Breaking Leadership Barriers on Stanford’s Campus and Beyond

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Breaking Leadership Barriers on Stanford’s Campus and Beyond

by Kristine Kilanski on Monday, April 10, 2017 - 11:03am

Women in the United States remain underrepresented in positions of leadership. Currently, women comprise only 5.8% of CEOs and 20.2% of directors on the boards of Fortune 500 companies. Women hold a paltry 19.4% of seats in Congress, and there are only four women governors in the country. Women are also underrepresented on the faculty of elite universities, including here at Stanford where men hold just over 70% of faculty positions. While white women face a “glass ceiling,” women of color face a “concrete ceiling” to advancement.   

Why are there so few women in leadership positions? Why is it important to have women leaders? What can individuals and organizations do to increase gender and other forms of diversity in leadership? These are the questions that students have set out to answer over the past three years in Think 46: Why So Few? Gender Diversity and Leadership, an undergraduate course created and taught by Professor Shelley Correll, the Barbara D. Finberg Director of the Clayman Institute for Gender Research and Professor of Sociology at Stanford University. 

PC: Jennifer TownhillCorrell has spent her tenure as director of the Institute working with colleagues to develop and disseminate research-based strategies to reduce bias against women and minorities and foster more inclusive work environments. Her decision to offer a course to undergraduates on the topic of gender diversity and leadership came from her experience sharing the Institute’s work with audiences in Silicon Valley and beyond. “The experience that I’ve had with sharing this research in the corporate sector, in executive education, and in higher education with staff and faculty, has been that people respond by saying, ‘I wish that I had known this earlier in my life,’” Correll said in our interview.

For Stanford students, learning the barriers that women and minorities face to workplace advancement can be shocking. “Women that come into Stanford as freshmen feel like they’re on top of the world, they know that they’re in a freshman class that’s roughly 50/50, they really have a vision of their current lives and future lives as being highly equitable in terms of gender,” explained Kjerstin Gruys (Stanford Thinking Matters Fellow ’14-16 and co-teacher). Think 46 student Maggie Davis (’19) concurred: “A lot of women my age grew up with the illusion that the glass ceiling was gone,” she said, noting that the course opened her eyes to the many ways that gender bias and stereotypes manifest and operate to hold women back in their career. 

Not wanting their students to think that leadership roles were impossible, the teaching team aimed to help students to “start thinking about some of those considerations early on so that they can take whatever obstacles in stride,” explained Pete Mohanty (Stanford Thinking Matters Fellow ’14-17 and co-teacher). “This course is constantly challenging students in two directions, one of which is understanding the depth and complexity of the challenges facing women and minorities, while at the same time understanding that women and people of all variety can and do make it every day,” Mohanty added.

To help students successfully navigate what scholars Alice Eagly and Linda Carli call the "labyrinth to leadership," Correll infused a unique job skills-based learning into the course. In addition to reading academic texts, homework included watching videos by experts on topics such as how to successfully negotiate and how to build effective networks. Students were given an opportunity to discuss and practice the skills in class. A capstone research project required students to network with a professional working in the student’s area of interest, or with an expert working on issues of diversity.

“Can we give the students in the class, both men and women, the ability to think about how to get beyond those barriers?”

Correll explained that she views skill-building as one part of a much longer road ahead, a short-term solution to a longer-term challenge of fixing institutions to support women and men minorities: “The skills-based piece gives students the tools to be able to, as much as possible, successfully navigate their own careers, to know how to persist in the face of barriers. Because while we need to change our workplaces, we also need to help students understand the barriers out there that continue to limit women’s advancement,” Correll observed. “Can we give the students in the class, both men and women, the ability to think about how to get beyond those barriers?”

No matter their career aspirations, students found immense value in the course and have recommended it to their peers. Gabriela Torres-Lorenzotti (’19) appreciates the opportunities she is being afforded as a student at Stanford University, and she hopes to utilize her newfound leadership skills to pursue social justice-related goals. Andrew Guan (’19) reported that had leadership aspirations prior to taking the course. However, he says that taking Think 46 has made him “more cognizant of the different challenges that people face,” and that he will carry this knowledge forward through his career, and use it to be part of the solution. 

Student Maggie Davis said that the course has already changed her life. While in the course, she said she began “seeing myself and my surroundings through the lens of sociology and the lens of gender studies.” She started noticing that mainly men were talking in her computer science courses, even though she knew the answers to her professors’ questions, too: “I was, for some reason, holding myself back in that way and I’d never even noticed.”

Now, she’s starting to speak up.

Kristine Kilanski
Postdoctoral Fellow 2015-17

Kristine Kilanski is a Postdoctoral Research Fellow at the Clayman Institute for Gender Research. Her previous work examined how gender inequality is embedded into 21st century work organizations, the effectiveness of corporate diversity programs for increasing...