This literature review explores leadership development programs in higher education institutions and some ways in which they succeed or fail to prepare women for leadership in the workforce. Shifts in the leadership styles valued by companies and employees are described, as well as the structural and interpersonal realities that place barriers before women seeking to advance into leadership roles. The review looks at arguments for and against gender-specific leadership development programs and closes with some research-based suggestions on key elements for programs in higher education to support women’s leadership development.
Keywords: leadership development, women, higher education.
According to research, a paradigm shift is underway in the American workforce (Correia, 2016; Eagly & Chin, 2010; Shim, 2013). Collaborative, transparent leadership styles are increasingly sought after in the marketplace, while the traditional, hierarchical model of leadership is losing primacy. Shim (2013) titles the new leadership landscape the Post-Industrial Leadership Paradigm and posits a movement from the hierarchical, bureaucratic paradigm of the industrial era toward a more network-driven and horizontal leadership structure. In this new paradigm, for Shim (2013), leadership is defined by collaborative process and shared purpose and requires qualities such as relationship-building and inclusivity. As an example of this movement, the U.S. branch of a top international accounting firm, Klynveld Peat Main Goerdeler (KPMG), commissioned a study in 2015 in an effort to expand access and promote women leadership in the company. The stated purpose for the study included both a recognition of the changing marketplace and a desire to diversify the perspectives and experiences among its leadership as both a moral and strategic response (Veihmeyer & Doughtie, 2015). The fact that KPMG, a major company that employs thousands of workers, is exploring how to support pathways for women into leadership positions indicates a significant level of saturation for this shift of values in leadership.
One potential cause for this value shift in essential leadership styles for the workplace is the generational change taking place as the baby-boomers retire and new workers take their place. In a qualitative, interview-based study of 60 employees across four industries in five cities, Correia (2016) found that 53% of direct reports from the millennial generation pointed to transparency from organization leadership as a key influence when interviewed about influences that promote their sense of empowerment. Additionally, a majority of the millennials in Correia’s (2016) study also valued autonomy, flexibility, collaboration, and clearly set goals. Correia (2016) noted that the leadership qualities preferred by millennials tend to reflect those qualities typical of women leaders. Highlighting a way in which millennials in the workplace may prefer collaborative and relationship-oriented leaders, Shollen (2015) describes millennials as cautious about sensitive subjects but willing to engage in conversation in pursuit of meaningful learning, when safe space for discussion can be created. As the millennial generation continues to expand into the work force, noticeable shifts in what is considered effective leadership are underway.
Shim (2013) and Correia (2016) both point to a shifting paradigm of leadership toward a value for transparency over hierarchy and collaboration over individual motivation. At the same time, women continue to be underrepresented in high-level leadership positions across industries (Correia, 2016). The status quo that supports men’s access to leadership positions operates from deep-rooted systems, structures, and beliefs. (Ely, Ibarra, & Kolb, 2011). Ngunjiri and Gardiner (2017) term these systems second generation bias, pointing to hidden, structural predispositions that are deeply entrenched in organizational cultures. Far from overt signs of discrimination, according to Ngunjiri and Gardiner (2017), second generation bias occurs when systems – such as networking associations, hiring practices, and pay scales –continue operating without consideration of how those systems impact traditionally marginalized groups. Examples of these biased systems can be found in the research offered by Kalaitzi, Czabanowska, Fowler-Davis, and Brand (2017). Kalaitzi et al. (2017) conducted a systematic literature review across five academic databases, analyzing 26 barriers to women taking on leadership roles in healthcare, business, and academia in the European Union. They found that organizations with competitive, inflexible settings and fewer policy protections led women to decide against taking advantage of leadership opportunities or otherwise limit their goals for family and career (Kalaitzi et al., 2017). The contributions of Kalaitzi et al. (2017), Ngunjiri and Gardiner (2017), and Ely et al. (2011) indicate the systemic barriers to women seeking to advance into leadership positions. Even as the leadership paradigm shifts, it will likely take some time for the new values to integrate down into the structural disparities in the modern workforce.
The purpose of this review is to explore the issues surrounding women in leadership, the potential benefits and challenges of different models for leadership development programs, and name specific pedagogical elements that are critical for women in leadership development programs in higher education. The guiding question is: in what ways do higher education leadership development programs prepare women for leadership in the workplace?
The Leadership Landscape: Gender Disparity and Difference in Style
Continued gender disparity in the workplace
Understanding the systems and attitudes that continue to promote gender disparity in leadership roles necessitates a look at issues of perceived likability, access to networks, and opportunities for advancement.
Among the barriers to women in leadership are the enduring stereotypes of traditional gender roles and the perception of women’s likability when in a leadership role. Whether through media, entertainment, or simple workplace gossip, stereotypically masculine leadership styles tend to be viewed in a more positive light than feminine styles (Correia, 2016). Shollen (2016) refers to these masculine qualities as “heroic conceptions of leadership” (p. 1). Ely et al. (2011) describe the valued masculine leadership styles in most cultures as assertive, decisive, and independent. These conceptions place women leaders in an impossible position. If they exhibit typically-masculine leadership qualities, women leaders are considered competent but less likeable than their male counterparts which may impact their career advancement (Ely et al., 2011). For example, competitiveness is generally viewed positively in men but as a negative quality in women (Correia, 2016). Eagly and Chin (2010) stated the dilemma succinctly when they wrote, “simultaneously impressing others as a good leader and a good woman is an accomplishment that is not necessarily easy to achieve” (p. 218). The challenge of operating in a work dynamic that still prefers masculine leadership styles and yet expects women to be likeable and feminine may impact professional relationships and how they are built.
Relationship-building is considered one of the strengths of women’s leadership styles (Brue, K. & Brue, S., 2016; Correia, 2016; Davidson, 2018). However, access to opportunities to network and build relationships which can advance a woman’s career can be limited. In Veihmeyer and Doughtie’s (2015) study of 3,014 professional and college-aged women for the accounting firm KPMG, 92% of the women surveyed reported a lack of confidence in asking for sponsors and 79% reported a lack of confidence in seeking mentors. Veihmeyer and Doughtie (2015) also found that the women surveyed lacked confidence in asking for a promotion (65%), requesting a raise (61%), or assistance with developing a career plan (69%). This study, while pointing to levels of confidence in women, also points to the women’s perception of barriers to their career advancement.
The hesitation of women to network and seek out career advancement opportunities has led to what Correia (2016) calls a promotional pipeline problem. Correia’s (2016) study of millennials and women across industries mentioned above indicated that 72% of the women interviewed expressed a preference for women mentors, viewing women as more receptive to their mentorship needs, while only 33% of the women reported having a woman mentor. Correia (2016) further discussed the propensity for men’s mentorship networks to consist mainly of other men. While the gender disparity in leadership positions continues and men maintain higher numbers in leadership roles, the number of women leaders available to mentor rising women will fail to meet the demand, continuing the cycle of men into leadership positions.
Gender differences in leadership
Several research studies indicate fundamental differences in the leadership styles of men and women. Among the numerous differences described in these studies, three categories of difference emerge from the research: individual vs. group, transactional vs. transformational, and competition vs. collaboration.
Individual vs. group – Research studies have found that a key difference in motivation for leadership between men and women is that of individual incentives or group success. Huszczo & Endres (2017), using a Relative Importance Analysis in a quantitative study of 325 business students, found that men attribute their success to their own internal qualities and women point to external causes, such as team members or mentors. Similarly, Rosch, Boyd, and Duran (2014) examined goal statements of 92 undergraduate students, using content and thematic analyses, and found that men focused on individual success in their goals, while women focused more on their role in group processes. Moreover, Rosch et al. (2014) found that men identified with individual leadership skills more often than women, while women focused on traits and behaviors, indicating a higher level of awareness of how leadership impacts others. Huszczo & Endres (2017) in their study of business students point to conscientiousness of others and an openness to new experience as strong predictors of leadership self-efficacy for women, while extraversion was a stronger predictor for men. Self-efficacy in leadership can be defined as belief in one’s own capacity to lead (Huszczo & Endres, 2017). That Huszczo and Endres (2017) found external factors to be the more significant indicators of leadership self-efficacy for women is a significant indicator of group-centered leadership.
Transactional vs. transformational – Another essential difference between men and women leaders, as described by research, is in the purpose of leadership itself and whether it is transactional or transformational. Transactional leadership can be defined as a sort of give and take, eliciting rewards or punishments for positive or negative outcomes. Transformational leadership tends to use inspiration and common purpose to achieve positive outcomes. In an archival qualitative study comparing the program descriptions of women-only and general (all-gender) leadership development programs in higher education, Sugiyama, Cavanagh, van Esch, Bilimoria, and Brown (2016) posit that women tend to engage in transformational styles of leadership and men focus on transactional elements of leadership. Of the 40 program descriptions studied, Sugiyama et al. (2016) found that 60% of general (all-gender) leadership programs and only 22% of women-only programs pointed to driving company performance as a central role for leaders, whereas 51% of women-only programs and 28% of general programs pointed to developmental support and enabling advancement. The inclination for women to be more collaborative and participate in group processes as leaders can be explained for Eagly and Chin (2010) by the tendency for people to resist women who demonstrate individual assertiveness. Further, Eagly and Chin (2010) describe a tendency for women leaders to manage others with a positive approach utilizing rewards over reprimands to encourage their followers. Sugiyama, et al. (2016) add that women tend to employ a transformational style of leadership by mentoring and empowering followers. The research indicates an essential difference of purpose between the transactional style of men and the transformational focus of women.
Competition vs. collaboration – The final essential difference between the leadership styles of men and women for the purpose of this review is between the competitive nature of traditionally masculine styles and the collaborative, group process of feminine styles. Analyzing data from 2,926 student surveys in the Wabash National Study of Liberal Arts Education, Shim (2013) examined gender differences in college students involved in leadership development programs. Shim (2013) found that students who identified as women tended to foster collaborative group facilitation skills while male students placed higher value on individually-centered leadership qualities. Correia (2016) also points out that men and women use communication differently, stating that women tend to communicate to form relationships, while men seek to achieve tangible outcomes or establish dominance. In a qualitative study of interviews with 15 women in leadership at five universities, Davidson (2015) points to the “invisible skills women bring” (p.1), such as relationship-building and collaboration, as critical to enhancing their experience of leadership and beneficial to the organizations they serve. As outlined by the literature, the collaborative, other-centered qualities of women leaders are not only distinctive from their colleagues who are men but also increasing in value in the workforce. How should leadership development programs in higher education respond?
Leadership Development in Higher Education
Understanding that women and men lead differently and the paradigm for which leadership qualities hold value in the workplace is shifting, leadership development programs in higher education should prepare students – particularly women – to be leaders in their careers and advance to positions of leadership over time.
While numerous research studies have been done on leadership theory from diverse lenses, there is some question as to whether such theories resonate down to the college campuses where leadership development is being performed. Owen (2012) conducted an analysis of 89 institutions which responded to the Multi-Institutional Study of Leadership (MSL-IS) in 2009. The MSL-IS is a 74-item instrument which includes basic institutional demographics and descriptions of program elements specific to each institution. Owen (2012) found incongruity between leadership development theory and what is being enacted in higher education programs with fewer than 75% of the institutions indicating a theoretical basis for their programs. Similarly, Madsen and Andrade (2018), expressed concern that leadership development programs are not effective because they are not based on theory and research, particularly unconscious bias theory which speaks to the ways individuals unintentionally respond to others based on biases that remain unexplored. From the literature, it appears there is work to be done in connecting research and the established theories of leadership with the actual programs being conducted for students in higher education.
By including theory and research, leadership development programs have an opportunity to expand the experience of participants. In their purpose statement for their longitudinal study of students in a specific leadership program, Rosch et al. (2017) discussed the modern leadership landscape and pointed to a need for developing leaders to learn both how to mobilize followers to perform (transactional leadership) and to develop their followers and benefit the group (transformational leadership). Rosch et al. (2017) are pointing to both traditionally feminine and traditionally masculine leadership styles. Correspondingly, in their comparison study of general leadership development programs and women-only leadership development programs, Sugiyama et al. (2016) suggested a pedagogical framework that emphasizes both an organization’s performance and a leader’s ability to relate to others. If the synergized priorities put forth by Sugiyama et al. (2016) and Rosch et al. (2017) are to serve as a potential frame for leadership development programs, how would women-only programs compare with general programs? Below are a few arguments for and against gender-specific leadership development programs.
Arguments for Gender-specific leadership development programs – There are several studies and theories in favor of gender-specific and women-centered leadership development programs. Ely et al. (2011) advocate for women-only leadership development programs as a means of putting women in a majority position which could foster learning and powerful insights which would be less impactful in male-dominated spaces. Madsen and Andrade (2018) agree, stating that it is imperative to focus on developing leadership skills and abilities in women through multiple women-centered leadership development efforts. The unique opportunity to be a majority/dominant voice in discussions and to explore leadership through a variety of interventions both present significant arguments in favor of women-only leadership development programs.
The importance of centering women in their own development opportunities is highlighted by work done by Rosch, Ogolsky, and Stephens (2017). In a longitudinal study of 343 diverse students collected from 20 institutions which hosted a particular leadership development program in 2013 or 2014, they conducted pre-test and post-test surveys with follow up surveys after 3-4 months. Rosch et al. (2017) looked at three aspects of leadership – motivation to lead, leadership skill, and self-efficacy – and found that the women surveyed reported lower self-efficacy at the start of the program than the men but greater gains in both self-efficacy and leadership skill immediately following the program in the post-test. Interestingly, in the follow up after 3-4 moths, the women surveyed reported a more significant decrease in their leadership skills than the men surveyed but their sense of self-efficacy remained consistent. The reduction in the women’s sense of skill without a reduction of their self-efficacy in the follow up survey may imply that in applying leadership skills to opportunities external to the specific leadership program, the women faced barriers to their skills that they were not prepared for by their program. They could still see themselves as leaders, but somehow their skills were less impactful. It is possible that a women-only program could have better prepared them for the barriers they faced.
The divergent levels of self-efficacy and leadership skill that Rosch et al. (2017) discovered reveals disparate needs for women and men who are undergoing leadership development. In a surprising twist, Shim (2013) reverses the call for women-only leadership development programs and advocates for specialized programs for male students to train men to lead effectively in the new Post-Industrial Leadership paradigm, pointing to a “male disadvantage” (p. 270) as leadership values shift toward collaboration and a transformational style. Whether the gender-specific leadership development programming should center women or men, there is research which supports the value of such programs in addressing the unique needs of a certain group of developing leaders.
Arguments against gender-specific programs – Research also exists which indicates potential dangers and short-comings of gender-specific leadership development programs. Cullen-Lester, Woehler, and Willburn (2016) surveyed 262 women and men (131 each) through the Center for Creative Leadership’s Leading Insights Panel which is comprised of executives, managers, and professionals. In discussing their findings, Cullen-Lester et al. (2016) argue that a potential downside of women-only programs is a lack of opportunity for women to build skills around developing relationships with senior-level men which is necessary for advancement in many companies. Further, Cullen-Lester et al. (2016) found that nongender-specific programs create an opportunity for men to better understand the unique challenges and barriers women experience. If a goal of leadership development programs is to provide leaders with opportunities to network and build understanding, it appears gender-specific leadership programs may lack this opportunity.
Another potential short-coming in women-only leadership development programs is the propensity for those programs to default toward centering White women. Ngunjiri and Gardiner (2017) express concern that programs consider a variety of identities women represent beyond the singular identity of gender. Madsen and Andrade (2018) expand on this concern and call attention to the danger of women-only leadership development programs ignoring the disparate levels of privilege experienced by women of color and those in the LGBTQIA community. Sugiyama et al. (2016) discovered in their study of general and women-only leadership program descriptions that few programs specified attention to additional social identities that present barriers for students in advancing to leadership. They advocated employing an intersectional lens to include other social and demographic identities. As the world becomes more interconnected through global business and immigration ,expanding leadership to include a diversity of race, religion, age, and able-ness in addition to gender will further compound the need for leadership development programs to be inclusive (Eagly & Chin,2010). In light of the intersectional identities that women (and men) bring to leadership development programs, it may be that gender-specific leadership programs have too narrow a focus and in their effort to offer added-value to one group, they consequently exclude others.
Key Elements Required for Leadership Development of Women – Regardless of whether a leadership development program is gender-specific or general, research indicates a few key program elements that are imperative for developing women to be successful in leadership. These include assuring emotional and intellectual safety in the learning environment, fostering personal agency, providing mentorship opportunities, and inviting intersectional identities.
Assuring emotional and intellectual safety – Developing leadership skills and self-efficacy requires women to engage in self-reflection toward personal growth and participate openly in discussions about difficult issues. For Shollen (2016), creating an intellectually- and emotionally-safe classroom environment is paramount to meaningful, and potentially transformative, leadership development for women. A safe environment can be fostered by both the instructor and the program participants through openness, mutual respect, accountability, and a spirit of hospitality (Shollen, 2016). Similarly, Ngunjiri and Gardiner (2017) advocate for safe spaces in leadership development programs for women to foster frank discussions about the challenges of the workplace and develop empathy for diverse perspectives. Whether a leadership development program is gender-specific or general, women participants will benefit from the creation of safe spaces to foster genuine discussion.
Fostering personal agency – One area of development that research shows could support the success of women leaders is fostering a sense of personal agency, or sense of control in taking action to influence outcomes. Personal agency comes into play in negotiations for salary or promotion, sharing ideas and strategies with a team, or calling out unseen inequities in an organization’s structure. As Veihmeyer and Doughtie’s (2015) research indicated, women tend to be less confident in negotiations or requesting support to elevate their careers. Ngunjiri and Gardiner (2017) address this challenge by naming learning to negotiate, manage change, and contemplating career advancement transitions among their suggested elements for developing women leaders. A further indication for this need is found by Preston-Cunningham, Elbert, and Dooley (2017) who conducted a qualitative study of first-semester undergraduate women with leadership experience, using written responses to the question “What is Leadership?” They used four levels of coding to identify key themes and common ideas. Preston-Cunningham et al. (2017) found that participants did not distinguish between leadership traits and leadership behaviors; they were used interchangeably in the written responses. It can be inferred from this outcome that young women lack significant experience in identifying the actions of a leader as opposed to a leader’s qualities and may benefit from support in establishing the skills of personal agency.
In addition to personal agency, leadership development programs could benefit women leaders by applying emphasis to finding a voice, and relating to structures and systems, according to Brue and Brue (2016). In their phenomenological study of seven alumni from a women-only leadership program for educators through the Oklahoma Career Technology System, Brue and Brue (2016) found that key elements of women’s leadership development should employ action learning techniques, behavioral modeling, and philosophical activities to foster personal agency, finding a voice, and changes in cognitive, affective, and behavioral leadership qualities. Fostering a sense of voice and personal agency seems to be an integral pedagogical need for women to explore in a leadership development program, according to the literature.
Providing mentorship – As stated earlier, mentorship – particularly with women mentors – is in high demand for women leaders (Correia, 2016). Cullen-Lester et al. (2016) found in their survey of 261 executives, managers, and professionals that women are joining formal mentoring programs at more twice the rate as men. The value of mentorship is revealed through a study conducted by Edds-Ellis and Keaster (2013), a qualitative study looking at eight women professionals in higher education leadership roles who had participated as the mentee in same-gendered mentorship pairs. The study found that women experienced opportunities to clarify their professional goals and create confidence in their leadership skills through their mentoring relationships. As women in leadership tend toward collaboration and relationship-building as leaders, it stands to reason that mentoring relationships would serve an important role in developing women leaders.
Inviting intersectional identities – Whether a leadership development program is gender-specific or general, a key element of any program should be to build awareness of intersectional identities and the ways in which systemic structures and unconscious bias present barriers to leaders from traditionally marginalized groups. Domingue (2015) conducted a phenomenological study and theoretical analysis of six undergraduate and six graduate Black women college students holding leadership positions at predominantly White colleges. Through the study, Domingue (2015) looked at two themes: how black women interact with interpersonal acts of oppression, such as microaggressions, racialized expectations, and silencing of voice, and how black women nurture themselves and their leadership in light of those oppressive interactions. Domingue (2015) found that genuine ally-ship from fellow students as well as incorporating the traditions and history of black women’s leadership into their leadership practice were both areas of support and nurture for black women in leadership roles. Similar to Domingue’s (2015) recognition of the importance of history for Black women in leadership, Tippeconnic Fox, Luna-Firebaugh, and Williams (2015) point to the history of American Indian women and their traditional leadership roles of clan mother, warrior, and medicine woman, a history that was nearly lost through colonization and the devastating effect of Indian schools on their traditions. In a mixed methods approach using two combined studies (a survey of 500 tribal governments and organizations and a focus group of 100 women), Tippeconnic Fox et al. (2015) found that American Indian women leaders regard their cultural values of respect, humility, and trust, as well as the traditional models of leadership, as essential to their leadership. A leadership development program with an intersectional lens could assist students of color to feel seen and incorporate their identities into their leadership practice, as well as support the awareness-building of potential allies.
If a paradigm shift is indeed underway in the preferred styles of leadership in the workplace, demand for the qualities that women traditionally bring to leadership will grow. At the same time, as structural and attitudinal bias continues to favor men, women need support in advancing to higher levels of leadership in their careers. Through leadership development programs available at institutions of higher education, women may find the training and support necessary to enhance their skills and self-efficacy toward leadership. The level of preparation for women leaders depends on the incorporation of key elements such as assuring emotional and intellectual safety, fostering personal agency, providing mentorship, and inviting intersectional identities.
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