Academic journal article Advancing Women in Leadership

Iron Sharpens Iron: Exploring the Experiences of Female College Student Leaders

Academic journal article Advancing Women in Leadership

Iron Sharpens Iron: Exploring the Experiences of Female College Student Leaders

Article excerpt

This qualitative study explored a small sample of female college students' perceptions of their experiences in leadership positions. Specifically the researcher examined the women's leadership styles and the factors that influenced how they lead. Additionally, the researcher focused on how gender may relate to the women's experiences. Basic interpretive and descriptive qualitative research methods were employed. Data were collected through in-depth individual interviews, a focus group, and participant journals. Participants included four female students at a medium-sized, religiously affiliated private university who held significant leadership roles in student organizations. Results revealed that the participants employed either a relationship-oriented, task-oriented, or hybrid approach to leading. Additional themes emerged around influences on the women's approaches to leadership, with particular emphasis on the role of the larger environment in impacting students' leadership behaviors, and the role gender plays in their leadership experiences. This study can provide insight into the landscape of young women's leadership today and help begin to fill the research gap that currently exists about college student women holding formal leadership roles and how to support these leaders.

Key words: women, gender, college students, leadership positions, leadership styles


As gender roles and expectations continue to gain attention in American society, there is an increased focus on both women.s representation in leadership positions and their approaches to leadership (Eagly & Carli, 2007). While women.s presence in the workforce, enrollment in higher education, and attainment of supervisory positions continue to dramatically increase, and in many cases exceed that of men, there is still a significant disparity between women and men holding top leadership positions that carry with them substantial authority (Eagly & Carli, 2004, 2007; Helfat, Harris, & Wolfson, 2006).

In addition to the disparity of the number of women in top leadership positions, there are a number of challenges that women face when in these roles. Research demonstrates that women in top leadership positions face challenges in balancing their preferred leadership styles with followers. expectations while in leadership roles (Eagly & Carli, 2007). While women.s leadership styles and approaches tend to be more collaborative, participative, and democratic than the leadership styles of most men (Dugan, Komives, & Segar, 2008; Eagly & Carli, 2007; Haber & Komives, 2009; Smith, 1997), women in top leadership, particularly in male-dominated industries, can feel pulled to adopt more masculine, autocratic, and directive leadership styles (Eagly & Carli, 2004, 2007; Moran, 1992). This is a tricky double bind that women must face, as acting more assertive and directive is often met with resistance from both male and female colleagues; men, however, do not normally confront such resistance (Driskell, Olmstead, & Salas, 1993; Eagly & Carli, 2007). Women leaders also face challenges in their roles with stereotyping, experiencing harassment, feeling excluded, and feeling alone and tokenized (Edmondson Bell & Nkomo, 2003).

Although women face the challenges of under-representation in top leadership roles and must often confront and manage gender norms, expectations, and even harassment while in these roles, there is evidence that the playing field is gradually being leveled. Women are gaining access to and increasingly assuming top leadership roles (Helfat et al., 2006), just as men are assuming more domestic responsibilities (Galinsky, Aumann, & Bond, 2009). Additionally, androgynous leadership styles that reflect a combination of masculine and feminine characteristics are more accepted and, even, valued than ever before (Eagly & Carli, 2007; Northouse, 2007). Women's more democratic and transformational approaches to leadership have proven to be crucial to both organizational effectiveness (Eagly & Carli, 2004; Helgesen, 1990; Smith, 1997) and individual success (Heffernan, 2007). …

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