Leadership pathways for women’s leadership development: a multifaceted undergraduate leadership development initiative

Sherylle J. Tan (Kravis Leadership Institute, Claremont McKenna College, Claremont, California, USA)

Journal of Leadership Education

ISSN: 1552-9045

Article publication date: 23 February 2024

Issue publication date: 2 April 2024




The Women in Leadership Development (WLD) Initiative is a year-long, multifaceted co-curricular leadership development opportunity created to support the unique developmental needs of emerging women leaders. WLD was intentionally designed around the context of second-generation gender bias with a firm grounding of research and theory on gender and leadership.


Organized around three leadership pathways – leadership training, leadership coaching, and leadership support networks – WLD brings together the best practices of leadership development in combination with feminist pedagogy and critical perspectives to foster meaningful and impactful development of women leaders.


This paper describes the design of the initiative and how each leadership pathway supports the leadership development journey for emerging women leaders. It provides a model that is impactful as well as foundational, for undergraduate women’s leadership development.


Women leaders, in particular, can benefit from leadership development that takes gender into account (DeFrank-Cole & Tan, 2022a; Ely et al., 2011).



Tan, S.J. (2024), "Leadership pathways for women’s leadership development: a multifaceted undergraduate leadership development initiative", Journal of Leadership Education, Vol. 23 No. 1, pp. 20-35. https://doi.org/10.1108/JOLE-01-2024-0014



Emerald Publishing Limited

Copyright © 2024, Sherylle J. Tan


Published in Journal of Leadership Education. This article is published under the Creative Commons Attribution (CC BY 4.0) licence. Anyone may reproduce, distribute, translate and create derivative works of this article (for both commercial and non-commercial purposes), subject to full attribution to the original publication and authors. The full terms of this licence may be seen at http://creativecommons.org/licences/by/4.0/legalcode


The 21st century has seen more women in leadership roles across various sectors and women who are leading without formal positions around the world. Women continue to outnumber men in earning college degrees (Johnson, 2016) and are viewed as equally effective leaders (Eagly, Karau, & Makhijani, 1995). In some cases, research has found that women are perceived as more competent in most key leadership capabilities as compared to men (Zenger & Folkman, 2019) and there are clear benefits to having women as leaders (DeFrank-Cole & Tan, 2022; Eagly, Kinahan, & Bosak, 2018). While people believe that there are gender differences in leadership, the gender differences that do exist are perceived but may not be actual (DeFrank-Cole & Tan, 2022). Despite these new developments, there is a persistent gender gap and continued inequity in leadership and decision-making. The reasons that women are still underrepresented in leadership are connected to long-held societal gender role stereotypes and bias (DeFrank-Cole & Tan, 2022; Eagly & Karau, 2002; Hoyt, 2010).

Participating in early leadership development can support emerging women leaders. The college years are an ideal time for emerging leaders to develop their leadership knowledge, skills, and abilities. It is a relevant place to support young leaders in their development of leadership through various lenses and contexts, such as gender. The leadership expectations and experiences of marginalized students may differ from students of privileged, dominant backgrounds (Bertrand Jones, Guthrie, & Osteen, 2016). Undergraduate leadership development sets the foundation for how to think about and practice leadership. Higher education institutions can support marginalized students to understand the challenges they face in leadership and devise solutions on how to overcome them.

Women, in particular, can benefit from leadership development that takes gender into account (DeFrank-Cole & Tan, 2022; Ely, Ibarra, & Kolb, 2011). While there is a good deal of research on women and leadership, there is less focus on women college students. Most research and evaluations of higher education leadership development programs for students are focused on mixed-gender groups with topics based on prevailing leadership prototypes; rarely including gender issues (McKenzie, 2018; Reyes, Dinh, Lacerenza, Marlow, Joseph, & Salas, 2019). With women attending and graduating from college at a higher rate than men, it is necessary to understand how leadership development tailored to the needs of women can support their advancement. For instance, the development of a sense of self-efficacy and leader identity in women students while in college could motivate and prepare them for leadership beyond college (McKenzie, 2018).

The purpose of this application paper is to demonstrate how leadership development that is intentionally designed with a firm grounding in current theoretical principles and research on gender and leadership can support the growth of emerging women leaders. An impactful, robust, and rigorous leadership development initiative that focuses on essential topics that women face as they navigate leadership was developed at a small liberal arts college in southern California. Organized around three leadership pathways – leadership training, leadership coaching, and leadership support networks – the Women in Leadership Development (WLD) Initiative brought together the best practices of leadership development in combination with feminist pedagogy and critical perspectives to foster the development of women leaders.

Review of related literature

Challenges for women in leadership

The barriers that women face in leadership are connected to our socially constructed ideas about leadership (DeFrank-Cole & Tan, 2022). One of the largest obstacles women face is gender bias. Gender bias in leadership – this is a preference for men to be in leadership roles, rather than women – is clearly evident in the research (DeFrank-Cole & Tan, 2022; Koenig, Eagly, Mitchell, & Ristikari, 2011). Being a leader is typically associated with a White, cisgender man and as a result leader prototypes are most often congruent with masculine stereotypes and attributes (e.g. decisiveness, assertiveness, and dominance). The earliest research on gender and leadership, by Virginia Schein in 1973, examined the think manager-think male paradigm, to test the similarity of leader stereotypes with gender stereotypes. This research demonstrated that people strongly associated men with successful leaders rather than women (Schein, 1973, 1975). This belief was held by both men and women in the 1970s and has changed only slightly over time (Braun, Stegmann, Bark, Junker, & Dick, 2017; Koenig et al., 2011; Laguía, García-Ael, Wach, & Morian, 2019).

The gender stereotypes and attributes prescribed to women (e.g. warmth, caring, and kindness) are incompatible with prototypes for leadership as explained by role congruity theory (Eagly & Karau, 2002). This incongruity creates barriers, often in the form of bias and prejudice, for women’s emergence as leaders. According to role congruity theory, the lack of women leaders is due to the prejudice that keeps women from accessing leadership roles (Eagly & Carli, 2007; Eagly & Karau, 2002).

Though women are less likely to experience overt gender bias in organizations today, they still endure implicit bias or nonvoluntary associations/beliefs that we hold but may not be consciously aware of Koenig et al. (2011). A specific form of implicit bias called second-generation gender bias, often affects the decision-making of managers who may on the surface claim positive views of women leaders, but subconsciously prefer men in leadership roles to preserve the status quo and inadvertently favor men (Ibarra, Ely, & Kolb, 2013). Second-generation gender bias is less overt and less deliberate in the exclusion of women from leadership roles and as a result frequently goes unnamed and unrecognized by both women and men in organizations. Second-generation gender bias impedes women’s journeys to leadership by hindering their leader identity development and prevents them from being seen as leaders and role models (DeFrank-Cole & Tan, 2022).

Women’s leadership development

Leadership development emphasizes the development and growth of leadership competencies and capabilities over time (Day & Dragoni, 2015). It focuses on “expanding individual and collective capacity to be effective in leadership roles and bring about effective leadership” (Day & Dragoni, 2015, p. 134). Leadership development is a life-long learning process that is continuous and can be fostered through developmental experiences, learning activities, and practice to promote leadership capacity (Avolio, 2005; Guthrie & Jenkins, 2018). Leader development indicators such as leader identity, self-awareness, leader self-efficacy, and leadership competencies are enhanced when individuals engage in developmental experiences that foster opportunities for practice (Day & Dragoni, 2015). For emerging leaders, this can support enhanced individual leader capacities.

Leadership development programs are a mechanism within higher education to increase and enhance leadership competencies by drawing on research and best practices on leadership. A meta-analysis by Reyes et al. (2019) found that most leadership development programs in higher education focus on skill-based learning for students and do lead to learning. Leadership development programs have the “potential of fostering transformational change by creating learner awareness of problematic habitual patterns and provisioning a safe space for envisioning and practicing alternative patterns” (Debebe, Anderson, Bilimoria, & Vinnicombe, 2016, p. 233).

Women’s leadership development programs can support women in developing the necessary leadership capacities to change both perceptions of the capability of women leaders and the gendered composition of the workforce (McKenzie, 2018). Moving away from a deficiency model where it is thought that women need to be “fixed” in order to lead can better engage and develop emerging women leaders. Rather a framework in which women’s leadership development is driven by a wide range of learning experiences that include assessment, challenge, and support can enhance growth and lead to complex and new perspectives of understanding leadership (McCauley, Van Velsor, & Ruderman, 2010). These developmental experiences require psychologically safe workspaces that encourage challenging conversations around gender bias and provide opportunities for critical reflection, feedback, coaching, and mentoring to afford emerging women leaders a means to assess their leadership development needs.

For women, in particular, leadership development must address the systemic factors that often keep marginalized people from leading despite their possession of the requisite knowledge, skills, and abilities. A one-size-fits-all design does not tackle the various social identities that people bring to their leadership. Furthermore, social identities cannot simply be addressed in one workshop or class rather it should be integrated and woven throughout (Mahoney, 2016). While leadership development that focuses on specific leadership skills are important, the influence of social identity as a context of collective leadership and action is often not addressed in programs. Leadership development programs must shift to address the systemic issues that inhibit individual power. To do that, leadership development programs need to address and recognize the link between systems and various forms of bias, such as second-generation gender bias (Day, Riggio, Tan, & Conger, 2021). This recognition and awareness must then be coupled with solutions to address the systems in place that undermine individual achievements of marginalized groups that disallow them from taking on leadership.

A successful leadership development program is more than a compilation of leadership content, rather it should be designed with an undergird of theoretical principles and research. Leadership development programs “need to be theory-driven, use proven methods, be integrated into ongoing organizational processes, evaluated for effectiveness and substantial” (Riggio, 2008, p. 390). To be effective and inclusive, women’s leadership development programs must consider the context of second-generation gender bias (Bierma, 2017; Ely et al., 2011; Madsen & Andrade, 2018). Ely et al. (2011) suggested that leadership development be viewed as identity work grounded in gender and leadership theory. For this to happen, safe “identity workspaces” are needed to support women’s leader identity development (Ibarra et al., 2013). Research shows that women are able to better develop their leadership capacities when doing so in same gender environments (Ngunjiri & Gardiner, 2017). Women’s leadership development programs can create a psychologically safe setting to allow participants to lower defenses, share experiences, and benefit from the support of peers (Debebe et al., 2016; Kassotakis, 2017; Vinnicombe & Singh, 2002).

Furthermore, leadership development programs must be designed through a lens that includes critical perspectives and intersectionality in order to be inclusive and address inequity that exists in leadership (Day et al., 2021). Critical perspectives in leadership education and development that investigates the underlying power dynamics and an extended examination of inequities is necessary to recognize who holds power and how it leads to social stratification (Dugan, 2017). Intersectionality and how interlocking social identities (i.e. gender, race, class, etc.) come together and affect individuals and their access to leadership (Acker, 2006; Collins, 1995; Crenshaw, 1989) is necessary to address in women’s leadership development. Beyond gender identity, there are multiple social identities that people possess, some which are more privileged and carry more power than others. Understanding and exploring those layers and the range of identities that women represent can better address the complexity of leadership and the necessity of inclusive leadership (Ngunjiri & Gardiner, 2017).

Women in leadership development initiative

The Women in Leadership Development (WLD) Initiative is a year-long, multifaceted co-curricular leadership development opportunity for emerging women leaders at Claremont McKenna College in southern California. It was launched in 2021 with financial support from a private donor and is now in its third year. WLD was developed in response to student feedback and an interest in more robust leadership development for women students on campus.

WLD provided leadership training, leadership coaching, and leadership support networks to emerging women leaders. The initiative was developed to support the unique needs of emerging women leaders through the lens and context of second-generation gender bias. The WLD initiative goals were to (1) build awareness of current issues that are affecting gender and leadership; (2) foster confidence, competence, and efficacy to develop a strong leader identity; (3) empower women to develop leadership insights and skills to become effective leaders; and (4) inspire curiosity and interest in continuously developing as leaders. Through the WLD initiative, leadership fellows will build their leader identity, increase their self-awareness and leader self-efficacy, expand and improve their leadership skills and capabilities, and identify strengths and challenges as responsible leaders.

Undergraduate students who identify as women are invited to apply in the spring semester prior to the academic year. Applications are open to rising sophomores, juniors, and seniors. After a competitive selection process, a cohort of 30 Handley Leadership Fellows is selected each year. Fellows agree to a year-long commitment that includes participation in five leadership training activities, six one-on-one leadership coaching sessions, and four meetings with a support network during the course of the academic year as well as completion of assessments, evaluations, and pre-work assignments.

WLD was designed around the context of second-generation gender bias as well as research and theory on gender and leadership using feminist pedagogy and critical perspectives. WLD was organized around three leadership pathways: leadership training, leadership coaching, and leadership support networks (see Figure 1). The use of multiple modalities throughout the year helps to support emerging women leaders and their leadership development. In feminist pedagogy, learning and development takes place through experience by drawing out what the student already knows (Maher & Tereault, 1996, 2001). The responsibility for leadership development is in the hands of the student with guidance and facilitation from leadership educators, leadership coaches, and peer mentors.

Pathway 1: leadership training

Leadership training can build foundational knowledge and capabilities to develop effective leadership. The outcomes are to produce new or enhanced learning on a topic and use feminist pedagogy to draw out personal experiences with leadership to build connections. This component is “directed at helping the individual being trained to translate some newly learned skill, or piece of information, to a real and immediate situation” (Brungardt, 1996, p. 83). WLD provided leadership training on content relevant information around women and leadership delivered through a retreat and four workshop sessions.

WLD started each year with a retreat at the beginning of the fall semester. The retreat brought the cohort together to develop community, learn key leadership concepts, introduce issues of women and leadership, and launch their leadership development journeys. It sets the stage for learning and development to occur with a gender conscious framework by developing a safe environment for identity work and to foster interactive relationships among cohort participants.

Following the retreat, fellows participated in four workshops over the academic year. Each three-hour workshop focused on building awareness, knowledge, and essential skills to develop as effective leaders in the context of second-generation gender bias. Each workshop was developed and facilitated by experts on women and leadership. Leadership training topics were identified based on the literature and research on women and leadership and leadership development. Training topics and objectives are found in Table 1.

Through various leadership training modalities and pedagogies, the participants were engaged in interactive skill building with a focus on self-awareness. The retreat and workshops utilized a number of research-based learning modalities, such as small group discussions, critical reflection, storytelling, and role-playing. Using these types of pedagogies requires a degree of vulnerability to support learning and development. The creation of a holding environment provides fellows a space to be vulnerable and experience challenges by pushing themselves outside of their comfort zones. All leadership training activities include regular critical reflection as well as monthly journaling outside of workshops and other meetings to encourage them to continually assess their leadership learning and growth.

Pathway 2: leadership coaching

Professional leadership coaching is one of the most common leadership development tools in organizations (Burt & Talati, 2017) and is traditionally offered to high-potential employees and senior executives within the workplace (Grant, Curtayne, & Burton, 2009). It is a one-on-one relationship where the coach and client partner to co-create leadership goals (Ely et al., 2010) through “a thought-provoking and creative process that inspires them to maximize their personal and professional potential” (Wright, 2022, para. 2). While leadership coaching in an undergraduate college setting is less common, the benefits of leadership coaching to emerging leaders has been supported and demonstrates developmental value to enhance students' leadership capacity (Brown, Varghese, Sullivan, & Parson, 2021; Kolditz, Gill, & Brown, 2021).

Leadership coaching allows fellows to explore and maximize their leadership potential by providing them with the opportunity to develop their leader identity and self-awareness, assess their strengths and challenges, and stretch their capacity to lead and influence. Through the leadership coaching engagement, fellows develop their leader self-views and build strategies to enhance their leadership capabilities. Leadership development is stimulated by “situations that stretch an individual and are feedback-rich while providing a sense of support” (McCauley et al., 2010, pp. 6–7). In partnership with their leadership coach, fellows design and conduct developmental leadership experiments that allow them to practice new skills in the real world to develop and achieve their developmental goals.

In WLD, each leadership fellow engaged in six individual coaching sessions with a certified, professional leadership coach. These one-on-one coaching sessions were completed over a six-month period and provided the opportunity to take a deep dive into developing their leadership. During the first two sessions, fellows completed a leader development guide, adapted from Kolditz et al. (2021), with their coach where they were asked to reflect on the meaning of leadership and what their “leadership best self” might look like. By the end of the second session, they are asked to define a goal or set of goals to pursue over the course of the remaining four sessions. These elements have been identified to facilitate development by leadership coaches (Taylor, Passarelli, & Van Oosten, 2019).

Pathway 3: leadership support networks

In addition to leadership training and coaching, developmental relationships play an important role in leadership development. Topics around women and leadership can be challenging and sensitive. Creating a psychologically safe environment to develop as leaders in the context of second-generation gender bias, requires a collaborative effort among all involved (Shollen, 2016). Several leadership support networks were built into WLD and each leadership fellow was responsible for upholding a space that is respectful and supportive.

Each WLD cohort included no more than 30 women to foster a community of peer support and a sense of belonging to create a psychologically safe environment for women leaders to grow and thrive. Designed as a cohort-based initiative to encourage strong connections for understanding and vulnerability, the cohort was further split into smaller leadership circles composed of five to six fellows. Each workshop was structured around the leadership circles to encourage regular discussion, check-ins, and reflection to build continued relationships. The leadership circles were empowered to meet at least twice a semester outside of regular meetings. These meetings took place between workshops to reinforce the skills learned, remain accountable, and build community. Guidelines and potential prompts were provided as starting points but were flexible enough so that each leadership circle could have ownership over their conversations. These leadership circle meetings allowed fellows to connect, support, and reflect together on their leadership development outside of the workshops and leadership coaching sessions.

Initiative evaluation and outcomes

The first cohort of Handley Leadership Fellows for the WLD initiative included 30 women. In year two, a new cohort was selected with 30 students. To date, 59 students from two cohorts have completed WLD. Leadership fellows received a $1,000 fellowship stipend and each fellow invested 27–30 hours developing their leadership through WLD. The women varied by class years (see Table 2).

An important component of any leadership development program is evaluation and assessment. We created a multi-method evaluation plan to determine the impact and extent to which students developed enhanced leader self-views as a result of participating in WLD. Reaction-level data were gathered at the very basic level to assess satisfaction, usefulness, and perceived value of the initiative. This process related feedback was also used to enhance and improve the design of the initiative. To assess learning objectives and growth, pre-post developmental change data and peer ratings were collected. While pre-post analyses may have limitations in assessing the actual growth as a result of the initiative, the use of peer ratings in this multi-methods approach helped to mitigate those drawbacks in the absence of a control group and address issues associated with self-ratings.

Reaction-level evaluation

Evaluation surveys were administered at the end of every cohort and coaching interaction. This included each leadership training activity (i.e. retreat and four workshops), leadership coaching session, and at the end of the overall initiative. After every leadership training, participants were asked to rate 10 closed-ended questions regarding general programming on a scale from 1 (Strongly Disagree) to 5 (Strongly Agree). In addition, they were then asked three open-ended questions regarding what they like best, how they would apply their skills, and what could be improved.

Leadership fellows found the retreat and workshops useful and the content practical. Overall, satisfaction with all workshops was high, and they were effective in meeting their individual learning objectives. Participants shared that they enjoyed the opportunities for learning about the various topics related to women and leadership and interacting with their leadership circles in discussions. Fellows expressed interest in all the topics. They found the statistics and studies about women and leadership interesting and useful. In fact, their open-ended feedback suggested the inclusion of more information on connected research and practical strategies. In response, the content was revised and reorganized in the second year and one of the workshop topics was changed to explicitly address gender bias (see Table 1). They felt that through thoughtful reflection and written exercises they became more self-aware while keeping leadership in mind. The addition of more interactive prompts and journal entries contributed to the fellows’ enthusiasm and engagement during the workshop. The fellows enjoyed the opportunity to learn and engage in the content with others.

Fellows believed the leadership coaching sessions were valuable and consistently expressed how positive their experiences were with their coaching engagements. It was regularly rated as one of the most important components of the initiative on evaluations. Coaches were rated highly and fellows were very satisfied with their coaches. They enjoyed the opportunity to reflect on leadership, work on their leadership goals, and create action plans that allowed them to practice their leadership in everyday situations. They felt that the coaches were active listeners who provided thought-provoking questions that elicited insights and they provided a safe space for them to be open and to explore various leadership issues related to gender. Leadership coaching was extremely important in helping them to identify their individual goals and work to meet those goals.

Fellows regularly commented in evaluations about the importance of the support they received from their leadership circles and how valuable their circles were in building a community for their leadership development journeys. It provided an environment to have conversations, share diverse perspectives on leadership, and find commonality in the issues they faced as women leaders. In particular, the fellows enjoyed their conversations with their peers and appreciated getting to know their peers on a deeper level. They valued the opportunity to be vulnerable in expressing their personal experiences as well as become active listeners. They felt the community aspect of the program was an essential piece for their leadership development.

Overall, fellows reported that they enjoyed and were satisfied with the WLD initiative. While leadership training provided an essential foundation to build leadership, the most valuable components of the initiative were leadership coaching and leadership support networks. The supportive, personal and developmental mechanisms of leadership coaching were highly valued by fellows. The community and relationships that the leadership circles and cohort fostered gave them the necessary support and psychologically safe space in which they could talk about the important and challenging issues that they regularly face as women leaders.

Impact assessment

Pre-post developmental change. All fellows completed pre-post assessments to determine the developmental impact and the extent to which learning objectives were met. All fellows completed four measurement scales to assess aspects of leadership self-views identified as leader development indicators: leadership self-efficacy (how a leader perceives their ability to perform as a leader), leader identity (the extent to which a leader sees themself as a leader), and developmental self-efficacy (the leader’s belief in whether or not they can improve as a leader).

The leadership self-efficacy scale consisted of eight items (Murphy, 1992), such as “I feel that I know a lot more than most leaders about what it takes to be a good leader.” Two measures were used to assess leader identity. The leader identity scale, adapted from Hiller (2005), included five items from the descriptive subscale, for example, “I am a leader.” The authentic leader identity scale (Brown & Varghese, 2019) integrated multiple facets of a person’s leadership construction of themselves and consisted of nine items including “I feel confident to lead when opportunities arise.” Five items made up the leader developmental self-efficacy scale (Reichard, Walker, Putter, Middleton, & Johnson, 2017) with statements like “I am confident that I can achieve the levels of leadership ability to which I aspire.” Responses for all four scales ranged from 1 (Disagree Strongly) to 5 (Agree Strongly).

A comparison of pre-post measures, using paired-samples t-tests, showed that the fellows enhanced their leadership self-views. No statistically significant differences were found between the two cohorts so analyses were combined. Specifically, fellows gained confidence in their abilities as a leader and had stronger views of their abilities to perform as a leader as shown by their leadership self-efficacy scores, t(55) = −4.98, p < 0.001, d = 0.60. The statistically significant increase in leader identity, t(55) = −5.28, p < 0.001, d = 0.54, and authentic leader identity scales, t(55) = −4.68, p < 0.001, d = 0.54, indicated that fellows were more likely to see themselves as a leader at the end of the program. However, their beliefs on their ability to improve as a leader remained stable as indicated by their developmental self-efficacy scores, t(55) = −1.52, p = 0.067, d = 0.54. Fellows were highly motivated to develop as leaders by their interest and self-selection into the program, so it is not surprising that these scores remained stable and were already relatively high from the start.

Peer ratings. Each fellow was asked to rate peers in their leadership circles on observed growth in self-awareness, self-confidence, and an unrelated area at the end of the initiative. Using a measure adapted from Brown et al. (2021), fellows rated observed changes over the course of eight months with respect to self-awareness, self-confidence, and enthusiasm for the college. Self-awareness and self-confidence have been noted as two common leadership coaching goals that students often focus on Brown and Varghese (2019). The last area was included as irrelevant conceptual foil, which was a non-dependent variable that had little, if anything, to do with the initiative and were intended to act as functional equivalents of an outcome-level control group (Haccoun & Hamtiaux, 1994; Salas, Weaver, & Shuffler, 2012). Observed growth was rated on a seven-point response scale 1 (none at all) to 7 (a great deal). Each participant received ratings from four to five peers who were a part of their leadership circle.

Observed growth ratings across self-awareness and self-confidence in comparison to enthusiasm for college were examined via paired-samples t-tests. No statistically significant differences were found between the two cohorts so analyses were combined. Peer-observed growth ratings were significantly higher for self-awareness (M = 5.81, SD = 1.27), t(267) = 3.55, p < 0.001, d = 1.17, and self-confidence (M = 6.09, SD = 1.09), t(267) = 8.052, p < 0.001, d = 1.09, as compared to enthusiasm for college (M = 5.56, SD = 1.36; see Figure 2).

Discussion and recommendations

Leadership development is a journey and the undergraduate years are the prime time to create a strong foundation for that developmental expedition. WLD delivered a year-long, multifaceted leadership development program to emerging women leaders intentionally grounded in research on gender and leadership with strong support mechanisms. This application paper described the following: the design of WLD and how it was organized around three leadership pathways; the ways in which each leadership pathway supports the leadership development journey for emerging women leaders, and lastly it provided an impactful model for undergraduate women’s leadership development. The research and literature on women’s leadership development programs informed the design of WLD in combination with best practices of leadership development. Taking previous research and the WLD model there are three general guiding principles that leadership educators, practitioners, and scholars can use to create intentional and robust programming that supports women’s leadership development. For those who want to implement a program similar to WLD, the following principles should be considered.

Guiding Principle 1: development is a process that requires continuous work over time

WLD took place over the course of an academic year. It was not a single event but rather it was a multifaceted approach to support the development of emerging women leaders. WLD provided multiple, varied opportunities through the three leadership pathways to experiment with new skills and reflect on various leadership topics as well as to question the status quo and dominant narratives in relation to gender.

Leadership development is a process that entails consistency, practice, experimentation, and regular reflection (Avolio, 2005; Guthrie & Jenkins, 2018). It requires a commitment to continuously and consciously work on one’s leadership competencies over time to experience growth (Day & Dragoni, 2015). Thus, programming that moves beyond a single, standalone activity to a series of related leadership trainings that build upon and revisit issues and skills will have a stronger developmental impact. In addition to a series of leadership training activities, regular critical reflection and journaling between sessions fostered a mindset to continue thinking about leadership outside of regular program meetings.

The use of multiple learning modalities coupled with the regular and consistent reflection of systemic issues related to leadership and gender, allows emerging leaders to create paradigms to guide their development. This was done not only through leadership training but also through leadership coaching by providing individualized attention to drive their personal leadership goals with the guidance of a certified leadership coach. With their coaches, emerging leaders could come up with experiments to practice new leadership skills in their everyday lives, reflect on leadership, and home in on working toward their best leadership self over the course of multiple sessions.

Guiding Principle 2: intentionally frame leadership development around gender identity and systemic factors

WLD was intentionally designed around the context of second-generation gender bias with a firm grounding of the research and theories on gender and leadership. WLD created rigorous and robust programming around gender identity and systemic factors to encourage meaningful experience and development. The multifaceted leadership training curriculum was shaped around the use of feminist pedagogy and critical perspectives to ensure that these issues were integrated into the foreground of leadership development.

Leadership development must extend beyond the compilation of leadership content. Leadership development must address the systemic components that often keep women from leading, such as second-generation gender bias (Bierma, 2017; Day et al., 2021; Ely et al., 2011; Madsen & Andrade, 2018). These issues cannot simply be addressed in one workshop or class rather it needs to be an integral frame that shapes the leadership development program. Leadership training can provide a foundation and knowledge base to heighten awareness of systemic factors that contribute to second-generation gender bias through research-based information and interactive activities.

Furthermore, leadership education that takes critical perspectives into account and addresses issues of identity and intersectionality are essential to bridge the inequity in leadership and promote inclusive leadership mindsets (Day et al., 2021; Tan & DeFrank-Cole, 2023). Students bring multiple identities to their leadership. Being able to understand and explore what leadership means from perspectives that are marginalized and have less opportunity for power and influence can help to illuminate the complexity of leadership. When focusing on skill-building and addressing critical issues, leadership development can help emerging leaders become better prepared for a diverse workforce, support their growth as effective leaders, and help to identify strategies to deal with and combat barriers.

Guiding Principle 3: meaningful and effective developmental experiences include assessment, challenge, and support

WLD used multiple modalities to encourage developmental experiences that combine assessment, challenge, and support to drive impactful growth. WLD embedded both formal and informal assessments in leadership training and leadership coaching as a means to help women understand and identify their values and goals for their leadership development journeys. Through repeated critical reflection, dialogue, and feedback, women can build stronger understanding of their leadership to strengthen their leader identities. With this awareness, emerging women leaders can begin to take on incrementally challenging activities coupled with a sense of support to stimulate growth.

Together, the three elements of assessment, challenge, and support, motivate people to focus on their learning and growth as well as help them identify areas for development (McCauley et al., 2010). Participants were challenged to think beyond prevailing prototypical ideals of leadership and exposed to different perspectives. Critical issues on gender and leadership should be regularly explored to allow emerging leaders to deconstruct dominant narratives and leadership prototypes for more inclusive and equity-based mindsets of leadership. Strategies and skills are first practiced in supportive environments and then they are encouraged to apply skills outside of the initiative. Leadership coaching addressed individualized leadership goals to sufficiently stretch each leader through developmental experiments that took them out of their comfort zones.

Furthermore, leadership support networks that included their leadership cohort and leadership circle helped to promote a sense of belonging and foster safe leadership workspaces to build confidence to grow. This allowed emerging leaders to share narratives and experiences, to learn from one another, and to provide confirmation and clarification of lessons learned. Safe leadership workspaces provide leaders support to explore and reflect on a variety of issues, challenges, and identities as well as practice and experiment with new inclusive leadership skills (Debebe et al., 2016; Ely et al., 2011; Ibarra et al., 2013; Kassotakis, 2017; Vinnicombe & Singh, 2002).


There are some drawbacks to identity-conscious leadership development programs, such as those created only for women. For instance, they imply that women need special treatment or lack certain leadership skills (Cundiff, Ryuk, & Cech, 2018). In other words, identity-conscious programs focus on the notion that the woman must be “fixed” (Kolb, Fletcher, Meyerson, Merrill-Sands, & Ely, 1998). Furthermore, women-only leader development programs can be psychologically threatening to the dominant group, further perpetuating stereotypes and increasing intergroup tensions (Cundiff et al., 2018; Dover, Major, & Kaiser, 2016).

Women’s leadership programs typically focus solely on the individual woman and do not address the system. WLD addressed the systemic issues related to leadership and gender. However, these issues were presented to a women-only audience. Opportunities to educate and include men as allies in these conversations would foster inclusion in leadership. All genders need leadership development that addresses leadership in the context of second-generation gender bias and inclusion to enhance strategies and solutions to work against gender-based obstacles (DeFrank-Cole & Tan, 2022).

One recommendation to ameliorate the drawbacks is to create events that bring together emerging women leaders from the initiative and their allies to educate and build awareness of issues that emphasize the broader systemic and cultural challenges that face women leaders, such as second-generation gender bias. The sessions should include interactive exercises and dialogue around systemic obstacles and intersectional viewpoints that culminates in concrete strategies and transformative ideas to support women leaders and bridge the gender gap on campus and, potentially, other settings. It would also highlight the benefits to men and other genders that these strategies to support women would promote. Women’s leadership development initiatives can emphasize both individual strategies and the broader systemic and cultural shifts with the inclusion of all genders.


It is clear that leadership development is a life-long journey, not a one-time activity. WLD provided leadership development to emerging women leaders through several pathways to support robust leadership development: leadership training, leadership coaching, and leadership support networks. Each cohort of emerging women leaders invested over 200 cumulative hours of their time in developing their leadership over the course of an academic year and created a basis to continue their development. The strength of this year-long initiative is that it intentionally compiled robust leadership content with an undergird of theoretical principles and research that is firmly grounded in gender and leadership through a series of multifaceted approaches. WLD delivered leadership development through three leadership pathways using various modalities that assess, challenge, and support emerging women leaders in an undergraduate setting. WLD provides a model that is impactful as well as foundational, for emerging women’s leadership development.


WLD leadership pathways

Figure 1

WLD leadership pathways

Peer ratings of observed growth across domains

Figure 2

Peer ratings of observed growth across domains

Leadership training sessions

WLD retreatTopic: Embrace your inner leaderTopic: Navigating gender bias*
Objectives: Participants will
  • Create a community of peer support and foster a sense of belonging

  • Identify various perspectives of leadership

  • Identify their values

  • Heighten their awareness of second-generation gender bias

Objectives: Participants will
  • Understand the importance of leader identity development

  • Identify the unique barriers that women face in their leader identity development

  • Develop and practice strategies and tools to support women’s leader identity development in the context of second-generation gender bias

Objectives: Participants will
  • Understand how women experience bias

  • Explore issues of intersectionality

  • Develop and practice strategies for navigating gender biases

*Revised topic for Year 2
Topic: Interpersonal skills to enhance influenceTopic: Manifest your leadership visionTopic: Celebrations and reflections
Objectives: Participants will
  • Understand the importance of cultivating key interpersonal communication skills to influence and lead

  • Explore how the concepts of power and influence are linked with leadership communication

  • Develop and practice authentic storytelling skills as an invaluable tool for cultivating influence

Objectives: Participants will
  • Craft a personal mission statement as a foundation for future development

  • Develop an individual leadership development plan for the future

  • Identify a personal board of directors to continue their support

Objectives: Participants will
  • Reflect on learning and developmental experiences

  • Recognize and celebrate accomplishments

Source(s): Table by the author

Class year of leadership fellows at the time of participation

Year 1Year 2*
Class year

Note(s): *One fellow withdrew from the program after the first month due to time constraints

Source(s): Table by the author


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Corresponding author

Sherylle J. Tan can be contacted at: stan@cmc.edu

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