Why Women Should Demand Professional Development

Professional development is a buzzword we hear often and lots of companies say they provide it. But there’s a major difference between one-size-fits-all training and the meaningful development that helps women grow—and advocates for their success.

According to an in-depth survey by Catalyst (2008), a group of “high potential” women who graduated from top MBA programs worldwide were still paid $4,600 less in their first post-MBA jobs, occupied lower-level management positions, and had significantly less career satisfaction than their male counterparts with the same education. That was still the case when industry, prior work experience, aspirations, and children were factored in.

So what was the issue? Why did these women struggle to attain career equality, even when all things are equal?  

In analyzing the results, Harvard Business School indicated that one key differentiator between high performing women and men is the type of on-the-job development they received. 

While men get institutional support and highly relevant guidance that help them get to the next level, women can get caught in a cycle of training for training’s sake.

Whereas male employees tended to experience more of a “sponsored” role, where higher-ups identified growth opportunities on their behalf and then connected them with senior-level people who could both train them and facilitate their promotions, females received more traditional “mentorship” advice, meaning supervisors typically advised them on common workplace issues. 

The impact of this difference in treatment? While men get institutional support and highly relevant guidance that help them get to the next level, women can get caught in a cycle of training for training’s sake. And it only makes matters worse when companies implement broad-scale professional development programs that help them check the box on a list of benefits that “millennials want.” 

With this type of impersonal approach, it’s no wonder employees forget  after large corporate training initiatives—and no surprise that women are getting left behind. 

To truly reap the benefits of professional development offered by your company, you should take matters into your own hands, with the help of this simple 3-step approach. 


One of the biggest lessons from the Catalyst survey is that for men, professional development never takes place in a vacuum. In fact, their training and mentorship opportunities are specifically designed to help them reach the next level. So, before requesting any additional training from your company, it’s crucial that you clearly understand what you’re hoping to achieve. 

Ultimately, it’s about answering this question: 

If there were nothing standing in my way, what would I want to do next in this company? 

The best place to start is by developing your career plan for the coming year. Ideally, you’d do this in partnership with your supervisor or HR department, but don’t wait for them to take the lead. Figure out what role you’d want next and define it by using the S.M.A.R.T. (Smart, Measurable, Accountable, Realistic and Timely) method. 

Of course, this doesn’t mean that you can’t take advantage of broader professional development opportunities your company offers—whether seminars or lunch-and-learns—but to truly get ahead, it is crucial for you to think about development through the lens of what’s most relevant for you. 


Another key takeaway from the Catalyst survey is that professional development should involve actual interaction with relevant higher-ups, and not just computer- or seminar-based learning. In fact, men are getting ahead because their professional development involves interfacing with more senior employees who can specifically train them for growth opportunities—and advocate for their advancement. 

So, as you are building out a request for your company to provide you professional development, think beyond “book learning” and instead research, identify and detail employees across the organization who can help you achieve your specific career goals—by skills training, advocacy with hiring managers, or both. 


Once you’ve identified both your career goals and the list of influential people within your organization, make sure you focus your professional development on closing the gaps between you and the skills or experiences you need to advance to the next level. 

Think about each of your skillsets as a numerical scale—you need to be at a 9 or 10 to get that promotion or raise, and professional development is a focused way to get you to the right number. In this sense, it’s not a one-time activity, but an ongoing process. 

In fact, in order to be successful at this approach, you will need to be flexible and dynamic, as you never know when an opportunity for development might arise. One day it might be getting a chance to mock present a big pitch to a senior executive who is considered the expert in client relations, and the next, it might be getting introduced to the hiring manager of another department, who has input on a role you’re trying to get. 

At the end of the day, you need to remember that the goal of professional development is not learning in the abstract. It’s to equip you with the skills and experiences that will help you grow within your organization—and beyond. It’s not the only solution for closing the pervasive pay gap, or the loss of women’s career ambition, but it’s an important part. 

Do you have any experience redefining professional development for maximum personal growth? What are your strategies for getting your employer’s support? Comment below.

Article originally published on Career Contessa.