Course Spotlight: Women’s Leadership in the 21st Century

Students with visiting speaker Dr. anu jain, fourth standing from left.

Students with visiting speaker Dr. anu jain, fourth standing from left.

According to the Center for American Progress*, women make up a majority (50.8%) of the U.S. population.

  • They earn almost 60 percent of undergraduate degrees and 60 percent of all master’s degrees.

  • They earn 47 percent of all law degrees and 48 percent of all medical degrees.

  • They earn 38 percent of MBAs and 48 percent of specialized master’s degrees.

  • They account for 47 percent of the U.S. labor force and 49 percent of the college-educated workforce.


  • While they are 44 percent of the overall S&P 500 labor force, they are only 25 percent of executive- and senior-level officials and managers, hold only 20 percent of board seats, and are only 6 percent of CEOs.

  • In medicine, they comprise 37 percent of all physicians and surgeons, but only 16 percent of permanent medical school deans.

  • In academia, they are only 31 percent of full professors and 27 percent of college presidents.

  • They were only 6 percent of partners in venture capital firms in 2013—down from 10 percent in 1999.

Figuring out why this is, and what can be done about it, is the work of Chatham’s Women’s Leadership in the 21st Century course, which will run for the third time in Spring 2019. It’s an interdisciplinary seminar that’s open to all undergraduates (who have taken one of the prerequisites), and, according to course instructor and Director of the Chatham University Women’s Institute Jessie Ramey, PhD, “the jewel in the crown of our Women’s Leadership Certificate Program.”

The course considers many arenas in which women might lead, including “public and private sectors, government work, community organizing, boards, non-profits, and social movements,” says Ramey. (It also investigates what or who is meant by “women”.) “The course equips students with the actual skills of leading, but it’s much more than that. We look at a wide range of topics through the lenses of gender and intersectionality. We think about how there are barriers—whether systemic or institution-specific—that prevent women from becoming successful leaders. Then we talk about what we can do about it in our own careers, because it will be different for all of us.”

One thing we discuss is whether it’s enough to simply have women in positions of power. Is that the same as feminist leadership? What does it take to have a leadership structure that benefits everyone? Usually it means making some changes.

— Jessie Ramey

"So often in the workforce, women employees face discrimination in terms of their work being undervalued," says Mollie March-Steadman '19, who took the course in Spring 2018. "Even if the skills are transferrable with what might be considered more masculine labor, often the feminine one will pay less. That’s another aspect of the gender pay gap. It’s not always simply a matter of men earning more money than women for the same job – it’s more complicated historically."

To explore what that those changes might look like for an individual organization, students embarked on an interesting final project. “They acted as consultants in women’s leadership to an organization of their choice—of course this was a thought experiment; they didn’t really work directly with an organization—to do an analysis around women’s leadership," says Ramey. "They considered not just representation, HR, and hiring policies, but also some of the deeper issues. Then they created posters that detailed what they found, and highlighted a woman in that organization that they felt was successful as a leader.”

Mollie March-Steinman '19 with her final project.

Mollie March-Steinman '19 with her final project.

A hallmark—and oft-noted favorite part—of of the course is the speakers who come in to talk with the students. “We do a whole series of speakers from all different arenas—the corporate world, nonprofits, government, the arts, organizations working for social change. Some of the speakers are young, and some are much more senior. We’ve had mentoring, conversation time, internship opportunities, and network come out of our speaker series. And the students love it; they think it’s one of the best parts of the class.” In 2018, speakers included (but were not limited to):

  • Dr. anu jain, Pittsburgh Gender Equity Commission (on which Ramey also serves)

  • Rochelle Jackson, Women and Girls Foundation

  • Vanessa German, artist and Women’s Institute Scholar-in-Residence

  • Dr. Allison Brooks, George Washington University and Smithsonian Institution

  • Nazli Saka, Chatham University Center for Women’s Entrepreneurship

  • Terri Baltimore, Hill House Association

Through these speakers, plus readings and discussion, students are exposed to different styles of leadership. “One that tends to resonate especially well with our students is black feminist leadership, often characterized by a deep commitment to pulling up the women behind them, being committed to mentoring and networking and bringing other women into the work of changing not just the immediate workplace but also the larger system,” says Ramey.

"Vanessa German was a very powerful force. I noticed that not one time did she apologize the entire time she was speaking. It’s almost like a life-changing experience meeting her, because she has such a presence as an artist and an activist. A few students mentioned that speaking about difficult topics with her felt healing,” says March-Steinman. "Dr. Ramey did a fantastic job collecting all these amazing community leaders in Pittsburgh. I’m so excited that they came to speak to us and that they might be back in the future."

Women’s Leadership in the 21st Century is offered through the Women and Gender’s Studies program. Students from any major are welcome, though they must have taken either “Intro to Women’s & Gender Studies” or “Representations of Race and Gender” to enroll.