression is impacted by workplace practices such as competitive environments, long hours, a lack of training, mentoring and career guidance, and a perceived lack of commitment to their careers (Priola and Brannan, 2009). As Priola and Brannan (2009) found in their study of women managers in the UK, frustrations experienced by women lead some to leave their organisations and change careers, or become self-employed.

Those developing women's leadership programmes should take this context into account (Hopkins et al., 2008), as differences at work impact women's career and leadership development, for example:

  • Men are more likely to have 'linear careers', whilst women's are not as linear, and can be 'in any stage at any time' (Vinnicombe and Singh, 2003).
  • Women's careers are constructed through a 'balance between private and professional roles', resulting in diverse career trajectories (O'Neil and Bilimoria, 2008).
  • Women are more likely to experience competing priorities for their time and attention across life and career stages than men (Hopkins et al., 2008).
  • Women report receiving less support at work, and having limited access to networks (Vinnicombe and Singh, 2003; Athanasopoulou et al., 2017).

Women therefore develop different ways of learning and ideas of success, for example valuing personal achievements and self-development instead of material measures of success such as high salaries (Hopkins et al., 2008; Vinnicombe and Singh, 2003). They may also approach their leadership style differently, placing more emphasis on emotional or interpersonal aspects than material measures of achievement (Vinnicombe and Singh, 2003; Ruderman and Ohlott, 2005).

Women and men in leadership

Leadership is still often equated with 'masculine' behaviours and practices, such as assertiveness and competitiveness (Priola and Brannan, 2009; Ely et al., 2011). Research shows that assessments of leadership have reflected gender stereotypes (Hopkins et al., 2008), with male leaders tending to be seen as more effective than women leaders, particularly in male-dominated settings (Priola and Brannan, 2009).

More recently, stereotypically white, male and privileged representations of leadership have been contested, taking into account the diverse perspectives of women and those from ethnic minority backgrounds (Kezar and Lester, 2010; Showunmi et al., 2016). For example, a range of studies point to differences between men and women's leadership approaches, from language and communication to how they are viewed by others (Vinnicombe and Singh, 2003; Brue and Brue, 2016). There has also been a more recent shift from analysing gendered differences to an emphasis on gender and other categories as social constructions that shape organisations (Priola and Brannan, 2009).

Women's leadership styles

Leadership can be viewed as 'a process of influence' (Cleveland and Cleveland, 2018) and in their review of leadership research, Kezar and Lester (2010) found that women's leadership tends to be associated with a more participatory, relational, and interpersonal style (see Textbox 1), and with types of power that emphasise reciprocity. They argue that many women in leadership conceptualise it as 'collective' rather than individualistic, and aim to empower others within the organisation, moving away from hierarchical relationships. In summary:

  • Women have diverse leadership styles, which benefits organisations. For example, relational and collaborative strategies are widely used by women leaders (Berry and Franks, 2010; Boatwright and Egidio, 2003).
  • Women are considered more likely to use communication in stressful situations, respond quicker to positive feedback, work collaboratively, and initiate personal and group improvements (Ruderman and Ohlott, 2005).
  • In one study, women framed leadership in terms of the 'development and support of others' rather than 'decision-making' (Priola and Brannan, 2009).
  • Research suggests that more collective and relational organisational models enable both men and women to succeed (Vinnicombe and Singh, 2003).
  • Women can contribute to a new type of leadership focusing on 'emotional intelligence, inclusiveness, and connectedness' (Hopkins et al., 2008).

However, when in the minority, research suggests that women leaders often put their values and preferences aside to behave like their male peers, drawing on masculine leadership practices (Vinnicombe and Singh, 2003). As Priola and Brannan (2009) argue, this points to a lack of alternative models of management and leadership. Further, Kezar and Lester (2010) argue that we should move away from 'static' or essentialist understandings of women's leadership, and toward more 'pluralistic' representations, whilst acknowledging women's shared experiences. In line with this, Showunmi et al. (2016) advocate a move toward more inclusive theories of leadership that acknowledge a diversity of approaches and views.

Collaborative and relational leadership

Women have been found to adopt more relational and collaborative leadership styles (Hopkins et al., 2008). This type of leadership is non-hierarchical and moves away from a directed approach to a more 'collaborative and team-based approach' that focuses on communication, openness, and a diversity of viewpoints (Kezar and Lester, 2010). As Kramer and Crespy (2011) outline, collaborative leadership, which has been linked to increased productivity and effectiveness, frames leadership as a 'shared process' in which employees collaborate in decision making. Leaders ask questions, listen to feedback and encourage innovation (ibid).

Collaborative leadership

A collaborative leadership approach has become prevalent in the literature, with a move away from 'top-down' approaches, and an emphasis on the agency that people can have in shaping their work places (Kezar and Lester, 2010). However in reality, 'vertical and collaborative leadership are frequently combined' (Kramer and Crespy, 2011). Collaborative leadership: motivates group members to take action and make decisions through collective problem solving (Kramer and Crespy, 2011); creates a setting in which team members feel safe to be creative, collaborate, and take collective responsibility for achieving outcomes (ibid); is effective because it draws on the diverse expertise of team members and can address leadership weaknesses (Friedrich et al., 2006; Kramer, 2006).

Relational leadership

Relational views of leadership expand the focus beyond individuals' knowledge, skills, and abilities to include the networks of social relationships that shape leadership development (Cullen-Lester et al., 2017). This type of leadership emphasises 'relationships between individuals': relational leaders aim to guide, support and create meaningful dialogue, whilst focusing largely on 'employees and their development' (Cleveland and Cleveland, 2020; Cunliffe and Eriksen, 2011).

Other related theories of leadership include: distributed leadership, which positions leadership across, rather than at the top of the organisation and transformational leadership, which emphasises vision and direction (Showunmi et al. 2016).

Women's motivation

As Priola and Brannan (2009) found in their study, women's determination to succeed is key to their career progression, despite any obstacles they face. They are motivated by a determination to 'achieve a position of leadership, status and influence'. Further, many women leaders may aspire to leadership in order to make organisations more 'relational' and 'inclusive', and to prove that there are different ways to manage (Priola and Brannan 2009, referencing Whitehead 2001).

Intersectional approaches to leadership

Recent studies outline how a range of factors can affect leadership, including class, gender and race. As Kezar and Lester (2010) discuss, 'leadership beliefs are shaped by identity, context, and power', and this affects how people understand leadership and how 'they act as leaders.' They argue that a focus on just one aspect of a person's identity leads to only a partial understanding of leadership: identities are complex and fluid, shaped by intersections of gender, race, class, sexual orientation and religion.

Kezar and Lester take an intersectional approach, exploring how different identity categories shape individual perspectives on leadership (ibid). Their work builds on positionality theory and extends the focus from identity markers such as gender to consider a range of factors, from social class to family circumstances, professional status or educational level, and how these impact leadership style. Further, as particular aspects may be more important at specific times, people's leadership beliefs can also change over time (Fassinger et al. 2010).

As Kezar and Lester argue, leadership is shaped by many aspects of a person's life, including their experiences at home, at work and in their community. Those planning leadership programmes should consider participants' local context, the shared rituals and meanings of organisations and communities (ibid). As Ospina and Foldy (2009) argue in their review of race, ethnicity and leadership, without addressing context it is 'more difficult to offer practical guidelines' for leadership.

Cleveland and Cleveland (2020) have also drawn on positionality theory to argue that organisations should encourage culturally agile leadership. Culturally agile leaders, they suggest, are more open to promoting inclusive hiring practices and diversity. This can be achieved through a relational leadership approach (see Textbox 1) and by going beyond traditional leadership competencies to focus on 'networks and relationships'. In being self-aware and recognising their own biases, culturally agile leaders are better able to promote inclusion and diversity (ibid).

Similarly, Ospina and Foldy (2009) suggest that a move 'toward less bureaucratic, more loosely associated' organisational structures reinforces the need for employers to both value difference and articulate a 'common purpose' amongst their diverse workforce.

Challenges faced by women in leadership

Wider literature points to the challenges faced by women in leadership:

  • When women reach leadership roles, they have to deal with conflicting expectations, concerns around their suitability, and organisational resistance to their leadership, particularly in male-dominated contexts (Debebe, 2011).
  • Studies highlight a lack of confidence and 'impostor syndrome' in women leaders, who underestimate their skills (Vinnicombe and Singh, 2003; Debebe, 2011).
  • As women leaders are less common, they are more visible and subject to greater scrutiny, and so can become risk-averse (Ely et al., 2011).
  • Women are less likely to seek feedback on their leadership from colleagues (Hopkins et al., 2008) and when taking on senior roles, can opt to behave in a more 'gender-neutral' way (Priola and Brannan 2009; Ely et al., 2011).

These issues, including a lack of representation at senior levels and wider confidence in their leadership, are exacerbated for specific groups including black and minority ethnic women, disabled women, those from working class or low socio-economic backgrounds and lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) women (see Ospina and Foldy 2009; Priola and Brannan, 2009; Ely et al. 2011).

As Showunmi et al. (2016) outline in their study of black, Asian and white women in leadership roles in the UK, gender, ethnicity, religion and class shape majority and minority ethnic women's 'leadership constructions, self-definitions and enactment'. For example, minority ethnic women in the study were more comfortable discussing how their socio-cultural identities informed their definitions of leadership and were more likely to emphasise relational behaviours. The categories of ethnicity and religion were more prevalent in their discussions of enacting leadership, whilst gender and class were more prevalent for white women. Further, minority ethnic women in the study tended to describe social or structural rather than personal or psychological barriers to enacting their leadership identities, and several referred to instances of others questioning minority ethnic women's leadership capacity based on stereotypical assumptions (Showunmi et al., 2016).

The 2021 report Navigating the labyrinth: Socio-economic background and career progression within the Civil Service by The Social Mobility Commission reported that only 18% of senior civil servants are from working-class or low socio-economic backgrounds, and that people from this background face a 'progression gap' due to barriers including 'unwritten rules' and behavioural codes. Intersections between race, gender, class and sexuality lead to multiple forms of discrimination, but there is a lack of research into its impact on leadership (Ospina and Foldy 2009; Fassinger et al., 2010). For example as Fassinger et al. (2010) state, people who identify as LGBT face specific challenges at work, including stigma, marginalisation and identity disclosure.

The need for women's leadership programmes

A range of research points to the need for women's leadership programmes, as traditional leadership development programmes have failed to meet the distinctive needs of women (Brue and Brue, 2016; Ely et al., 2011; Hopkins et al., 2008; Priola and Brannan 2009). Societal and organisational gender norms can shape training settings, and women may not be able to learn or form relationships in mixed settings (Debebe, 2011). In line with this, research commissioned by the Scottish Government found that women in agriculture often viewed training programmes as being for men, and felt unwelcome or conspicuous (Shortall et al., 2017).

Research has found that women who are given opportunities to connect with other women, gain leadership knowledge and self-esteem are more likely to aspire for leadership opportunities (Boatwright and Egidio, 2003). As these programmes place women in a 'majority position', they can 'provoke powerful insights', and go beyond a focus on traditionally male leadership behaviours (Ely et al., 2011).

Specific initiatives can also be designed in response to the barriers and challenges that certain groups face, to change organisational cultures and build leadership capacity amongst under-represented groups, including employees who are disabled, who identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender, those from black and ethnic minority groups, and those low socio-economic backgrounds. Examples of this type of activity include mentoring schemes, webinars and the promotion of positive role models (Fassinger et al. 2010; Duncan et al. 2015).

Critiques of women's leadership programmes

Wider literature highlights several critiques of women's leadership programmes, including their limitations in terms of women-only networks and short time-frames:

  • Shortall et al. (2017) have highlighted issues with women-only training and rural organisations, which can reinforce gendered forms of separation.
  • As Ely et al. (2011) state, women-only programmes may prevent women from being able to add male peers to their networks for advice and collaboration.
  • In several studies, women showed resistance to taking part, or toward the idea of a separate programme; however, they changed their minds following the course (Debebe, 2011; Vinnicombe and Singh, 2003).
  • Ely et al. (2011) suggest that the demand for women's leadership programmes has 'outstripped the pace of research', and practitioners lack a coherent, theoretically based, and useful framework for delivering these programmes.
  • Debebe (2007) has highlighted the limits of formal training, and the fact that strengthening women's leadership capacity alone may not be sufficient, as training programmes cannot address external factors such as recruitment practices or the structure and culture of organisations.
  • Debebe (2011) also suggests that the short time-frame of courses can make it difficult to build relationships and a supportive environment and highlights the challenge of leaving a supportive environment to return to an 'unreceptive' workplace, which can limit the positive impact of the training.

3.3 Women's leadership programmes

Research shows that women's leadership programmes can have a range of benefits, including providing a safe environment for women to learn from each other, build on their skills, and construct a leadership identity. Wider literature outlines a range of benefits of women's leadership programmes, including providing a safe environment for self-reflection and learning:

  • Women-only training programmes enable women to recognise their leadership ambitions and strengths, and clarify their feelings about themselves in relation to their different work and personal roles (Vinnicombe and Singh, 2003).
  • They enhance leadership development through a gender distinctive framework involving personal assessment, formal training, feedback, experiential learning, coaching, mentorship and networks (Debebe, 2011; Hopkins et al., 2008).
  • They offer participants a sense of acceptance and belonging, in a space where they can learn from and affirm each other's experiences and are freed from having to navigate gender (Debebe, 2011; Ely et al., 2011).
  • Participants can express themselves openly, share gender-related concerns, form relationships, learn strategies for success and how to be more proactive in managing their careers (Vinnicombe and Singh, 2003) whilst developing and mapping their leadership philosophy (Brue and Brue, 2016).

Constructing a leadership identity

Ely et al. (2011) argue that the construction of a leadership identity is central to the process of becoming a leader. However, women's ability to do this is affected by a lack of role models, and gender bias within organisations. Leadership programmes should:

  • Explore how gender dynamics affect identity development in work settings;
  • Assist women in internalising a leadership identity and purpose that is in line with their values, and communicating this to others;
  • Offer women the recognition they need to strengthen their leadership identity, which in turn encourages growth and a search for new opportunities;
  • Include sessions on networking, negotiations and career transitions.

For example on one undergraduate leadership course, students were asked to identify and clarify their values and beliefs, consider the impact of these on their day-to-day lives, and develop their own leadership principles (Eriksen, 2009). The course was designed around the principles of reflexivity and self-awareness, skills seen as key to becoming an effective and authentic leader. It aimed to teach leadership theory through a focus on participants' own narratives and daily lives (ibid). Elsewhere, Kezar and Lester (2010) argue that 'in-depth narratives' are key to understanding the complexity of different aspects of an individual's identity.

Designing women's leadership programmes

Women's leadership programmes should have a personal impact on participants, teach practical skills and lead to tangible outputs, such as mentoring relationships and networks. A key focus within literature on women's development programmes is on collaborative learning or 'relational practice' (Debebe, 2011).

Leadership development is an ongoing process. It involves changing behaviour, risks, mistakes, and continual learning (Debebe, 2011). Facilitators should consider participants' expectations, learning and development needs, and show an understanding of the issues women face in particular organisations or industries (Hopkins et al., 2008; Ely et al., 2011). Programmes should:

  • Take a comprehensive approach, covering both tools and resources, and addressing leadership thinking, feeling, and acting, enabling women to see leadership as not just a role but a mind-set (Brue and Brue, 2016);
  • Enable participants to learn from others' experiences in a safe environment where they can ask questions (Debebe, 2011);
  • Help women to establish leadership networks and mentoring connections (Brue and Brue, 2016);
  • Incorporate a variety of assessments, challenges, and support (McCauley and Van Velsor, 2004);
  • Enable women to develop a broad repertoire of leadership behaviours and styles, for example, instrumental and relational (Hopkins et al., 2008);
  • Take a holistic approach to leadership development for women by using work-life integration and career-phase-specific insights (Hopkins et al., 2008).

Who should take part

Women's leadership programmes can be aimed at both those already in leadership roles, who want to improve their skills and be more effective, or those who are interested in gaining leadership roles (Case Study 9). Recruiting participants at similar life-stages means they can more easily form connections, offer feedback and comparison (Ely et al., 2011). Adequate time should be set aside for identifying participants: they may not always be the most vocal ones, or see themselves as leaders even though they are practicing aspects of leadership. For example, participants can be interviewed in order to assess their suitability.

Teaching practices

Relational, interactive and collaborative teaching practices have been found to enhance women's leadership learning (Vinnicombe and Singh, 2003; Debebe, 2011). For example, Brue and Brue (2016) recommend learning activities such as behavioural modelling and action learning techniques, whilst Debebe (2011) argues that a focus on self-awareness can foster women's leadership growth. Similarly, Le Feuvre (2009) argues that leadership development activities should enable individuals to 'understand themselves', their values, strengths, and motivations, and the context they work in so that they can focus on the specific issues they face.

Teachers on women's leadership programmes should be knowledgeable about gender bias and related issues, and comfortable with difficult discussions, for example on organisational politics (Vinnicombe and Singh, 2003; Ely et al., 2011). As Debebe (2011) explains, participants should think about what would or would not work within their organisations: whilst practising new leadership skills during training can be helpful, this context does not reflect the 'complexity' of real life.

The meaning of leadership

Ely et al. (2011) argue that sessions on the meaning, values and purpose of leadership are particularly helpful for women, and that programmes should:

  • Situate topics and tools within an analysis of gender bias, providing women with a framework for understanding how this manifests in organisations.
  • Create a safe space for learning, peer support and identity work, helping participants to find a sense of agency and purpose in their leadership journey, and to construct narratives about who they are and wish to become.
  • Help participants to articulate their leadership purpose, and remind them of wider shared goals when faced with challenges.

As outlined above, Eriksen (2009) argues that leadership principles should be developed in relation to participants' lived experience. Similarly, Debebe (2011) suggests that theoretical content on women's leadership courses should be reinterpreted through the lens of their actual gendered experiences, to make it meaningful and useful. Drawing on her study of a women-only training programme in the US, Debebe argues that learning is more likely to take place in a safe and affirming environment, and to achieve this, two things are key: women-only cohorts and gender-sensitive teaching and learning practices. Women's leadership programmes should aim to be open, supportive and challenging (ibid), in order to encourage recognition of shared experiences, habits or patterns of behaviour; sharing and openness without fear of rejection; a sense of belonging and acceptance; and discussion of gender-related concerns.

Those running the programme should create a space where women feel acceptance, belonging and respect, and can explore new ideas and skills in both a challenging and supportive environment. The teaching methods, learning content and values should all 'affirm and reflect women's experiences and values' (Debebe, 2011). Women should be encouraged to discuss issues relevant to their own situation, for example achieving a work-life balance, and course leaders should give attention to exploring how the gendered structures of organisations affect women's work experience and leadership (Hopkins et al., 2008; Debebe 2011).

3.4 Leadership programmes and current practice

Key learning techniques used within women's leadership programmes include leadership knowledge and skills development, mentoring, speakers and role models, feedback, networking and career exercises.

Leadership role models

Participants of women's leadership programmes have emphasised the value of role models, which allow them to 'normalise' and value women's leadership styles and approaches (Brue and Brue, 2016). In line with this:

  • Ely et al. (2011) recommend using case studies of women leaders, to expose participants to a range of effective leadership styles, and enable them to recognise their own stereotypes about women leaders.
  • The positive promotion of a diverse range of role models, in terms of gender, race, class, disability and sexuality is important in terms of representation, and countering stereotypes (Atewologun et al., 2015; Duncan et al., 2015).
  • On one course, participants were asked to interview women in senior leadership positions about their lives and to reflect on their own situations whilst doing so. One interviewee spoke to a participant about the issues she faced as one of the only female board chairs in a predominately male workplace. The use of role models can be affirming and build confidence (Vinnicombe and Singh, 2003).
  • Women in leadership can be invited to speak about their careers, and to offer advice to participants, for example around being willing to take risks.


Research highlights the importance of relationships in women's career development, and the benefits of mentoring in shaping their success as leaders (Vinnicombe and Singh, 2003; Priola and Brannan, 2009). In one study, interviewees saw informal relationships and mentoring as key to their development (Brue and Brue, 2016).

However, due to a lack of women at higher levels in organisations, women are more likely to have male mentors: although this can still provide career benefits, it can be complicated by gender roles (Hopkins et al., 2008). Additionally, a lack of senior staff from similar backgrounds can limit the career progression of those from working-class or low socio-economic backgrounds (The Social Mobility Commission, 2021). This indicates the value of matching participants with mentors from similar backgrounds:

  • Women may require different kinds of mentoring at different phases of their careers e.g. on confidence, work-life balance (O'Neil and Bilimoria, 2005).
  • Mentors are beneficial as they can assist women in their developmental journeys in a more holistic way (Hopkins et al., 2006).
  • Early career guidance has been reported as a tool that can help women achieve a greater career focus (Priola and Brannan, 2009).
  • Mentoring can ensure the long-term sustainability of women's leadership programmes (see case studies in Annex 2).

Training and education

Women's leadership programmes should also include practical training and education, for example on business management, leadership and team-building skills. This can include both wider leadership skills and sector-specific training:

  • In one study, increasing knowledge, skills, and education through access to training courses was one of the most frequently cited strategies for building leadership skills (Hopkins et al., 2006).
  • In a second study, participants valued learning how to manage conflict, lead personnel, and share their leadership vision (Brue and Brue, 2016).
  • On one rural programme, site-visits enabled farmers from different places to meet and learn from each other, and share best practice (Case study 9).

Peer-to-peer feedback

As discussed above, self-reflection is key to women's leadership programmes (Vinnicombe and Singh, 2003), and peer-to-peer feedback helps to facilitate this.

  • Eriksen (2009) suggests that the relationships participants form are key to creating an effective learning environment. On his course, students listen to each other talk about their beliefs, and this has a positive impact on their learning as it makes them aware of each-others' perspectives.
  • The sharing of stories on a leadership programme allows a reflective dialogue to take place (Eriksen, 2009; referencing Mirvis and Ayas, 2003).
  • Peer-to-peer feedback builds participants' self-awareness and helps them to identify areas for development. They can process feedback with help from other participants; respond constructively, identifying any gender stereotypes; and draw on this feedback once back at work (Ely et al., 2011).
  • Women's leadership programmes should aim to help participants understand their preferences and personalities (e.g. Insight psychometric personality profile) and leadership strengths and weaknesses (Case study 1).

Experiential learning

Many women's leadership programmes place an emphasis on experiential learning, with methods such as role-plays, scenario based discussions using "real life" issues and small group discussions (Brue and Brue, 2016).

  • According to Koopmans et al. (2006), the majority of learning that occurs in organisations takes place through informal growth opportunities, including challenging, high-profile work assignments and new responsibilities.
  • An additional source of learning and transferable skills for women is through volunteer and community leadership roles (Hopkins et al., 2008).
  • Ely et al. (2011) recommend helping participants to identify the informal roles they have taken up in organisations, and to consider how these roles have either benefited them or limited their leadership development opportunities.
  • They outline the need to recognise the skills women acquire through everyday negotiations, and allow them to practice using these skills during the course to develop their sense of agency, and equip them with new ways to push back against discriminatory policies or practices (Ely et al., 2011).
  • In one study, participants indicated the impact of context-specific scenarios and hearing about others' experiences, which helped facilitate their learning, personal growth and internalisation of their leadership identity (Brue and Brue, 2016).

Career planning exercises

As research suggests, women should be supported to think strategically about how to advance in their careers and organisations, and share their career plans with others (Hopkins et al., 2008). Structured career exercises (e.g. "career maps") can help participants to see the themes in their careers (Vinnicombe and Singh, 2003).

  • In one study, interviewees were asked to complete biographical 'career maps', prompted by a set of questions on what had helped or hindered their careers (e.g. 'What were the 'tools' you used…' 'Looking back, what/who would have/could have made a difference?') (Priola and Brannon 2009).
  • As Ely et al. (2011) write, participants can discuss personal and career transitions, mapping their careers to explore 'who they might become as leaders'. They can work through any concerns they may have about a new role, and share strategies with other participants, whilst also learning from course speakers.


Networks are a key part of women's leadership programmes, as women have cited exclusion from informal networks and the inability to hear others reflect on their careers as a barrier to leadership growth (Vinnicombe and Singh, 2003).

  • Networks are integral to leadership development (Cullen-Lester et al., 2017) and participants in women's leadership programmes often develop a strong network, supporting each other to initiate change at work (Ely et al., 2011).
  • Women's networks offer social support, skill and confidence-building; access to job opportunities; coaching; information and expertise; and understanding of organisational politics (Brass et al., 2004).
  • Traditional structures and gender roles can limit networking opportunities for women (Hopkins et al., 2008) and men's networks can be more effective than women's, for example in helping men gain promotion (Ibarra et al., 2010).
  • Participants can assess their current networks, and whether they are beneficial, how they can add to or improve them (Ely et al., 2011).
  • Networking builds women's confidence and generates ideas (Case study 6).
  • Women's networks should connect female professionals who share common experiences within organisations and industries, and can be the source of opportunities such as interviews for new positions (Hopkins et al., 2008).

Ely et al. (2011) note that women may be reluctant to engage in networking activity because they do not want to appear 'inauthentic'. When networking is tied to a larger purpose, such as organisational goals, they become less reluctant. It is useful to go beyond giving women generic advice about how to build networks and equip them with useful strategies; for example integrating networking into daily activities by using projects as opportunities to develop new relationships (ibid).

Women's leadership programmes should focus on: skills and knowledge; openness and support; collaborative learning and sustained relationships; providing participants with diverse role models. Learning techniques can include:

  • Training and education
  • Mentoring, peer-to-peer feedback and networking
  • Self-assessment tools
  • Commitments, e.g. to support other women in the workplace
  • Leadership role models and speakers
  • Experiential learning (e.g. action learning projects)
  • Career planning exercises

3.5 The role of organisations

This section outlines key points from wider literature on the role that organisations can play in supporting women's leadership development programmes and wider points, including the need for dialogue around diverse leadership perspectives.

Hopkins et al. (2008) argue that to be sustainable, leadership development must take place at both an individual and organisational level, as women face challenges at both levels. A range of studies indicate the importance of viewing women's leadership development as something which positively affects both the organisation and individual (Boatwright and Egidio 2003; Kim and Thompson, 2012). As Dunne et al. (2020) argue, 'it is in the interest of industry to encourage female participation in farming organisations', as evidence suggests that women and men have 'different skills, experiences and attributes to bring to leadership in the rural sector'.

Wider literature highlights the role that organisations can play in ensuring that women's leadership development programmes are successful, for example when the programme:

  • Does not stand alone but is closely aligned and integrated with the strategic objectives of the organisation (Cohn et al., 2005);
  • Is initiated or championed at a senior-level, signalling a commitment to ongoing training and development of talented women (Adler et al., 2001);
  • Is perceived as a 'reward' and regarded positively by staff (Debebe, 2011);
  • Is part of a consistent and integrated leadership strategy, which holds leaders and the organisation accountable (Fulmer and Bleak, 2008);
  • Enables women to feel connected to the organisation, and to see themselves as an integral part of its goals and objectives (Hopkins et al., 2008).

This indicates the importance of organisational support for initiatives. However, as Priola and Brannan (2009) argue, many organisations 'lack openness' to alternative models of development and leadership. In certain cases, women's leadership programme organisers require businesses to demonstrate commitment to improving management capability for their applicants to be eligible (Case study 8).

Recommendations for organisations

Hopkins et al. (2008) suggest that effective leadership programmes lead to stronger commitment to the organisation, and recommend that organisations:

  • Provide training to reduce bias in existing practices; examine processes of awarding developmental opportunities, and work to deconstruct gender stereotypes around leadership to encourage a variety of styles;
  • Support mentoring relationships at all levels in the organisation;
  • Support women in gaining further education and qualifications;
  • Work to increase women's access to networking opportunities, and support women's networks through resources and senior leadership advocacy;
  • Support and encourage career planning and leadership development for women and hold managers accountable for women's career development;
  • Integrate leadership development assessments within a comprehensive leadership development and succession planning process for women;
  • Create women-only leadership development programmes championed by senior leadership and focused on knowledge and behavioural outcomes.

Mattis (2001) provides a list of actions that managers can take, including ensuring that candidate lists for vacancies always include two or more women, assigning proportional representation of women to projects and committees, and encouraging training for "plateaued" women. As Ely et al. (2011) discuss, research shows that people fail to recognise women's leadership potential even as they acknowledge their competencies, so there is a need to review assessments of women's suitability for leadership roles in light of their skills. Similarly, Kolb et al. (2010) have called for a change in assumptions about the kinds of experiences needed for leadership. This research provides evidence of the need for progressive approaches to recruitment, and to look at women's experience and skill sets more broadly.

Organisations and leadership

As Kezar and Lester (2010) state, it should not be assumed that 'people share a similar perspective of leadership', as views can vary within an organisation, and there can be conflict between individual and organisational definitions. These different perspectives should be recognised, as narrow definitions of leadership can impact employees. One way that organisations can address this is to facilitate dialogue around how 'people's experiences and background impact their views on leadership' to help people to understand why others see leadership differently.

Leaders can facilitate group dialogue across the organisation, staff can be surveyed about their views of leadership, and work-evaluation criteria can be re-considered. Wider definitions of leadership, Kezar and Lester suggest, 'allow for more open promotional practices that place value on multiple leadership values and qualities'. They also acknowledge the difficulty of turning research into specific actions for organisations, beyond raising awareness. Organisations also need to focus on addressing forms of discrimination and look at changing existing power relations.

3.6 Evaluating women's leadership programmes

Women's leadership development programmes should lead to a variety of outcomes and this can be measured in different ways. However, there is a wider lack of research into their long-term impact (Debebe, 2007; Brue and Brue, 2016).

Evaluations of women's leadership programmes should take both individual and organisational impacts into account. Widely used methods include qualitative interviews, surveys and longitudinal studies (Creswell, 2012; Brue and Brue, 2016). Specific outcomes of leadership programmes that can be measured are:

  • The extent to which participants stay connected with each other and the programme activities, such as volunteering to mentor others (Debebe, 2011).
  • Participants gaining leadership roles, feeling better prepared for leadership or finding leadership potential in their current roles, in addition to other benefits such as increased confidence and self-awareness (Brue and Brue, 2016).
  • The number of participants who set up a new business, gain confidence in decision making or who take on a leadership role (Case study 1).

Debebe (2007) has outlined six key impacts of leadership training: knowledge acquisition, self-awareness, perspective change, skill development, self-confidence and behaviour change. Drawing on her study of a course in the US, she identifies three types of leadership transformation that took place: those who were "hidden leaders" became "visible leaders"; "constrained leaders" became "enabled leaders" and "intuitive leaders" became "strategic leaders".

Elsewhere, Brue and Brue (2016) have evaluated the impact of a women's-only leadership development programme in the US. The programme focused on: vision development, communication and listening, problem solving, critical conversations, managing anxiety and conflict, and taking action. These competencies were taught in a practical way, through speakers, role-playing and group work. The researchers saw leadership development as a social learning process, and identified benefits for participants including: self-awareness, confidence and validation of their leadership goals and potential, and recognition of their strengths and own leadership style.

In terms of success factors, during one rural women's leadership programme it was found that the most effective women were those who were already practicing some form of leadership in their community and had the motivation and resilience to take on leadership positions and associated challenges (Case study 9). Finally, as outlined above, creating a safe space for learning, peer support and self-reflection has also been key to the success of programmes (Ely et al. 2011).

3.7 Recommendations

Those developing a leadership programme for women in agriculture should consider a number of aspects, including: who the programme is aimed at, its intended aims and outcomes, and how its impact will be monitored and evaluated.

Drawing on the findings above, the following recommendations can be made for the development of a Women in Agriculture leadership programme:

  • Those developing the programme should consider who it is aimed at, from new entrants in farming to women who are already in mid-level or leadership roles. A 'theory of change' should be established, setting out what the programme aims to achieve and the outcomes to be measured.
  • The need for a women's leadership programme in Scottish agriculture should be clearly outlined. A shared understanding of 'leadership' should be reached, focusing on either senior positions or wider forms of leadership.
  • As organisations play a key role in ensuring the success of women's leadership programmes, consideration should be given to asking women's employers to signal their ongoing support.
  • The programme organisers should take participants' diverse needs and experiences into account both in planning the programme and during monitoring and evaluation, collecting equalities data in order to do this.
  • Those facilitating the programme should demonstrate an awareness of the barriers and challenges experienced by women in Scottish agriculture, and how this may impact their career progression and leadership approach.
  • Women on the programme should be given opportunities to connect with each other, share their experiences and hear about other women's careers.
  • Women in leadership positions in Scottish agriculture should be invited to speak about their leadership journeys and how they have overcome any challenges, and the programme should introduce participants to a diverse range of role models of women in leadership.
  • The course should provide a safe environment for openness, self-reflection and learning. Participants should be given the opportunity to construct a leadership identity and practice using new skills.
  • Participants should be presented with a range of leadership strategies, including relational and collaborative approaches, and encouraged to think about their relevance in an agricultural context.
  • The programme should teach both practical skills and theories of leadership, through a range of appropriate learning techniques, including self-assessment and feedback, and lead to tangible outputs, such as mentoring relationships, support networks and career plans.
  • The course should be over a longer time period, for example one year, with different types of sessions – from seminars and networking to one-to-one coaching– each month to enable attendees to learn new skills, form relationships and build a support network.
  • Lastly, a monitoring and evaluation plan should be put in place, which could include surveys, follow-up interviews with participants to examine long-term impact, or developing case studies of women's leadership journeys to ensure ongoing support and engagement from agricultural organisations.

The next chapter sets out the interview findings.


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