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Leadership Through the Lenses of Latinas: Undergraduate College Students in STEM-Related Disciplines at Regional HSIs

Latinas’ enrollment in postsecondary education has improved in disciplines such as social sciences and psychology (Mitts, 2016; Schoon, 2015); however, Latinas’ degree attainment in computer science, mathematics, physics, and engineering has remained low (National Science Foundation [NSF], 2016). For example, in 2014, only 2.2% of Latinas obtained a college degree in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) fields (NSF, 2017). In particular, Latina college students at an undergraduate level often face adversity', which has included but was not limited to low socioeconomic and fust-generation status, racism, and feelings of isolation (Cabrera & Padilla, 2004). Moreover, Onorato and Musoba (2015) argue that even Hispanic-serving Institutions (HSIs), whose purpose is to better serve minoritized students, still operate with a White frame approach and influence minoritized female students’ leadership. In this regard, Haber- Curran, Miguel, Shankman, and Allen (2018) found that women have the ability to build leadership capacity by developing relationships. These connections provide value and strength to leadership development which, in turn, female college students can use to thrive in STEM.

This qualitative study was conducted in the summer and fall of 2018 with the participation of ten Latina undergraduate students. The principal researcher collected and triangulated data via interviews, observations, and analysis of documents in a six-month timeline. Participants’ narratives enriched our understanding of the strategies, activities, and perceptions that influenced how Latinas adopted leadership styles as undergraduate STEM college students. Often, Latinas’ leadership approach as women and ethnic minoritized students can be misunderstood or disregarded; however, Latinas provided numerous examples of initiatives and attempts to create better college environments for other Latina and younger students. On multiple occasions, participants noted the criticality to assume leadership roles within campus organizations and programs. Such experiences, the participants mentioned, were informative to acquire the skills and occupy leadership positions to later assist Latinas in their profession. This is just one of the multiple strategies that Latinas can use as a form of resilience to be successful STEM students. The development of resiliency is dependent on many key factors, which include support (extrinsic) and individual (intrinsic) motivation (Greene, 2002). Other resilience factors that contribute to the individual include potency, stamina, and personal causation (Van Breda, 2001).

This chapter begins with a brief overview of leadership as it relates to ethnicity and gender. It is relevant to comprehend the interconnection among all three aspects (ethnicity, gender, and leadership) and understand Latinas’ unique approach to leadership. Then, we present a theoretical framework based on the leadership labyrinth model which focuses on human capital, gender differences, and discrimination toward women. Next, we introduce the methods including three subsections—data collection, data analysis, and trustworthiness. Subsequently, we present the study’s findings. Finally, a discussion section yields implications for staff and faculty to support and reinforce Latinas’ leadership development. In the end, we note a few recommendations for further studies.

The purpose of this study was to gain insight into the leadership practices adopted by Latina college students when they pursue STEM disciplines in mostly male-dominated majors at two regional HSIs. The primary research question is:

1. What kind of activities, if any, do Latina college students perform that show leadership styles in STEM-related disciplines?

The ancillary research questions are:

  • 1. What are the leadership strategies, if any, that Latina college students use to successfully navigate their college experience in male-related disciplines?
  • 2. What type of experiences, if any, influence the leadership adopted by Latina college students who pursue degrees in male-dominated fields?

Literature Review

Leadership and Latina Ethnicity

Latinos/as’ leadership perceptions may differ from the mainstream conceptualization of leadership. As such, a leader can be a person who is capable and has the willingness to be hardworking regardless of their hierarchical status (Lozano, 2015). In college, Beatty (2015) noted the importance of student organizations to help Latino/as create bonds with other students, develop a sense of belonging, and enhance their participation in campuswide events. Lozano (2015) further emphasized the importance of aspects such as “collaboration, community, and empowerment” (p. 11) to shape and define a Latino/a leadership identity. In turn, Suarez (2015) reflected on the lack of participation of Latinos/as in leadership workshops and programs that is mainly due to the irrelevant connection between Latinos/as and faculty (including staff). Accordingly, this lack of connection does not allow a genuine and meaningful interaction between students and university personnel. In addition, Latinos/as feel that such “leadership opportunities did not include a Latino culture perspective” (Suarez, 2015, p. 35). Therefore, Latinos/as’ lack of participation in these events showed an alarming lack of connection to Latino culture.

Despite facing difficulties and hostile college climates, Latinas learn to lead with a collaborative effort underlying the importance of communal work, Latinos/as’ toughness, and cultural heritage (Foulis, 2017). Through involvement in student organizations, Latinas develop synergies to counteract racism while strengthening “social activism” (Beatty, 2015, p. 51). As such, the aspect of activism is present when Latinas lead as they try to empower other women and Latinas (Onorato & Musoba, 2015), highlighting the need for “a community-based model of leadership” (Lozano, 2015, p. 12). According to Guardia (2015), a community-oriented group is found through Latina sororities that promote and develop an ethnic identity; highlighting the aspects of language and community. More importantly, such organizations provide opportunities for on-campus involvement and leadership development (Guardia, 2015).

Leadership and Gender

Historically, the inequalities between dominants and subordinates have shaped male and female relationships (Miller, 1986). Kezar and Moriarty (2000) noted that women’s and minorities’ perceptions of leadership differ from those of men and ethnically dominant elites. According to Miller (1986), such male superiority reflects a perpetual inequality whose aim is to maintain males’ power and dominance. Women usually are highly involved in developing cooperation, promoting others’ creativity, and helping others to grow; such activities are important but unvalued in a male-led social structure (Miller, 1986). As such, women and minorities participate in social-related activities as members of student organizations and develop leadership skills from a collaborative and interrelated perspective (Kezar & Moriarty, 2000).

Women recognize the need for cooperation to “aid and enhance the development of other human beings while advancing one’s own” (Miller, 1986, p. 41). In this regard, Jordan, Harding, and Walker (2004) pointed out that usually, women care about both their own needs and the needs of others. As a result, women highly appreciate establishing affiliations with other individuals, including helping them to grow while neglecting even their own enhancement (Miller, 1986). In particular, women pay special attention to the actions and feelings they generate in others as a consequence of their interactions. Because women possess “relational awareness” (Jordan et al., 2004, p. 14), they are able to acknowledge simultaneously what happens with themselves, others, and their relationships. Contrarily, men generally focus on their own needs using a “single voice discourse” (Jordan et al., 2004, p. 14).

Indeed, leadership “is not gender, race, and ethnicity neutral” (Ono- rato 8c Musoba, 2015, p. 30). Therefore, individuals’ gender and culture affect the type of leadership adopted that ultimately develops a leadership identity'. As such, the increasing number of Latinas in higher education calls for a better understanding of minoritized women’s leadership experiences in college. Additionally', the low representation of Latina students in some STEM disciplines, even at HSIs, requires the examination of appropriate resources and programs that promote leadership development. Lastly, the acquisition of leadership skills has been proven to be fundamental as core knowledge in STEM to accomplish academic goals and later, organizational objectives (Kendricks, Arment, Nedunuri, & Lowell, 2019). In addition, Haber-Curran et al. (2018) noted that when women build purposeful relationships with a leadership mindset, they can be aware of the value that leadership can have in their lives.

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