When you’re the best at something, people notice. Like when the Financial Times deemed Thunderbird a "stand-out performance" for having the most female-friendly executive education program.

But what does a best-of designation like that actually mean? The numbers are impressive – Financial Times noted that more than 70 percent of Thunderbird’s students in open executive education programs are women. But a look behind the numbers tells more of the story.

Dawn Feldman, executive director of executive education at Thunderbird, credits the school’s cultural and academic emphasis on diversity – of all kinds. “When it comes to the faculty, facilitators, all the people who design and support our programs, the common piece is that Thunderbird understands how differences impact the way people experience the business world.”

“Thunderbird often approaches topics from a cultural standpoint, asking how things may change when you cross a country’s border,” Feldman says. “But how you manage differences in the business world goes well beyond culture or borders. It goes into gender diversity and inclusion efforts as well.”

“How you manage differences in business goes well beyond culture or borders. Diversity includes gender differences as well.” – Click to tweet

Lifelong learning matters for women – and the organizations they work for

Kellie Kreiser, executive director of Thunderbird for Good, says today’s business climate makes lifelong learning especially important for women, and their organizations. Thunderbird for Good began in 2005 as a program designed to provide women in Afghanistan with learning opportunities. Today it serves non-traditional students from emerging and under-served markets all over the world.

Research shows that women are underutilized as a resource, Kreiser says. “For both the participant and the organization, there are business imperatives as to why it’s important that women be better educated and better employed.”

“For the woman herself, pursuing lifelong learning is important because it helps her earning potential, helps her stature, and helps her power base,” Kreiser says. “If you control budgets, you have more authority to make choices.”

“If you control budgets, you have more authority to make choices.” – Click to tweet

“Within an organization that isn’t fully engaging and utilizing women to their best ability, if you drill down you’ll find that the organization doesn’t have as much balance in how it considers things – and doesn’t make as informed decisions,” Kreiser says. “For governments, underutilizing women could mean entire economies don’t do as well.”

Ultimately, whether in an emerging market or an advanced economy, women who achieve more earning potential and decision-making authority strengthen themselves, their organizations, and their societies.

Systemic obstacles

But there are obstacles to achieving those benefits. Some are due to regional or cultural norms. And some are systemic.

“Most of the learning systems already out there are designed by and for men,” Kreiser says. “Some differences are subtle. Some of it is who you see in the classroom with you. Who are the people in a position to take advantage of training opportunities?”

“Right now the system isn’t entirely set up for equal opportunities. So we should be looking for ways to make the system better to encourage more women – because that benefits all of us,” Kreiser says.

And that’s where Thunderbird’s advantage comes in. “We’ve got this global view; we see these global trends. Our approach has been to recognize the value in making business more approachable or available for women. What does that mean? More women in the classroom, but also how you structure the program, how you put together materials, how you teach, and who teaches,” says Kreiser.

“There are many elements to think about ­­– even things as seemingly small as the pronouns used in a slide deck. It’s about avoiding unconscious biases.”

Executive education and the ‘matrix of differences’

Behind Thunderbird’s “most female-friendly” designation is a dynamic blend of curriculum, faculty, and students that ensures diversity – differences in background, culture, and gender – is built into the learning experience.

“How do you use tension to drive collaboration as opposed to driving division?” – Click to tweet

“Look at topics like strategy, leadership, finance, marketing, or operations,” Feldman says. “These are common themes in a business program, but the way you talk about them changes” depending on where – and who – you are.

Feldman says diversity is an incredible asset for organizations. So it’s important that an executive development program understands those differences, taps the knowledge of all the people in the classroom, and creates a conversation in a safe learning environment. Only then do people start testing their ability to use their differences as assets.

“You need to be able to work through things you often see in the workplace that might cause friction or tension,” Feldman says. “How do you use tension to drive collaboration as opposed to driving division?”

Feldman says Thunderbird’s programs are characterized by “an intellectual knowledge and intellectual sensitivity to the way this matrix of differences affects how people learn.” And “gender is a huge piece of it across the globe right now, regardless of the business environment in which you are living.”

Additional lifelong learning resources for women

Read Speeding Progress for Women in the Boardroom & Beyond here on Knowledge Network.

Read Key to Continued Success for Women: Lifelong Learning.