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Wolniak and Chen-Bendle Find Students’ Leadership Aspirations Begin before College and Persist into Careers

Wolniak + Chen-Bendle Award

by Jewel Caruso

Gregory Wolniak, associate professor, and Emily Chen-Bendle, doctoral student, published a new article investigating gender differences in leadership aspirations among college students with Jennifer Tackett from Northwestern University. Titled “Exploring Gender Differences in Leadership Aspirations: A Four-Year Longitudinal Study of College Students from Adverse Backgrounds,” their research appears in AERA Open, 9

Their findings shed light on the gender disparity that remains in professional leadership roles and how persistent they are despite multiple studies focused on this issue. 

The team approaches the inquiry by  drawing upon longitudinal data covering four years of college among a socio-demographically and nationally diverse sample of college students with adverse backgrounds, as defined by the Center for Disease Control and Prevention. 

Wolniak, Chen-Bendle, and Tackett used career development conceptual models for this study, specifically the social cognitive career theory (SCCT).They explain,  “SCCT offers a particularly valuable perspective on the development of leadership aspirations in the college environment because it simultaneously offers a granular explanation of the development of career interests while highlighting the importance of self-efficacy.” 

Self-efficacy has previously been identified as influential across prior studies of women’s leadership development. SCCT also takes environmental factors into account and situates leadership aspirations as potential antecedents to future career behaviors. 

This study also highlighted statistics showing gender disparity in leadership positions: Fewer than 5% of Fortune Global 500 CEOs were women in 2021, only 30% of college presidents are women, and only 27% of the 117th Congress identified as female. 

Their findings show that the formation of leadership aspirations across genders is most critical prior to entering college, but they are not clear on why. The authors suggest that targeted interventions focused on increasing female aspirations are best timed before college. For those already in college, they write that increasing a sense of belonging on campus are “strongly associated with higher leadership aspiration development across the college years.” 

The authors conclude their research with a call to action in narrowing the gap of gender disparity in leadership aspirations and hope future studies will provide better mitigation strategies to support all students.


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