Women’s Studies: Civic Engagement and Exploring Gendered Ideas about Leadership

Title: Teaching Civic Engagement: Exploring Gendered Ideas about Leadership in Women’s Studies
Discipline(s) or Field(s): Women’s Studies, Ethnic Studies, Business, Education, History, Political Science, English
Authors: Lauren Smith, Ellie Schemenauer, Rebecca Schrum, Zohreh Ghavamshahidi, Mary Emery, University of Wisconsin – Whitewater
Submission Date: October 29, 2009

Executive Summary: With this lesson study, we wanted to foster critical thinking about male-centered ideas of leadership and challenge students to imagine leadership and leadership styles in more inclusive ways. In addition, we wanted to explore ways of empowering students to move from understanding social issues to understanding their own responsibility and capacity for civic engagement, particularly by addressing the difficulties women students have in imagining themselves in leadership roles.

The group invited three women leaders, two in politics and one in education, to speak to a total of five different Introduction to Women’s Studies classes.  We helped the students come up with a series of questions to address to their visiting speaker, and members of the group were available to observe each class.  In addition, we asked students to respond to a series of pre-lecture and post-lecture questions.  The group met several times before and after each lesson to discuss plans and observations.  The most useful data we found, however, came from the pre- and post-lesson discussion boards.

Our findings were sometimes surprising and multi-faceted.  For example, when asked to cite examples of good leaders in the pre-speaker discussion board, these women’s studies students named mostly men.  This dynamic was especially pronounced for male students, the large majority of whom didn’t list any female leaders at all.  We also analyzed the pre-lesson discussion board for the masculine and feminine qualities associated with leadership.  We found that students were slightly more likely to associate leadership with qualities we identified as masculine than with qualities we identified as feminine.  Men were less likely than women to describe leadership in feminine terms and more likely than women to have a hierarchical vision of leadership. Pre-lesson questions about the students’ own capacity for leadership also yielded interesting gendered results.  While both male and female students were relatively positive about their own leadership capacity, women were most likely to qualify and contextualize their positive responses and men were most likely to reply with definite positive or negative responses.

The post-lesson discussion board also yielded interesting results.  When we asked students whether their ideas had changed as a result of the lesson, relatively few students were willing to say that the lesson had changed their perspective.  Many students responded with what we classified a “no, but . . .” response.  These students would qualify their negative response with details about how their thinking had in some way been affected, enhanced or modified.  Self-reported changes were once again gendered.  Both in relation to their thinking about leadership qualities generally and their thinking about their own leadership capacity, women were much more likely than men to report some change in their thinking as a result of the lesson.

When the group analyzed the discussion board for evidence of change beyond self-reports, the results were complicated.  The shifts we saw in the student discussion did not necessarily go in the directions that we had predicted or planned for, nor were student changes in thinking necessarily more feminist.  In addition, the qualitative changes in thinking were different depending on which speaker the students had seen.  Three promising threads emerged in the conversation, however:  speakers’ strength and ability to endure adversity, explicit conversation about gender, and the “down-to-earth” qualities of the speakers.  Each of these suggested to us the emergence of a more complicated and more feminized vision of leadership.

Students’ changes in attitude about their own leadership capacity were especially unpredictable.  We had assumed that women students would see themselves as more capable of leadership after the lesson.  Instead, all the students tended towards more specificity when they described their own abilities as leaders.  At first glance, this would suggest that students were less likely, rather than more likely, to see themselves as leaders.  After analyzing and discussing student responses, however, the group felt that student post-lesson responses showed greater sophistication, a more realistic idea about what leadership might involve, and a more thoughtful consideration of the questions than had been shown in the pre-lesson discussion board.

Overall, the lesson study was extremely useful in providing information both about student attitudes and about student learning processes.  The students clearly benefitted from the guest speakers we brought in.  They expressed enthusiasm about and engagement in the lesson.  Though the learning evidenced in the discussion board was often unpredictable, it was also profound.  Student thinking showed greater complexity and sophistication, as well as more depth and awareness around gender issues—even when the students did not arrive at conclusions we might have predicted or desired.  We also gained valuable insights about students’ gendered ideas about leadership and differing attitudes of male and female students on this topic.

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