Sheryl Nance-Nash

(WOMENSENEWS)–Summer camp is coming.

No not, for middle-schoolers; for female executives ready to ratchet up their leadership skills.

Starting Thursday, WorldWIT, an online networking community for professional women, will offer its second annual Camp WorldWIT: Women in the Lead. During four days on the shores of Wisconsin’s Lake Geneva, 150 campers do yoga, tai chi, as well as hear industry experts speak on topics such as executive management, networking and more.

What makes women sign up for Camp WorldWIT?

It has to do with the absence of women from the upper tier of business leadership, says Liz Ryan, founder of WorldWIT. With just seven women CEOs of Fortune 500 companies, women continue to have difficulties on their way up the corporate ranks.

“The culture of American business is as solid as a rock,” says Ryan. “It’s not permeable. It’s not that there’s a glass ceiling, but a toxic gas ceiling. The further you go up the more you choke, because of policies, practices and procedures.”

Ryan says the program is an antidote of sorts, with intensive learning and networking in a serene setting. “We can focus on leadership and personal development without worrying about skirts and suits,” says Ryan.

Polishing Leadership Skills

WorldWIT’s program joins a growing number of workshops, retreats and conferences that run throughout the year, drawing executive women looking to polish their leadership skills.

In addition to academic programs offered by institutions such as Simmons Graduate School of Management in Boston, there are programs provided by large corporate sponsors, like Stonyfield Farm’s annual Strong Women Summit, founded by Miriam Nelson, one of this year’s Women’s eNews 21 Leaders.

There is also an array of small entrepreneurial ventures. Cheryl Perlitz, a mountain climber and author of the 2004 self-help book, “Soaring Through Setbacks–Rise Above Adversity–Reclaim Your Life,” leads women on hiking expeditions through the Colorado mountains.

The growing variety and popularity of these programs occurs as data emerges that erases any doubt about whether women want to lead U.S. businesses.

A recent survey by Simmons and Palo Alto, Calif.-based Hewlett-Packard indicates that women–whose relative scarcity in top-tier business has been tied to ambivalence about power–are actually quite keen about holding top jobs. About 80 percent of the survey’s female executive respondents said they were comfortable with power and liked what they could accomplish with it. Sixty-two percent said they enjoy the visibility that comes with power.

While the workshops typically cover an array of topics from negotiation to leading a balanced life, the real strength of these programs, participants often say, is that they simply bring women together.

“For me, being with the women, hearing and sharing our workplace stories was as meaningful as the hardcore, tangible learning,” says Valerie Bailey, executive vice president external relations for the Student Conservation Association in Charlestown, N.H. She still keeps the notebook from a five-day Simmons workshop last fall on her desk to refer to notes on power and negotiation, networking and leading change.

Kathryn Harrigan, a professor of business leadership at Columbia University, has been a guest speaker at some of these forums. She says the networking opportunities are vital and the exotic locales an important draw. “Believe me, even when these women are playing a game, they are learning. They are getting their money’s worth.”

Why an All-Female Retreat

Nan Langowitz, director of the Center for Women’s Leadership at Babson College in Babson Park, Mass., explains why a manager might want to send a woman to an all-female leadership event while her male colleague heads off to a co-ed forum.

“It’s not that women will learn different things at their program, or that they need fixing,” says Langowitz, “but there are issues unique to women and their own forum allows them to have essential conversations in a safer context.”

Martha Sheehan, director of executive education at Simmons, the nation’s only business school for women, describes the special problems that female executives face together at all-female retreats.

“There’s the token test,” she says. “If you’re the first woman to have the position, there’s the question of whether you achieved it on merit or some other reason. With higher visibility comes a higher degree of vulnerability. When you move up you have to be aware of that fact and figure out how to navigate through it.”

Simmons was founded in 1973 by two female Harvard Business School professors who were weary of the classroom focus solely on men as business leaders.

That same focus on male leadership, says Sheehan, persists as a problem for female executives. “They are put under the microscope to see how they function as a woman and a leader, when John Wayne is the model for leadership,” says Sheehan.

Tracking Outcomes

Simmons has tracked the outcomes of some of its custom leadership programs for women.

In one program, it worked with women at Deloitte and Touche, the consulting firm based in Wilton, Conn. Deloitte was experiencing retention problems with its senior women. As participants assessed their abilities, set goals and developed action plans, they got results. The program started in 1999 with 200 senior women. Back then, 12 percent of the firm’s partners were women. By 2002, there was a 30 percent increase in the number of women partners and directors, says Sheehan who adds that the upward trend continues.

Other event organizers produce anecdotal evidence of their success.

Chart Your Course is a program that started just over a year ago and is run by BeamPines, Inc., a New York City consulting firm.

Before embarking on a three-day cruise in which they sail and lay out strategies for dealing with their specific workplace challenges, women take assessment tests to determine strengths and weaknesses, which are used to develop a personal and professional growth plan.

After the three-day trip, the women are paired with a coach for six months, and the women come together for monthly gatherings in New York City.

Dawn Santa Maria, executive director of the program, says the it has already reeled in big catches. One woman who was leaving her job as senior vice president of marketing position met the senior vice president of Godiva Chocolates on board and is now doing global marketing for the New York-based maker of expensive chocolate.

Joyce Knauff attended one of Perlitz’s three-day workshop last summer in Steamboat Springs, Colo. She and about a dozen other women–a mixture of small business owners and corporate executives–hiked mountains and otherwise enjoyed the outdoors under Perlitz’s guidance.

“I was looking for camaraderie and I got it,” she says. “It was therapeutic to talk about our losses and gains. I came back pumped up.”

Sheryl Nance-Nash is a freelance writer based in Long Beach, N.Y., specializing in personal finance, general business and small business.

For more information:

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