Thriving Together Series

Thriving Together Series: Leadership Self-Efficacy and Gender

by Julie Owen, Ph.D., CWB Senior Scholar, School of Integrative Studies Associate Professor

This edition of the Thriving Together Series was written by CWB senior scholar Julie E. Owen, Ph.D., associate professor in Mason’s School of Integrative Studies and author of the book We Are the Leaders We’ve Been Waiting For: Women and Leadership Development in College (Stylus, 2020). Dr. Owen’s research explores the intersections of leadership identity and women’s adult development, as well as the scholarship of liberatory leadership teaching and learning.

“When I dare to be powerful – to use my strength in the service of my vision, then it becomes less and less important whether I am afraid.” – Audre Lorde

It is a critical moment for both women and leadership. Even before the COVID-19 pandemic revealed stark gender discrepancies in healthcare, education, and domestic labor, women were calling attention to unaddressed social issues through women’s marches, the #metoo and #sayhername movements, and Black Lives Matter. Yet attacks on reproductive health and rights, the lack of representation in politics and certain industries, pay disparities, sexual violence, rape culture, and the unequal status of women across the globe persist. Now, more than ever, we need leaders of all gender identities to address these complex, multi-faceted problems.

How can colleges and universities best prepare women for the demands of modern leadership? One answer lies in helping people align their leadership confidence and competence. More focused than confidence, leadership self-efficacy refers to an individual’s belief in the likelihood they will be successful when engaging in leadership (Dugan & Correia, 2014).

Related Research

Studies indicate college women score higher than college men in their capacity for socially responsible leadership, but the inverse is true for college women and men when it comes to leadership efficacy (Dugan & Komives, 2010). To put in another way, women have lower self-efficacy for leadership than men, yet score as more capable of modern leadership.

What can educators do to better align action and efficacy in college women? The story here is twofold. We need to enhance women’s self-efficacy for leadership while simultaneously working to increase men’s capacity for socially responsible leadership. We also need to acknowledge and ameliorate the fact that people who identify as gender non-binary and are not represented in most existing research.

Psychologist Albert Bandura (1997) suggests four ways people can enhance their self-efficacy. These include enactive mastery experiences (meaningful practical experiences), vicarious experiences (learning through observing those around us), verbal persuasion (feedback and social support), and physiological and affective states (socio-emotional health and sense of well-being).

Howes (2016) conducted a study on woman-identified college students to examine how they developed leadership self-efficacy (LSE). Findings echo Bandura, but also reveal new insights related to how social and intersectional identities affect LSE. Howes’ study revealed four core concepts about how LSE is developed: (a) throughout their lives, people receive messages about leaders and leadership from societal norms, institutions, experiences, and interactions; (b) people and experiences mediate the effects of these messages; (c) LSE is shaped by internal processes; and (d) multiple identities influence the development of LSE.

Participants successfully built leadership self-efficacy through receiving encouragement and affirmation and engaging in leadership development experiences. Howes also explored how women were able to disrupt dominant narratives that had the potential to have a detrimental impact on their self-efficacy for leadership. She notes: “If students can learn to cope within unjust systems while attributing challenges to oppressive forces in the external environment rather than internalizing them, they will be more likely to navigate systems without harm to their LSE.” (Howes, 2016, p.217).

Short Practices

Name the act of leadership when we witness it. When I recently spoke with a group of students, some of them mentioned that they did not identify as leaders. Rather, they said they were “just” good at organizing and motivating people, connecting them to networks and resources, and helping them work towards shared goals. My response to them was, “Friends, this is leadership.” We need to encourage people, and especially women, to not shy away from the idea that they have power and influence.

Ensure representation. Another efficacy enhancing approach is to ensure that women and people who identify as gender nonbinary are equitably represented in leadership positions throughout the university and that newer students and staff have access to learning from their predecessors.

Invite and learn from feedback. There is a need to teach people how to invite and learn from feedback opportunities. Many people naturally approach feedback with trepidation and fear. Instead, we should talk about the gifts inherent in receiving critical feedback and asking, “What do I have to learn here?” I invite people to practice having hard and authentic conversations with each other.

Attend to well-being. Physiological and affective states affect self-efficacy for leadership. When we cultivate well-being, we are also nurturing leadership.


Bandura, A. (1997). Self-efficacy: The exercise of control. New York: Freeman

Dugan, J. P., & Correia, B. (2014). MSL insight report supplement: Leadership program delivery. College Park, MD: National Clearinghouse for Leadership Programs.

Dugan, J.P., & Komives, S .R. (2010). Influences on college students’ capacity for socially responsible leadership. Journal of College Student Development, 51, 525-549.

Howes, S. D. (2016). You’re kind of just conditioned: Women and female college students’ defiance of dominant social messages in the development of leader self-efficacy. (Unpublished doctoral dissertation). Loyola University Chicago, Illinois.

Additional Resources


Owen, J. E. (2020). We are the Leaders We’ve Been Waiting For: Women and Leadership Development in CollegeSterling, VA: Stylus.

Pigza, J., Owen, J. E., & Associates (2021). Women and Leadership in College: A Facilitation Guide. Sterling, VA: Stylus.


Leadership Educator Podcast:

NASPA Leadership Podcast: (episodes #73-75)

Phronesis Podcast:

Student Affairs NOW Podcast:


Mason’s Fall for the Book recording:

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