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Fall 2012/Winter 2013

Volume 41
Numbers 2-3

Challenges and Opportunities for Women's Leadership



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From Where I Sit



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From Where I Sit

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Briah Fischer
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Briah Fischer
 

Finding Balance in Leadership
Briah Fischer, senior majoring in public health at Tulane University

Upon arrival at institutions of higher education, college men and women may share certain experiences: navigating campus geography and resources, meeting diverse friends or roommates, and enjoying their newfound independence if it is their first time away from home. Despite these similarities, researchers have begun to notice glaring differences between first-year men and women, particularly when it comes to leadership. Men tend to enter college with greater confidence in their leadership abilities than is typical of their female peers, and this confidence gap never quite closes during the undergraduate years (Sax 2008). In addition, a recent study of undergraduate leadership at Princeton University suggests that male and female students may have different ideas of what leadership entails, with women more interested in making an impact on causes about which they are passionate and men more likely to seek positions at an organization’s helm (Keohane 2011). As an undergraduate woman, I am particularly interested in the implications these differences have for the future of women’s leadership.  

Discovering Differences

Reflecting on the start of my own undergraduate career at Tulane University, I am not surprised by the recent findings on gender and undergraduate leadership. I wandered timidly through my first semester of classes and extracurricular activities, while my male peers always seemed to be dashing to this intramural game or that pre-law society meeting. Most of the meetings I attended had one thing in common: male students led them. At these meetings, participants seemed to be checking things off their “to-do” lists—events planned, projects finished, the next meeting’s agenda established. Each organization’s predominantly male executive board had determined the organization’s direction and told the general membership how to bring their vision to fruition.

When I finally came across an organization led by a mostly female executive board, I saw a leadership style that was dramatically different. Officers invited input after introducing each item on the agenda, asking general members to help shape the projects and events that would accomplish their vision. Accustomed to actively participating only when specific tasks were assigned, I wondered, What could I possibly contribute to the decision-making processes of a group I joined a mere two weeks ago? And why are the officers asking my opinion on their project instead of assigning me a role that will help accomplish their goals? As a results-oriented individual, I left feeling unsettled.  

I now recognize that the contrast between these meetings reflects differences in leadership styles typically associated with (although not always adopted by) men and women. At Princeton, men aspired to “set a course” for the organization, while women prioritized the “impact or efficacy of the group” (Keohane 2011, 68). My dissatisfaction with both approaches points toward a major challenge facing undergraduate women leaders today: finding balance. How can we, as college women, find a leadership style that is both collaborative and decisive? How do we take others’ input into account while making tough decisions to move our organizations toward our desired impact?

Finding Balance

Shortly after attending these meetings during my first semester at Tulane, I applied to the Newcomb Scholars program through the Newcomb College Institute (NCI). With its mission of “educating undergraduate women for leadership in the 21st century” (NCI 2012), NCI serves as the present-day legacy of Newcomb College, Tulane’s all-women partner institution until 2005. I was accepted into the inaugural class of the Newcomb Scholars, a group of twenty intellectually curious and motivated women who would pursue independent research and close relationships over our four years as a cohort. My experiences as a Newcomb Scholar have shaped my perspective on women’s leadership, providing the lens through which I identify opportunities to find balance as a woman leader.   

I have found that the first step to becoming an effective leader is to develop a greater understanding of oneself. Identifying core beliefs can help a leader better grasp her outlook on pertinent issues, while recognizing strengths and weaknesses can help her shape her choices about how to make an impact. This lesson crystallized for me during the second Newcomb Scholars seminar, held in the fall of my cohort’s sophomore year.  Each of the cohort’s four fall-semester seminars focused on a different aspect of the independent research process. During the second seminar, a new professor spoke with the cohort each week. Participating faculty members described why they had chosen one discipline over another, what drove them to pursue a particular research topic, and how they approached finding “truth” in their respective fields. Through these presentations, I learned that operating from an understanding of oneself is exponentially more productive than trying to mimic those around you or those who came before you. By developing this understanding, college women can learn to trust their judgment and make tough decisions.  

While understanding one’s own potential is important, enhancing one’s leadership capabilities through connections with others, and especially with other women, is also critical. At Princeton, female students were found to benefit even more than their male peers from access to role models such as professors, supervisors, and alumni, especially when those role models were also female (Keohane 2011). Mentors in particular are extremely important, and forging a mentor–mentee relationship can force young women to consider certain factors: What personal and professional characteristics drew you to your mentor? How can your role model’s perspective broaden your own outlook on important issues? By infusing one’s own outlook with lessons learned from a mentor, college women can prepare to practice a collaborative approach in their own leadership roles.

The Newcomb Scholars program takes a unique approach to the mentor–mentee relationship by facilitating peer mentorship among the women in each cohort. Newcomb Scholars seminars impel cohort members to develop and voice our opinions on scholarly material in an exclusively female environment where we feel comfortable discussing the issues we each deem most significant. Outside of the classroom, we bond by hosting social events such as retreats, brunches, and study hours at the Newcomb College Institute. Seeing my fellow scholars’ faces light up as they speak about their interests, both academic and extracurricular, motivates me to fully engage in pursuing my passions. As a group, we not only encourage each other to take intellectual risks, but also inspire each other to seek out leadership roles that will allow us to affect our chosen causes.

The cause that has inspired my leadership is my belief that having a healthy mind, body, and spirit enables students to thrive in the college atmosphere. In my sophomore year, I started writing a healthy living column for Her Campus Tulane, an online magazine with daily content focused on topics from healthy eating to social engagement on campus and in the New Orleans community. As a senior, I became president and editor for Her Campus Tulane because I wanted to increase readership and expose a broader audience to the ideas presented in our online platform. I also promote health as a trip leader for Tulane's Outdoor Recreation program and as cofounder of a health and wellness organization that I started with fellow Newcomb Scholars.

Looking Forward

In college, students learn a lot about who we are and what we are capable of accomplishing. Such personal realizations can help college women undertake the challenge of finding balance as leaders. Acknowledging our strengths and weaknesses builds confidence in our ability to make tough decisions for the benefit of a group, while drawing on the experiences of women mentors, including peer mentors, primes us to collaborate for the greatest impact. The Newcomb Scholars program has provided me with a community of intelligent and ambitious women with whom to share the journey of coming into my own as a female leader. When on occasion I still find myself struggling to balance my desire for collective decision making with my need to trust my own judgment, I remember that the search for balance is significant and necessary to create impact. I am grateful to the Newcomb Scholars program for engaging me in this search, and I would encourage other institutions of higher education to similarly foster their female students’ potential to become the next generation of women leaders.   

References

Keohane, Nannerl. 2011. “Report of the Steering Committee on Undergraduate Women’s Leadership.” Princeton, NJ: Princeton University.

Newcomb College Institute of Tulane University. 2012. http://tulane.edu/newcomb/.

Sax, Linda. 2008. The Gender Gap in College: Maximizing the Developmental Potential of Women and Men. San Francisco, CA: John Wiley & Sons. 



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