Entry 14: Keep Calm & Write On

Oh the veritable joys of longlisting and shortlisting (and decision-making in general)! I am tempted to throw my hands up in the air and shout: "I WILL JUST USE ALL OF THEM!" Every relevant book, theory, and framework.

But this, unfortunately, is an unrealistic goal. Besides the obvious fact that this would make my project an unreadable tome, there is a little ticking clock situated right on the edge of my sub-conscious constantly reminding me that “*tick* you *tock* are *tick* running *tock* out *tick* of *tock* TIME!” I swear, it’s starting to drive me a little bit insane.

And so I am faced with a series of decision-making dilemmas – there seem to be no clear right or wrong ways to work this, it is a toss-up between a myriad of right and right decisions. What I really need to do is pull out the proverbial weighing scales and balance the options against one another: Do I shortlist The Lifeboat or The Dovekeepers or The Invention of Wings? (I love them all equally!) Does Welcome to Thebes or Top Girls say more about power, inequality and benign sexism? (They’re both so rich I almost don’t know where to start!) Do I cut my longlist down from 10 stories to 8? And if so, which ones do I strike off the list? Is a transformational learning approach too idealistic? (Am I kidding myself with how much you can actually get out of a good novel?) Do I read my selections through a feminist and a deconstructionist lens? Or am I stretching myself too far? What about Cixous, Irigaray and Kristeva and feminist poststructuralism? Am I just another over privileged white feminist making a huge mistake by ignoring intersectionality (i.e. race)?

I suppose there are better choices versus a few not-so-good ones, but all the options seem so full of potential – from this distance the 'fields of completion' all appear to be full of flowers. And yet I could unintentionally stumble into a hypothetical quagmire if I’m not careful.

It’s panic inducing stuff I tell you! Panic partially brought on by the fact that I’ve had a nasty chest infection for the past month. I have to frequently remind myself to slow down, breathe and just:

I know my project isn’t world changing, like finding a cure for cancer or alleviating poverty, but the more I read and learn about gender, feminism and leadership, the more I see a desperate need for fundamental changes across the board, in organisations and in wider society. As the Nigerian novelist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie writes in We Should All Be Feminists (2014): “Today, we live in a vastly different world. The person more qualified to lead is not the physically stronger person. It is the more intelligent, the more knowledgeable, the more creative, more innovative. And there are no hormones for those attributes. A man is as likely as a woman to be intelligent, innovative, creative. We have evolved. But our ideas of gender have not evolved very much” (p. 18). [Check out her excellent TED Talk on the same subject here].

We must have more conversations about gender and leadership. Rather than sweeping the ‘woman question’ under the table because it is too controversial, too provocative, too emotional, let’s talk, debate, disagree, agree, reflect on and, maybe, even transform our thinking. Let’s disrupt habitual patterns of thinking, discuss in detail the everyday dilemmas women face as they practice and experience leadership, make meaning from these dilemmas and stories, and achieve some level of insight. And if I can facilitate, or at least provide what I like to call ‘the scaffolding,’ for a discussion which has the potential to explore a wide array of women and leadership issues, then perhaps I am starting to accomplish something worthwhile. (At least that’s what I like to tell myself after a sleepless night worrying over my thesis!)

Transformative Change

Of course, these aims all tie into my methods section which I’m frantically working on at the moment (panic, sleepless nights, frantic scrawling…I’m beginning to sound like a broken record! Although it’s rather cathartic to voice my self-doubt, and by doing so, start to release it). I’m kicking it off with a brief literature review on women’s leadership development, focusing on the specific ways educators and scholars are addressing more ‘sensitive’ topics (i.e. those that garner the most resistance and reactance), such as double binds, stereotypes, myths, expectations, gendered social structures, etc... However, the research in this area is rather scant. Hopkins, O’Neil, Passarelli, and Bilimoria (2008) have found that the topic of women’s leadership development remains underrepresented in both the business and psychology literature, and very little is written on teaching women and leadership as a potentially sensitive subject (Shollen, 2015). The result is that educators and practitioners “lack a coherent, theoretically based, actionable framework for designing and delivering leadership programmes for women” (Ely, Ibarra, & Kolb, 2011, p. 475).

However, not all is bleak! During my research I identified three key learning frameworks that are being successfully utilised for women-only leadership development programmes. These include consciousness-raising and emancipatory techniques, experiential learning, and transformational learning. It’s also exciting because scholars have noted an increasing demand among women for interdisciplinary approaches which combine social sciences and humanities perspectives, such as women’s studies, communication concepts, and sociology, with leadership studies. Ruminski and Holba (2012a) claim that interdisciplinary methods offer much richer possibilities for “scholarly analysis, functional praxis and constructive social change” (p. 6). But the real golden key, I believe, is Debebe’s (2009, 2011) transformational learning model for women’s leadership development (based on Mezirow’s (1991) model). I’m not going to go into too much detail in this post, but here is a figure to illustrate the transformational process in its most basic form:

Working within this framework offers clear guidelines and a proven method for effecting change. And the real clincher – in terms of developing course content for a ‘transformational’ women’s leadership course, growing attention is being visited on arts-based transformative learning approaches, in particular, the power of literary fiction to invoke meaningful transformative insight (Hoggan & Cranton, 2015; Lawrence & Cranton, 2015; Lawrence, 2008; Jarvis, 2006). In a qualitative study with 131 undergraduate and graduate students in the US, Hoggan et al. (2015) found that reading fiction for a specific purpose or learning activity (that is, directed reading as opposed to casual reading) has the "potential to arouse strong emotional responses and to encourage critical reflection on habits of mind" (p. 22). 

Even though Badaracco (2006), Sucher (2007), and McManus and Perruci (2015) don’t explicitly state their intentions in such theoretical terms, their respective goals appear to be transformational in nature. They are, as Sucher stipulates, “harnessing the power of literature” to raise serious questions about what it means to practice moral and ethical leadership, and to illuminate the complexity of leadership as a multi-faceted process (and by doing so, completely change how leaders, followers, and students understand leadership). And so it's not a question of "will my methods work?" but rather, "what are the best ways to apply my methods?"

Of course, this has prompted me to take a step back and ask: Have I personally experienced transformative changes in my attitudes and values as I've critically read and reflected on various stories and characters? I think the resounding answer is 'Yes.' I definitely feel like I've adapted some of my ideas and I feel that I have a greater sense of agency and a much deeper understanding of women's leadership issues and, most importantly, why they continue to exist. But what forms has this learning taken exactly and what particularly has stood out? Have any of my practices changed? What am I doing differently?

I wish I had a smidgen more time to keep going with this blog post and explore these questions in detail. But time really is of the essence right now and that methods section is practically crying out for attention. I promise, however, to return to these questions at a later date. So for now, Happy Easter!



Adichie, C. N. (2014). We should all be feminists. London, UK: Fourth Estate.

Coles, R. (1989). The call of stories: Teaching and the moral imagination. Boston, MA: Houghton Misflin.

Debebe, G. (2009). Transformational learning in women’s leadership development training. Advancing Women in Leadership, 29(7), 1-12.

Debebe, G. (2011). Creating a safe environment for women’s leadership transformation. Journal of Management Education, 35(5), 679-712.

Ely, R. J., Ibarra, H., & Kolb, D. M. (2011). Taking gender into account: Theory and design for women’s leadership development programs. Academy of Management Learning & Education, 10(3), 474-493.

Hoggan, C., & Cranton, P. (2015). Promoting transformative learning through reading fiction. Journal of Transformative Education, 13(1), 6-25.  

Hopkins, M. M., O’Neil, D., Passarelli, A., & Bilimoria, D. (2008). Women’s leadership development: Strategic practices for women in organizations. Consulting Psychology Journal: Practice and Research, 60, 348-365.

Jarvis, C. (2006). Using fiction for transformation. Fostering transformative learning in the classroom. Challenges and innovations. New Directions for Adult and Continuing Education, 2006, 69–77.

Lawrence, R. L. (2008). Powerful feelings: Exploring the affective domain of informal and arts-based learning. In J. M. Dirkx (Ed.), Adult learning and the emotional self. New directions for adult and continuing education, no. 120 (pp. 65–78). San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Lawrence, R. L., & Cranton, P. (2015). A novel idea: Researching transformative learning in fiction. Rotterdam, The Netherlands: Sense Publishing.

Ruminski, E. L., & Holba, A. M. (Eds.). (2012). Communicative understandings of women’s leadership development: From ceilings of glass to labyrinth paths. Plymouth, UK: Lexington Books.

Shollen, L. S. (2015). Teaching and learning about women and leadership: Students’ expectations and experiences. Journal of Leadership Education