Toolkit Resources: Campus Models & Case Studies

Developing the Next Generation of Leaders at Women's Colleges


When Sweet Briar College announced its plans to close in March 2015, some pundits pronounced the event a long-awaited inevitability. “By many measures, today's women are flourishing in higher education and do not need a protected environment to develop their intellectual potential,” Diane Halpern wrote in an op-ed for the New York Times, adding that “as a small, rural, liberal arts women's college, Sweet Briar was fighting an up-hill battle.” Several think pieces from the time quoted the same passage from Brian Burton’s 2010 article in the Harvard Political Review on the decline of women’s colleges: “These institutions can no longer serve their original purpose: providing opportunities for those shut out from the male-dominated world of higher education.”

But Sweet Briar’s closure was not inevitable—it didn’t even happen. Faculty, alumnae, and students collaborated to raise the necessary operating funds and broker a deal with the Virginia Attorney General’s office to remain open under a new board of directors. This year, the college received a record number of applicants. “Women stepping up to save their college makes quite an impression on young women who say ‘I’d like to be a part of that outfit,’” Phillip Stone, Sweet Briar’s new president, told USA Today.

The sort of leadership and initiative shown by the students and alumnae of Sweet Briar are indicative of the unique kind of education offered by women’s colleges, according to many faculty and advocates for these institutions. Women’s colleges still offer distinctive opportunities for leadership education even as the form and purpose of that education changes, says Michele Ozumba, president of the Women’s College Coalition.

“There was a time when most prominent women leaders who were the ‘firsts’ in multiple sectors were graduates of women's colleges. Today, we're not limited to identifying the first woman in a given field so much as we are looking at how they are advancing into leadership roles in the public, private, and social sectors, and how their leadership is influencing workplace culture and productivity.”  

Barriers to Women Seeking Leadership Roles

Women are indeed “flourishing in higher education,” as Halpern says—more women than men complete college and graduate degrees, and with higher grade point averages. And yet, despite this educational pipeline of potential leaders, women are still far less likely than men to hold leadership positions in almost every industry and sector, including higher education, as the American Council on Education (ACE) described in a recent infographic brief.[1]

The situation is compounded for women of color. “Race, class, and gender all play important, intersecting roles in the obstacles and challenges for African American women who are moving into leadership positions,” says Jane Smith, vice president for college relations at Spelman College, a historically black women’s college in Atlanta, Georgia.[2] “And I want to say ‘who are moving’—because we do believe doors have been opened and paths have been made. But when you look at the data showing how much black women are paid and how often they are promoted, it continues to demonstrate that there are race, gender, and class dynamics that make the career path challenging.”

Even as the share of women in all sectors of the workforce continues to grow, American society sets certain expectations for women that can make it difficult for them to advance into leadership roles.  “There are gendered expectations that women are supposed to be caretakers and homemakers rather than leaders,” says Mary Shapiro, a professor of management at Simmons College in Boston. Those social expectations are problematic in their own right, but they are particularly damaging for women when they intersect with organizational expectations, she says. “People are expected to be available twenty-four–seven because of technology, so anyone who has any kind of outside work responsibilities is immediately shoved off the path toward leadership. . . . That’s disproportionately hitting women, as they tend to be the ones who step out from their leadership path to take care of children or aging parents.”

“The way we judge leaders’ efficacy is based on gendered stereotypes as well,” says Lynn Pasquerella, president of Mount Holyoke College in Massachusetts and president-elect of the Association of American Colleges and Universities. “The authoritarian, autocratic leader is strong, but the cooperative leadership approaches more likely to be exhibited by women are undervalued.” Shapiro agrees, and further notes that those roles that women are encouraged to fill—nurturers, caretakers, and collaborative workers—are not associated with leadership potential.

This set of social and institutional barriers combines to create a third type of barrier, Shapiro says, as gendered expectations about leadership and appropriate roles for women can have a detrimental effect on women’s own self-confidence and aspiration to leadership roles. Women are often socialized to use less-direct language that is then interpreted as indicating a lack confidence—and which can then lead to a real lack of confidence, she says. “Of course women don’t feel confident to step up and be leaders if they are being told they are not exhibiting confidence in a way that society recognizes.”

Practicing Leadership on Campus

“What we offer at women’s college is the opportunity for women to play a leadership role in every aspect of college life,” Pasquerella says. By their very nature, women’s colleges ensure that female students will have the chance to take on leadership positions without competing with men or facing gendered stereotypes about their leadership potential. Furthermore, these colleges provide their students with mentors and examples of women leaders who practice a range of leadership styles. 

“Women’s colleges are less likely to have stereotypes about good leaders that privilege top-down leadership,” Pasquerella says, “and I think the demonstration of collaborative, cooperative leadership makes a difference in catalyzing people to be innovators in their own lives and imagine themselves playing leadership roles.”

Many women’s colleges are explicitly structuring leadership development into the curriculum and cocurriculum. Spelman College emphasizes community engagement as a form of leadership development. All students are required to engage in service learning in order to graduate, and the college has a Bonner Scholars chapter, which provides service-learning scholarships for students with financial need who are interested in community service. Other opportunities are available for all students through the Center for Leadership and Civic Engagement (Spelman LEADS), which offers programs focused on leadership development, economic empowerment, advocacy through the arts, dialogue across difference, service learning, and civic engagement.

St. Catherine University (St. Kate’s), in St. Paul, Minnesota, also is guided by an ethos of “learning by doing,” says Margret McCue-Enser, a professor of communications. “Our founding as a Catholic university is grounded in recognition of our community’s needs. [Faculty members] set up our individual classes and learning objectives, but then we collaborate with the Center for Community, Work and Learning in order to partner with nonprofits and community groups of all kinds and demonstrate the real challenges we’re talking about. That’s a way to get students grappling with these questions in real time, with real leaders in the community.”

Bridging the Curriculum and Cocurriculum

McCue-Enser also serves as the director of the leadership studies minor at St. Kate’s. This program complements the practical leadership experience students get in the cocurriculum, she says. When faculty address leadership in the classroom “and bring an intellectual conversation to it, connect it with what we’re already doing … then students have the opportunity to directly, explicitly think about leadership from different perspectives.”

Pasquerella also notes that women who have engaged with these ideas in college are “undaunted by the kinds of obstacles they are likely to face, because they are able to see them for what they are—[they] are less likely to think, ‘this is about me,’ and more likely to see it as another example of one of those hidden biases.” These topics can, of course, be studied at any institution, but the single-sex educational environment is much more conducive to frank conversations about these topics, Shapiro says. Women may feel uncomfortable discussing these issues around male colleagues, and research shows that women are less likely to be called on or have their positions defended in class than men.

Engaging with these topics in the curriculum is especially important for women of color, says Jane Smith, and it forms the basis of Spelman’s educational philosophy. “We are in the business of challenging those obstacles in equality and equity…. If you look at the offerings in biology, sociology, the arts, it doesn’t matter—you will find a course on black women and social change, black women in the economy, black women in educational development worldwide, and in specific careers. The curriculum is liberal arts based, that’s central to our mission, but it also has opportunities built into the coursework to make sure we are addressing race, class, and gender.”

McCue-Enser teaches the two bookend courses for the leadership minor at St. Kate’s—Foundations in Leadership and the Leadership Capstone, the latter of which requires students to engage in a leadership project outside of class and keep portfolios in which they reflect on their personal growth as leaders. The foundations course, taken in the second year, “explores historical and philosophical discussions of leadership as well as leadership theory as an interdisciplinary area of study,” with an emphasis on self-reflection. McCue Enser also emphasizes communications in the course. “I tell my students, part of leadership is advocacy work. . . . As an advocate, you’re probably going to find yourself behind the microphone or in some way making arguments in front of communities to serve the greater good. In order to do that, you need to think about persuasion, culture, and your role as a public speaker.”

The rest of the minor requirements are filled by electives from departments across the university. “We had some criteria in terms of content and assignments explicitly taking up questions of leadership,” McCue-Enser says, but then “we went to departments and asked them to define leadership for themselves, in specific courses … It was organic to the people in that field.” It also helped ensure that the minor would be complementary to the curricula offered in different majors, she says.

Similarly, Simmons College has invited all academic departments to contribute courses focused on leadership and barriers to women’s full participation as part of the college’s new general education curriculum. Students take a course each year that focuses specifically on leadership. Each of these courses has as a core set of learning objectives focused on helping students think about how society has influenced their views of leadership and whether or not they view themselves as leaders. Faculty are free to approach these learning outcomes through whatever topic or context they choose, and there are about twenty offerings each semester.

Simmons’s general counsel, for example, teaches a course that focuses on women, and particularly women of color, who have been protagonists at the center of Supreme Court cases and “chose to be leaders in the sense that they said, this law is wrong and I will fight it up to the Supreme Court,” Shapiro says. She teaches a course of her own titled Quiet Leadership that is about—and to an extent, for—introverts and how they are perceived as leaders. “American culture has extraverted ideals,” Shapiro says, “It’s easy for these young girls who have grown up being called too shy, too sensitive, to never be able to think of themselves as leaders. My course is getting them to think about what strengths their introverted personality brings to the table, and to see that those are leadership behaviors, and to claim that.”

Getting women to claim that “leader” title for themselves is one of the biggest obstacles, McCue-Enser says—“many female students don’t self-identify as leaders or self-advocate, and it’s hurting their opportunities.” And the costs of those lost opportunities are borne not just by the individual women but also by their families and communities, she says. “Leadership is connected to community, and if women aren’t owning their talents and articulating them, everyone loses.”


Photos courtesy of Spelman College and St. Catherine University/By Rebecca Studios.

[1] See the “Facts & Figures” column in this issue for a summary of the findings in the ACE report; further context can be found in Kathryn Peltier Campbell’s recent blog post “Rising Early and Pushing Barriers: Women’s Leadership in Higher Education.


[2] All colleges referenced in this article are women’s colleges.

Spelman College, St. Catherine University, Simmons College