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Thoughts on the Intersection of Global Learning and Women’s Leadership

December 30, 1899


​I have spent much of my academic career bridging these two fields of education: global learning and women’s leadership. For the last 15 years, at Saint Mary's and now at Agnes Scott College, I have directly led innovative initiatives that combine the two. Of course, both fields are complex, with various subfields, and thus they can come together in some fairly disparate ways. I will highlight just a few here before offering some suggestions you can use to advance both on your own campus.

I would argue that women’s leadership is best fostered by including a global/intercultural lens, while robust global learning needs to include attention to gender. So on the one hand, although work on women’s leadership sometimes looks at gender differences, which can be very real, it is essential to remember at all times that women are by no means a monolithic group. Instead, women vary in many ways across borders or cultures, and the ways in which they lead vary too; therefore, all efforts to support women’s leadership must take that heterogeneity into account. On the other hand, understanding the complex global issues we all face in this increasingly interdependent world must include understanding their gendered particularities. For example, an analysis of global food insecurity needs to take note of the facts that while women produce more than 50 percent of the food grown worldwide (Asian Development Bank 2013), an estimated 60 percent of undernourished people are women or girls (WFP 2009). And such comprehension can serve as a call to action, compelling women to step up from whatever positions we occupy, finding the courage to unite and work for progress. Women’s specific challenges vary considerably around the world, but much data across countries, such as the data so ably presented by Nicholas D. Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn in their book Half the Sky (2010), have established that investing in women’s leadership development benefits the whole community far more than other approaches. 

Back on our campuses in the U.S., there is some qualitative evidence that indicates that women students may be able to use their own experiences with sexism as a doorway to understanding other types of stereotyping or prejudice (Meyer-Lee 1999). We also know that women students disproportionately study abroad (two-thirds of students studying abroad in 2014–15 were women, according to IIE’s 2016 Open Doors report). Despite the fact that women are also overrepresented in working within international education, we remain underrepresented in senior leadership in the field, so our efforts at women’s leadership development clearly need to attend to staff as well as students.

So how can we attend to intercultural learning and women’s leadership development on our campuses, supporting both simultaneously? Many of the tried and true techniques to supporting women’s leadership remain just as relevant in light of global/intercultural learning: offering mentoring to all women, role-modeling a wide range of approaches to leadership, and creating and sustaining intentional women-only spaces and networks where we can build capacity and draw out each other’s strengths and courage. However, we must also consistently draw attention to diversity, inclusion, power, and equity, asking at every phase: “Who’s not at the table?”  

In educating all of our students, we must not only integrate analyses of complex global issues and social change into our curriculum and co-curriculum, but also address the gendered dimension of them. And crucially, this type of learning can then be put into practice by compelling students to reflect on how, in response, they can take action in the world, bringing about well-informed leadership in the next generation of women and men. 


Asian Development Bank. 2013. Gender Equality and Food Security—Women’s Empowerment as a Tool Against Hunger. Mandaluyong City, Philippines: Asian Development Bank.

Institute for International Education (IIE). 2016. Open Doors. New York: IIE.

Kristof, Nicholas D., and Sheryl WuDunn. 2010. Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide. New York: Knopf.

Meyer-Lee, Elaine. 1999. “Understanding Change in White Adult Students’ Racial Identity and Attitudes: The Contribution of a Developmental-Contextual Approach.” Unpublished dissertation, Harvard University.

World Food Programme (WFP). 2009. Promoting Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women in Addressing Food and Nutrition Challenges. Rome: WFP.


Elaine Meyer Lee
Associate Vice President for Global Learning and Leadership and Assistant Professor of Psychology
Agnes Scott College

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