Empowering the Next Generation of Women Leaders

A diverse group of women are gathered around a conference table. One is working on a laptop, while the others appear to be reviewing papers not visible in the frame. A window with the curtains and blinds open is behind them. The photo accompanies a blog post about empowering the next generation of women leaders.

How should we approach leadership development for college students? How can we use such efforts to empower the next generation of women leaders?

Recently on The Science of Personality, cohosts Ryne Sherman, PhD, and Blake Loepp spoke with Jennifer Tackett, PhD, professor and director of clinical training, and Haoqi Zhang, PhD, associate professor of computer science, both at Northwestern University. The conversation focused on their collaborative effort aimed at empowering the next generation of women leaders through the Northwestern Roberta Buffett Institute for Global Affairs.

Let’s dive into the need to reimagine what a leader looks like, the role of socioemotional skills in leadership, and what it takes to scale a successful leadership development program.

Women as Successful Leaders

Jennifer and Haoqi began collaborating through a mutual friend working at an interdisciplinary entrepreneurship center at Northwestern University. Though Jennifer is a clinical psychologist and Haoqi is a computer scientist, both found a connection through a shared interest in fostering growth in individual college students. Now they are coleaders of a new Northwestern Buffett Global Working Group, Empowering the Next Generation of Women Leaders.

“For students to do well in research or really anything, they needed to understand themselves better,” Haoqi said. Jennifer provided a personal example about the perspective shift that is necessary for someone to view themselves as a leader. After taking the Hogan assessments, Jennifer learned that her Hogan Personality Inventory Ambition score is below the 10th percentile. As a tenured professor in numerous leadership roles, she was at first surprised by that data point.

But as Jennifer learned more about what the Ambition scale represented, she realized that her drive and energy to succeed tended to emphasize collaboration over competition and quality over achievement. “Low ambition scores do not mean that you cannot be a successful leader. They mean that your leadership motivations and potential are coming from somewhere else in your profile,” she said.

This insight aligns with our research at Hogan about the difference between leadership emergence and leadership effectiveness. “We need to be more curious about what a successful leadership profile looks like for women and for people who don’t fit that specific demographic prototype,” Jennifer added.

Women Leaders in Education

Descriptive data show that women perform better than men by nearly every educational metric. For the last couple of decades, the differences have been increasing steadily. “It’s not a fluke,” Jennifer said. “It’s clear that female college students are outperforming their male counterparts.” Yet the top leadership roles are still predominantly held by men. “How do we understand why women who are performing so well and clearly showing great potential and achievement aren’t moving into societal leadership roles down the line?” she asked.

That question has motivated her and Haoqi’s research. It’s a complicated puzzle that isn’t likely to be solved with just a few data points. “Sometimes we can be rather narrow in what we measure,” Haoqi pointed out. “We want to think about student development on educational metrics but in other ways as well.” Education is an important route to leadership success, but it isn’t an exclusive one.

Leadership Development for College Students

Women and members of other historically excluded groups at universities tend to have less access to leadership development programs than white men with high socioeconomic status. “Leadership development programming in university settings is both ubiquitous and unsystematic,” Jennifer said. Different programs for different people may be designed for different outcomes, but all are likely built on the pervasive concept of a leader as a cisgender white man. “Ultimately, if we are interested in diversification of the leadership pipeline, we’re going to have to dismantle that system and expand our understanding of what a leadership development program looks like.”

“Broadening a perspective is needed if we’re going to make a change,” Haoqi affirmed. He told a story about a dance professor who teaches students to fall in various ways so that they may gain alternative perspectives. When Haoqi applied that mindset to an engineering and computer science setting, he perceived that vulnerability, honesty, and accepting mistakes can help leaders learn alternate perspectives from their failures. “When we start to see leadership to be inclusive of those things, we’ll also see that the opportunities to teach the skills, the mindsets, or the dispositions that good leaders should have opens the doors to think about leadership development not just out of leadership centers but also in all parts of campus,” he explained.

At Hogan, we identify having good judgment as a core aspect of leadership. Good judgment involves being able to make reasonable decisions based on the available information, as well as learning from failure. In addition to gaining better judgment and critical thinking skills, Haoqi wants future leaders to see themselves as being fallible and to recognize that making mistakes is OK. “Part of my work with students is helping them to look inside and learn this kindness toward themselves,” he said.

Gender Discrepancy in Top Leadership Roles

Only a small fraction of global CEOs are women. Through his work developing students, Haoqi has noticed that certain socioemotional skills are among the most important to overcome systemic barriers. These include risk assessment, critical thinking, dealing with failure, experimentation, and asking for help, which would help distinguish future leaders for advancement.

Jennifer pointed out that a strength of the Roberta Buffett Institute is its interdisciplinary, global nature. “That international perspective both complicates things but also allows you to start dissecting some of these systemic issues in a very different way,” she explained. She also speaks with successful women leaders to seek contextual nuance and psychological themes in their collective leadership journeys. “The retrospective aspect could be a very fruitful compliment to this work,” she said.

Jennifer and Haoqi’s initiative has made meaningful gains and shown significant promise. But to continue to flourish, it will need the following:

  • Space for innovation – Student leaders need the creative latitude for experimentation to grow socioemotional skills.
  • Resources – It takes time, money, and effort to run an initiative focused on empowering women leaders.
  • Community support – Finding instructors willing to coach and mentor student leaders can also be challenging.
  • Mindset shift – Investment in a development program means rejecting the most profitable, streamlined path for university education and reimagining what the university experience can mean for women leaders.

In looking to the future, Jennifer and Haoqi agree that scalability is likely one of the next hurdles. They also want to create a more nuanced definition of leadership to dismantle how people think about leaders—and how we build leadership development efforts for college students.

“A lot of what becoming a leader is about starts with people looking at themselves differently than they did before,” Haoqi said.

Listen to this conversation in full on episode 77 of The Science of Personality. Never miss an episode by following us anywhere you get podcasts. Cheers, everybody!