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Helping Break The Glass Ceiling Through Cohort-Based Learning

By News Creatives Authors , in Small Business , at August 4, 2021

CEO at NewCampus, a modern business school in Asia. Exploring the intersection between the future of work and learning, with an Asian-twist.

Middle managers gunning for career advancement often increase their chances for upper leadership roles by attending business school. There, they gain deeper industry insights and develop a network by working alongside similar-minded individuals under the guidance of highly capable instructors.

In 2018, the International Labour Organization (ILO) released a study on the impact of diversity in the office. Profitability and productivity increase by an average of 63% when gender-inclusive policies and cultures are introduced. While company leaders grasp for an additional 2%-3% of the bottom line, it’s uncanny how slow it has taken for gender-balanced boards to be the norm. Breaking the glass ceiling is not just good for women, it’s good for shareholders, too.

For some background, keep in mind these stats: women make up 21% of C-Suites (women of color make up about 3%) and women make up about 8% of Fortune 500 CEOs. While 2021 has welcomed an explosive interest in applications to business school programs, the ratio of female learners hovers only around 40%, according to a Forté Foundation Report. My theory is that the program design of typical business schools is not as inclusive as it ought to be. 

The question that now remains is: How do we empower women with the transformative education they need to move from middle-management roles to higher leadership or executive roles?

Enter The CBC

In 2008, we witnessed the rise of Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs), the silver bullet for training requirements. In recent years, however, the consistently low retention rates and declining enrollment have suggested otherwise. MOOCs were great for knowledge transfer, but for higher-order skills such as synthesis, judgment and creativity, a different teaching modality is necessary.

Cohort-based learning, or cohort-based courses (CBCs), were edtech disruptors’ responses. CBCs leverage community with their collaborative learning style. Individuals progress through educational programs together. Unlike its business school counterparts, CBCs are often topical and shorter in nature, now conducted more creatively in remote environments. Recent advances in Zoom and Microsoft Teams adoption have also removed barriers to creating genuine connections, despite the group not meeting in person.

In the past couple of years, my business school, NewCampus, has had the privilege of conducting more than 500 workshops, including CBCs. During this time, we’ve observed what an inclusive experience could look like. If an organization wishes to realize the gains of gender diversity, CBCs could be the way to go.

Looking Up To Women Role Models

Role models are key to the development of any individual. In a culture where constant availability is expected from employees who wish to get ahead, having women leaders to look up to provides more realistic examples to follow.

CBCs provide a venue where learners can observe the mix of subject-matter expertise, behavioral tendencies, leadership styles and approaches to work-life balance that contribute to the success of instructors. As students observe different instructors, the learners can build their own version of success and apply the components that resonate with them in their own context.

For the extraordinary women who do make it to the top, studies show they experience a phenomenon called the “Glass Wall.” Women are more likely to be assigned roles in business support functions, such as communications and PR (36%), marketing and sales (38%), finance and administration (50%) or HR (52%). Fewer women are involved in more strategic functions, such as operations (25%), R&D (19%) and general management (29%). CBCs allow students to learn from women who have broken through both glass ceilings and glass walls that they may not have access to within their organization.

Learning From Fellow Peers

It’s one thing to learn from someone you view as superior, and it’s a completely different thing to learn it in a context of a group with co-learners. A salient feature of adult learning is that it doesn’t flow in a single direction from an instructor to a learner. Role models are classically associated with instructors in a CBC, however, women can also see their peers as role models. Those who sign up for these courses come with many skill sets that have made them very talented in their own right. One only needs to observe them to learn a thing or two.

By observing peers, learners get a glimpse of what success can look like at different stages of realization. This makes action items more apparent to learners, and they can begin implementation changes in their career more readily.

Networking Global Opportunities

Lastly, going through a task as a group allows the individuals to bond. This camaraderie is vital when one is up for a board position. Candidates are often judged by the network they have and the clout they carry. CBCs can help build up one’s network.

Leaders, especially in the ASEAN region, attribute much of their success to early international assignments. It seems that exposure to diverse perspectives early on enriches individuals. Educational experiences that provide similar global networking opportunities can transform and enable learners to analyze and strategize more creatively.

CBCs have the ability to foster cross-cultural communities because they are delivered online. From my observations, this is inherent in most CBCs that are delivered through online modalities.

How Companies Can Implement CBCs 

When thinking about designing your own CBC internally, or working with an external partner, you should consider three key facets in the design of this program. The first is to identify the optimum balance of participants. Whether this is for seasoned veterans or first-time managers, the goal is to create an experience that is intimate, interactive and energizing. On top of that, the peers should be able to share and learn effectively from one another.

The second is to curate content that is cutting-edge, potentially focused on emerging skillsets, mindsets and toolsets of the modern workplace. The third is to ensure the sessions are experiential for the remote environment, so learners are able to deep dive into the knowledge and later apply them back to their role.

If a company is serious about the gains that can be attributed to gender-inclusive policies, one helpful action might be to target sponsorship programs for further education. Instead of traditional business/graduate school, investing in inclusive CBCs could be just the thing to drive your company’s growth.


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