This research was supported in part by Subgrant No. CT 18 05 8518 awarded by the California Governor’s Office of Emergency Services, the administering office for the STOP Formula Grant Program. The opinions, findings, conclusions, and recommendations expressed in this publication are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the state or the U.S. Department of Justice, Office on Violence Against Women.
Correspondence concerning this article should be addressed to Shelley Eriksen, Department of Human Development, California State University, Long Beach, Long Beach, CA 90840. E-mail: email@example.com.
Sexual assault is widespread on U.S. college campuses, with estimates that 1 in 5 women will be sexually assaulted before they graduate, as will a smaller number of college-age men (Gidycz et al., 2011). Equally troubling are the rates of college men’s self-reported perpetration of sexually aggressive acts, which range between 10%-17% over a 3-month period (Gidycz et al., 2007) to more than 35% over a 4-year period (White & Smith, 2004). In response to this pervasive problem, the bystander approach to gender violence prevention emerged more than 25 years ago (Katz, 1995; Slaby et al., 1994). Bystander training was foregrounded as a best practice by the Obama Administration (White House Council on Women and Girls, 2014) and is now standard prevention practice on many U.S. college campuses. Yet whether bystander education contributes to student leadership development remains unaddressed in both the leadership and gender violence literatures.
Leadership Development Education for College Students
A growing body of research illuminates the beneficial role of postsecondary learning in leadership development to both the broader society and to students’ personal and professional growth (Astin & Astin, 2000). Self-reports by college students associate leadership education and training with a variety of personal changes, such as improved conflict resolution skills, heightened commitment to civic responsibility, and greater facility with extra-curricular learning opportunities (Zimmeran-Oster & Burkhardt, 1999). Others report improvements in students’ social adjustment, career development, personal fulfillment and academic performance (Cooper et al., 1994). Campus leadership opportunities are considered a high-impact practice and are associated with a greater sense of peer belonging and institutional acceptance for first-year college students, two features that are particularly important for historically underrepresented populations (Ribera et al., 2017).
Various leadership development models offer unique learning opportunities for college students. Socially responsible leadership (Higher Education Research Institute, 1996), transformative leadership (Astin & Astin, 2000), and the social change model of leadership (Kezar et al., 2006) each emphasize a values-based process that leads to positive social change for students and their communities (Dugan & Komives, 2010). Leadership development programs that provide volunteer service opportunities, experiential activities and collaborative learning (Zimmerman-Oster & Burkhardt, 1999), and facilitate difficult peer conversations across social category differences (e.g., social issues, political ideologies) (Dugan & Komives, 2010), provide solid developmental gains for college students. It is not well explored in this literature, however, whether the content of the involvement experience (Hurtado, 2007)—particularly on challenging issues related to sexism, heterosexism, racism, and power—shapes these leadership development outcomes for college students.
The Need for Values-Based Leadership Education
Others in the higher education literature call for greater engagement with challenging social issues that better prepare student leaders for the complex organizational and civic terrains they will ultimately face in the future. For example, Hurtado (2007) questions the conspicuous absence of race, gender, and related diversity discussions in civic education curricula, finding that positive informal interactions with diverse peers increase student civic engagement and other democratic outcomes. Research on Black student leaders finds that cross-cultural communication, and meeting others with different points of view, are critical skills these student leaders endeavor to acquire (Harper et al., 2005). Participation in campus activism has been shown to positively affect self-esteem and self-confidence (Vestergren et al., 2017), as well as the formation of a racial/ethnic identity among ethnic minority students (Onorato & Musoba, 2015). Others call for programs that improve the leadership self-efficacy challenges reported by female-identified compared to male-identified college students (Dugan et al., 2008) and stress the ongoing need for more values-based leadership training and exploration for college men (Dugan, 2006). Campus activism on sexual violence appears to enliven awareness about the intersectional nature of social oppression around racism, sexism, heterosexism, classism, and other forms of discrimination (Marine & Trebisacci, 2018), and to offer student leaders concrete organizing opportunities on college campuses (Iverson, 2015). This suggests that the prevention of sexual violence remains a potentially powerful vehicle through which to offer values-based leadership development opportunities.
This study contributes to this knowledge gap by exploring the leadership development potential of sexual assault prevention training on college campuses via a prevention approach that explicitly constructs bystander education as a leadership issue, one grounded in both feminist and social justice principles. This particular bystander education project—the Mentors in Violence Prevention (MVP) program—offers a practical application of a leadership educational approach through a feminist lens, a framework recently called for by Iverson, McKenzie, and Halman (2019) and one they argue better prepares students to be critically engaged with the central social issues of their time.
Leadership Development Through an Intersectional Feminist Lens
Iverson, McKenzie and Halman (2019) argue that feminism can serve as a theoretical framework for addressing perceived deficits in the leadership development literature that is aimed at developing college students into transformational leaders. Grounded in longstanding feminist theory and practice (see Bookman & Morgen, 1988; Tong, 2009), they propose that educators draw from four feminist tenets: an illumination of intersectional identities; the design of activities that share power and advance collaboration; raising consciousness through dialogic practices or open dialogues that elevate otherwise marginalized voices and narratives; and empowering students to become change agents in their own communities. They argue that consciousness-raising is essential to leadership development curricula, which should center discussions of power, structural inequalities, and marginalized voices that unsettle students’ taken-for-granted conceptions of reality. So, too, should the curriculum trouble or expand definitions of who constitutes a leader and provide student leaders with concrete pathways to activist work (Iverson et al., 2019, p. 189).
A feminist-informed leadership education model dovetails with similar recommendations in the leadership education field that identify the need for future leaders who are collaborative, inclusive, and committed to social change. For example, Haber-Curran and Tillapaugh (2017) argue that leadership education should offer transformative leadership opportunities for students by helping them to interrogate how gender and other interlocking systems of inequality are embedded in societal structures, and how these shape what we know and understand about leadership practice. Indeed, emerging leaders in younger generations—Generations X and Y—already look for more collaborative, inclusive, less top-down modes of leadership practice, articulate the value of bringing different points of view to the table, and want to participate in more inclusive organizational structures (Penney, 2011). Moving beyond the view of gender as pre-determinant of leadership behaviors or competencies (Dzubinski & Diehl, 2018), millennials across the gender identity spectrum are galvanizing change in leadership practice to be more people-centric, gender-neutral and more inclusive of intersectional lived experience, priorities that, if undertaken, will help to reinvent conceptions of transformative leadership for future generations (DeFrank & Tan, 2017).
Research on sociocultural issues discussion and social perspective-taking also provides evidence of the value of dialogue for leadership development. For example, studies find structured dialogical discussions about complex social issues around social justice, social inequalities, and political ideologies with others different from oneself (i.e., sociocultural issues discussion) are associated with students’ heightened civic identity and participation (Dugan & Komives, 2007). Social perspective-taking—or the capacity to assume another’s point of view (Franzoi et al., 1985) and accurately infer the thoughts or feelings of others (Gehlbach, 2004)—is similarly associated with civic identity development (Dugan & Komives, 2010) and social and cognitive developmental gains in college students (Baxter-Magolda, 2001). Yet in each of these literatures, the manner in which students’ different social and cultural locations shape their experience of these leadership development outcomes and intergroup dialogues is understudied.
Student Identities and Leadership Development
A longstanding feminist axiom is that identity matters: knowledge, standpoint, and experience are predicated on complex, intersectional positions of individuals in the social structure (Collins, 2000; Harding, 2004; Iverson et al., 2019). Yet leadership literatures pay limited attention to dimensions of identity as they shape leadership development opportunities, particularly among college students (Dugan et al., 2008) and as self-identified women (McKenzie & Iverson, 2017) and men (Harris, 2008). Related studies do find that personal and social characteristics of students shape their leadership self-efficacy, defined as an individual’s assessment of potential success in their capacity to lead (Murphy & Johnson, 2016). For example, women often face more negative stereotypes associated with their leadership behaviors than do men (Eagly & Carli, 2007), so women report comparatively less leadership efficacy as a result (Dugan et al., 2008; Kezar & Moriarty, 2000). Certain leadership experiences appear crucial to women’s sense of leader self-efficacy, such as engaging meaningfully with their peers and mentors (Eagly & Carli, 2007), and particularly for women of color, their ability to advance discussions about social justice issues like racism and sexism (Kezar & Moriarty, 2000).
Students’ racial/ethnic background and their prior leadership experience also appear to be important identities that shape leadership development outcomes. For example, studies which find that membership in Black student organizations promotes Black identity expression and development (Harper et al., 2005), and others that find significant associations between the race/ethnicity of students and their expressed leadership self-efficacy and capacity (Dugan & Komives, 2010), suggest that students of color may engage with leadership curricula differently than White students. Some studies find that student leaders in high school more readily take up this role in college (Marine & Trebisacci, 2018), and that pre-college leadership self-efficacy is a significant predictor of post-college leadership efficacy (Haddad et al., 2020). Yet students with former leadership experience may express higher levels of motivation to lead, but the trajectory of their developmental growth—both in leadership skill and self-efficacy—often approximates their peers without such experiences (Rosch & Collins, 2019). Yet underdeveloped in this same literature is whether prior experience shapes leadership development outcomes in contexts where the focus is on values-based or content-specific training like sexual assault prevention.
Peer groups to which student leaders belong are often an influential yet overlooked source of identity. Acting as a peer leader in student organizations correlates with increased involvement in co-curricular activities (Zimmeran-Oster & Burkhardt, 1999), as does student-to-student interaction with positive leadership development outcomes more generally (Astin & Astin, 2000). The peer influence model (Kelly, 2004) proposes that a small group of popular opinion leaders diffuse new ideas and practices to others which helps to sustain social norm change over time. Particular student groups may be better poised to be popular opinion leaders. Residential life staff—as student paraprofessionals and Campus Security Authorities (CSAs)—are first-responders to reported sexual victimization and assault, typically receive more gender violence prevention training than other campus administrative staff (Zeller, 2008), and help to create a sense of community, belonging and group identity among students (Moynihan et al., 2011). Male athletes are similarly influential with their peers and can be effective role models in the prevention of gender violence on college campuses (Katz, 1995), while female intercollegiate athletes report using their leadership abilities to challenge prejudice and discrimination, and champion diversity and inclusion (Fuller et al., 2018). Across peer groups, younger—particularly millennial—women and men similarly look for leadership opportunities that are both meaningful and uphold their personal values (DeFrank-Cole & Tan, 2017). Yet more research is needed on leadership opportunities for current Gen Z college-age adults, as well as the leadership education potential of feminist-inspired gender violence prevention work within and across specific student peer groups.
Leadership Education and Taking Action
According to Iverson et al. (2019), applying a feminist approach to leadership education should entail preparing leaders to become change agents. Indeed, the linking of theory with praxis has been central to feminist collective action over the past generation. Feminists from a range of perspectives have long argued that it is critical but not sufficient to theorize intersectional, embodied experience in the context of power and unequal systems. Theory must germinate and instigate concrete pathways to social action and social change (Tong, 2009). Concurrently, it is an axiom of radical feminism that sexual violence is a linchpin in maintaining patriarchal societies (Brownmiller, 1993). Thus, leadership development opportunities that arise from gender violence prevention education provide an overlapping—though uncharted—research area that ties these feminist strands together. Research on existing bystander approaches to gender violence prevention has now identified several effective outcomes for college-age populations, including encouraging pro-social norms for intervention, increasing sexual assault knowledge, and the diminishment of rape myths (Ahrens et al., 2011; Banyard et al., 2007; Cares et al., 2015; Gidycz et al., 2011). Increasing participants’ self-efficacy (bystander self-efficacy) and willingness to intervene are especially important program outcomes, as these help to reduce violence victimization and perpetration (Coker et al., 2016) and are foundational to—and evidence of—readiness to take action. Related research has explored whether the social identities of participants shape bystander program outcomes, often reporting contradictory outcomes when comparing women to men (Banyard et al., 2007; Hoxmeier et al., 2017), yet leaving largely unexamined the important role that race/ethnicity plays in assessing bystander engagement among college-age populations (Burns et al., 2018). With rare exceptions (e.g., Banyard et al., 2009), few such studies focus on how student leaders engage with bystander education, while none has explored the specific impact of a feminist-inspired bystander program on student leadership development.
Taken together, leadership education is identified as a high impact practice, one associated with solid gains in personal, academic and civic engagement, yet values-based leadership curricula remain largely underdeveloped learning opportunities. Bystander approaches to gender violence prevention offer one such opportunity to explore a values-based leadership curriculum organized around a pressing social issue for college students, and one for which their leadership efforts might be especially impactful. Given the centrality of gender in sexual assault perpetration and victimization, a feminist-inspired leadership curriculum as specified by Iverson et al. (2019)—one that engages participants’ complex identities, fosters the sharing of power, raises consciousness, and articulates activist pathways—offers a promising yet understudied approach to leadership development in the gender violence prevention arena.
Bystander Training as Leadership Training: The MVP Model
The Mentors in Violence Prevention (MVP) program is a mixed-gender multi-racial program that was the first large-scale attempt to apply the bystander approach to the sexual assault and domestic violence fields. Initially developed in the early 1990s for use with college athletes (see Katz, 1995), the MVP program has since proliferated beyond college athletics and professional sports to a range of institutional settings: the military (Hollingsworth et al., 2011), high school and college campuses (Katz et al., 2011) and community/civic organizations (Fleming & Heisterkamp, 2015). MVP provides a foundation for emerging and established student leaders to examine the social norms in and outside college settings that contribute to abusive behaviors, and to explore the ways in which leaders can use their personal skills and leadership opportunities to shift those norms and thus effect change in their spheres of influence.
Drawing on social justice and feminist theorizing about sexual violence and liberatory education (Freire, 2000; Funk, 1993; hooks, 1984; Kaufman, 1987; Russell, 1975), a central pedagogical effort in MVP is to shift cultural practices and gender ideologies that contribute to men’s mistreatment of women—as well as other forms of gender and sexual harassment and violence—through facilitated discussions in mixed and same-gender groups. MVP pedagogy encourages open, spirited, and interactive dialogues organized around a range of bystander scenarios that cover a continuum of abuses; these scenarios foreground the gendered realities of abusive behaviors as these intersect in complicated ways with race, sexual orientation, gender identity, social class, and other dimensions of social structural power that infuse interpersonal violence and interpersonal decision-making. By design, then, the MVP method is less didactic and more experiential: by talking openly in a workshop setting about these kinds of issues, listening to the perspectives and opinions of others from diverse identity backgrounds, and thinking through options for action together, participants are able to model prosocial behaviors (e.g., speaking up, taking action) together with, rather than separate from, their peer group where abusive behaviors are more likely to occur (Katz, 2018; Katz et al., 2011). When subsequently confronted with having to make decisions about intervening in situations of actual or potential harm, people will understand from having discussed these very types of situations with other members of their group whether they will have more support for what in the moment can feel like a socially risky and lonely endeavor.
The MVP program focuses on leadership development as an essential component of its program goals. From the program’s inception, leadership development and bystander action were mutually-reinforcing concepts; bystanders who assess a situation, consider their options and take action were understood to be executing a basic leadership protocol. As part of the MVP curriculum, participants explore the overlapping qualities of effective leaders and empowered bystanders who interrupt abusive behaviors, as well as the complex challenges faced by leaders in peer groups often characterized by hierarchy and strong group loyalty, such as athletic teams and sororities/fraternities (Katz, 2018). One way that student leaders are encouraged to operationalize what they learn in the training is by initiating social action in their sphere of influence. For example, they might invite campus prevention educators to address their group on topics like sexual consent, or they might rewrite organizational policy to more clearly articulate the roles and responsibilities everyone has to create and maintain a respectful peer culture climate.
Study Purpose and Research Questions
Given their currency and relevance, sexual assault prevention efforts on college campuses offer a compelling opportunity to engage a values-based leadership curriculum guided by feminist and social justice principles. This pilot study evaluates whether one such leadership-focused program, Mentors in Violence Prevention, contributes to college students’ leadership readiness and empowered social action on gender violence prevention. Through its practice of highly interactive discussions of real-life scenarios in which participants think through their ethical responsibilities to act, to its emphasis on helping leaders develop the necessary skills to be proactive in establishing and maintaining a zero-tolerance environment for the expression of sexist attitudes and acts of gender violence, MVP pedagogy embodies key components of a feminist-inspired leadership education approach delineated by Iverson et al. (2019). To establish a baseline from which to assess this approach, we characterize students’ prior leadership experiences that may shape their engagement with MVP training. In keeping with feminist tenets, we also explore whether MVP’s leadership approach facilitates students’ empowered action in the areas of leadership readiness, bystander confidence, and willingness to intervene, as well as whether students’ various social identities contribute to or make more difficult these specific program outcomes.
Three research questions guide the analysis: a) Do earlier leadership and personal experiences that student leaders bring to the table matter to engagement with sexual assault prevention training, and do these vary based on the social identities of students? b) Viewed as a group, does a feminist-inspired leadership development approach to bystander education enhance student self-reports of leadership readiness, as well as their confidence and willingness to take action on sexual assault situations among their peers? c) Do particular students—across gender, racial/ethnic and student peer group—show different program outcomes in leadership readiness, bystander confidence, and willingness to take action, and if so, what might be the implications for feminist-inspired transformational models of leadership?
Population and Sample
The study setting was a large, public university in Southern California that enrolls approximately 35,000 undergraduate students. The majority of students are traditional age, and more than 50% of first-year students are first generation. Fifty-seven percent of students identify as women, 43% as men. The campus is considered among the most racially diverse in the U.S., with 38% of undergraduates self-identifying as Latino/Latina, 23% Asian-American/Pacific Islander, 20% White and 4% African American. The majority of students commute to school, while 20% of undergraduates live in on-campus or other university-owned housing.
Study participants were either resident assistants or student-athlete leaders who participated in MVP leadership training together with their respective peers as part of a grant-sponsored effort to improve the campus climate. Recruitment and subsequent trainings occurred over the course of two years, scheduled according to group availability (i.e. student-athlete trainings in the fall before the official start of their season). Participants were recruited through division or assistant coordinators who sent invitation letters to their respective student organizations. Attendance at the training was voluntary for student-athlete leaders, and it was required as part of orientation for all resident assistants prior to each semester. All study protocols were approved by the university’s Institutional Review Board.
A total of 239 student leaders participated in one of seven trainings over the study period. The group was composed of 104 student-athletes and 135 resident assistants. Of these 239 students, 47% were men and 53% were women. There were relatively equal numbers of men in both groups (54 male student-athletes and 57 male resident assistants), but slightly more women as resident assistants than student-athletes (77 vs. 50 respectively). The average age of participants was 24, and participants were reasonably distributed by academic class: 6% first-year students, 34% sophomores, 26% juniors, and 30% seniors. The group’s racial/ethnic composition was a reasonable approximation of campus demographics: 38% were White, 12% African American, 21% Latino, 13% Asian/Pacific Islander, and another 16% identified as other/bi-cultural.
Training Program & Procedure
MVP trainings adhered to a time-itemized agenda that balanced substantive content delivery with interactive, skill-building opportunities. The nine MVP learning modules began with one that highlighted the prevalence of gender violence both nationally and on campus (2 hours), and the modules continued with a series of interactive learning exercises (4 hours). Each training session included an exercise that focused on discussing the definition and practice of leadership. These leadership ideas were then linked throughout the training to what is expected of empowered bystanders who interrupt abusive behaviors. One of the central modules featured discussion of various bystander scenarios, in which participants are asked to put themselves in real-life situations as student leaders and decide what to do when their friends, teammates, or fraternity brothers/sorority sisters are either being victimized or are harming others.
Data were collected at two points in time. A pre-training survey was distributed on the morning of the training, prior to the day’s activities, and the post-training survey was administered at the very end of the training day. No incentives were provided, and survey participation was both anonymous and voluntary.
Sociodemographic, leadership, and training background
Participants specified their age, gender, race/ethnicity, year in school, victimization history, knowledge of others’ victimization/perpetration history, and whether they had participated in prior trainings on sexual assault, sexual harassment and relationship abuse, formal leadership trainings, leadership trainings with a gender focus (e.g., Young Women’s Leadership), or any college-level leadership courses (0=No; 1=Yes). Participants were asked to indicate their total leadership experience from a list of formal leadership positions (e.g., elected student government officer, club/organization president, etc.) in high school and college.
We used the leadership readiness scale (Cisner, 2009) originally designed to assess levels of leadership consciousness of gender violence prevention issues, which is an approximation of the Social Issues Advocacy Scale (SIAS) that reflects a leader’s sense of responsibility to promote social justice behaviors (Nilsson et al., 2011). Eight summated items are based on a five-point Likert scale, ranging from strong disagreement (1) to strong agreement (5). A sample item is, “It is important for students in positions of formal/informal leadership to be up-to-date on best practices in gender violence prevention.” Cronbach’s alpha for the full sample at pretest was .84 (M = 34.52, SD = 4.41, with a 15 to 40 range).
Bystander Confidence and Willingness to Take Action
Two additional program outcome measures drawn from Banyard (2008) are used to assess participants’ confidence in engaging in bystander behaviors and willingness to take action in a range of bystander scenarios. The 15 items in the Bystander Efficacy Scale reflect the confidence of participants in their ability to perform bystander actions, ranging from cannot do (0) to very certain (100). A sample item includes, “Express my discomfort if someone makes a joke about a woman’s body.” The mean across these 15 items functions as the total score, with higher averages indicating greater confidence. Chronbach’s alpha for the full sample at pretest was .84 (M = 86.10, SD = 10.61, with a range of 47 to 100). A shortened version of Banyard’s (2008) Bystander Attitudes Scale was used to measure participants’ willingness to take action in bystander situations. Because MVP pedagogy focuses on bystander engagement with friends and peers rather than with strangers, we chose the 25 items that addressed willingness to intervene with known others. An envisioned scenario includes, “Call 911 and tell the hospital my suspicions if I suspect that my friend has been drugged,” with answers on a 5-point scale (1 = not at all likely; 5 = extremely likely) and summed for a total score. The Cronbach’s alpha on pretest data for this modified scale was .91 (M = 108.45, SD = 10.95 with a range of 74 to 125).
We addressed the first research question through descriptive statistics, because little is known about the preparation and background of student leaders on gender violence issues. We found differences among student leadership groups in their prior training on sexual assault, sexual harassment and dating violence. Significantly more residential life student leaders (70%) compared to student-athlete captains (40%) had received prior training in sexual assault, X2 (1, N = 239) = 22.94, p < .001) and similar patterns obtained for sexual harassment training. Yet fewer than half (46%) of students overall had received prior training in dating violence/relationship abuse (29% of student-athletes and 58% of RAs), a notable deficit given the prevalence of intimate partner violence among college-aged populations. For a subset of student leaders, these trainings tap into personal experiences. About 13% of students indicated they are survivors of some form of gender violence (i.e., sexual assault, rape, sexual harassment), and nearly three-quarters (69%) knew someone who was a victim of sexual assault or abuse. Notably, 40% of student leaders (36% of student-athletes and 43% of resident assistants) knew someone who had engaged in unwanted sexual contact with another person.
Student leaders came to the MVP leadership training with considerable prior leadership experience in high school, college and community organizations. About 81% of students reported they held a leadership position in high school (e.g., sports team captain, student government, student club president, yearbook editor), and 79% held leadership positions in college (e.g., peer mentor, sorority/fraternity presidents, club president). Yet just slightly more than half (56%) were leaders in civic (e.g., Boy Scouts) or religious organizations, suggesting that leadership experiences accrue for this age group predominantly within school settings. About 57% of students had received formal leadership development training, with similar percentages for women and men, student leadership group and across racial/ethnic background. It was the rare student leader, however, who had taken a college course on leadership development (about 13%), and even rarer still leadership training with a gender focus (just 11% of the total). While many student leaders came to the MVP training with prior leadership experience, only slightly more than half had received formal leadership training, and only a small fraction had received training with a gender focus. Thus, MVP trainings were their first exposure to leadership development through a gendered lens that intersects with other types of interpersonal and structural inequalities, a central consideration in feminist-inspired gender violence prevention education.
Univariate and Multivariate Analysis
The second question was to assess as a group whether MVP leadership trainings enhance students’ leadership readiness to engage with gender violence prevention, their confidence as bystanders, and their willingness to take action in potential abuse situations. Paired sample t tests compare pretest to posttest differences on these three outcome measures (see Table 1) and allow for summative comparisons with other bystander programs. All tests were significant at the p <.001 level. More specifically, after the MVP leadership training, student leaders showed greater leadership readiness on gender violence prevention issues, t(238) = -11.97; p <.001; expressed more bystander confidence, t(233) = -10.33, p <.001; and demonstrated more willingness to act in a range of bystander scenarios, t(231) = -9.45, p <.001.
Program Outcome Means and Paired t Tests
Willingness to help
Each of the individual items that make up the leadership readiness scale also reflected positive gains from pre to post test (see Table 2). After the training, student leaders as a group evidenced enhanced scores in such areas as being more knowledgeable about sexual assault and relationship abuse t(238) = -3.76, p <.001, keeping up to date on these issues t(238) = -4.11, p <.001, incorporating the prevention of sexual and gender violence in their leadership role t(238) =
-4.70 p <.001, initiating discussions about gender violence in their spheres of influence t(238) =
-9.12, p <.001, and promoting gender and sexual equity issues in their formal and informal leadership roles t(238) = -4.97, p < .001.
Individual Leadership Readiness Item Outcomes and Paired t Tests (n = 239)
Leadership Item Outcome
a. I have thought about how to use my leadership skills to help reduce incidence of gender violence.
b. It is important for students in positions of formal/informal leadership to be knowledgeable about the causes of sexual assault.
c. It is important for students in positions of formal/informal leadership to be up-to-date on best practices in gender violence prevention.
d. If leaders are adequately trained, they can play a meaningful role in reducing gender violence in their sphere of influence.
e. It is important to incorporate the prevention of gender and sexual violence into my formal/informal leadership.
f. It is important to incorporate the promotion of gender and sexual equity into my formal/informal leadership.
g. A person who interrupts or intervenes in a situation of actual or potential gender violence is doing what a leader does.
h. As a leader, I believe it is my responsibility to initiate discussions about gender violence prevention in my sphere of influence.
The third research question sought to determine whether program outcomes varied across individual students’ social identities and different leadership experiences, taking into account where students started at the beginning of the training. We conducted three regression analyses to determine the relative weight of students’ identities and leadership experience in predicting program post-test scores (T2) in leadership readiness, bystander confidence, and willingness to take action (see Table 3), controlling for students’ pre-training scores on these same program outcomes measures (T1).
Regression Analysis of Program Outcomes on Pre-Test Scores, Social Identities, and Leadership Background
Leadership Readiness T2
Bystander Confidence T2
Willingness to Help T2
High School Leadership
a Reference group: White
b Reference group: Athletes
*p < .05. ** p < .01. *** p < .001
Pre-test scores were entered as independent variables, along with gender, race/ethnicity, peer group (0=athlete leaders; 1=resident assistants) and whether participants had prior high school and college leadership experience (0=No; 1=Yes). The results of the first regression analysis suggest that holding constant other factors, their pre-test score (β = .32, p < .001) and whether a student had prior college leadership experience (β = 1.32, p < .01) were significant predictors of post-test scores on leadership readiness, accounting for 17% of the variance.
Results from the second regression analysis indicate that pre-test scores (β = .53, p < .001), women compared to men (β = .11, p < .05), and resident assistants more so than student-athlete leaders (β = .12, p < .05) evidenced greater gains in their post-test scores on bystander confidence after the training; the model accounts for 35% of the overall variance. Finally, the third regression equation finds that in addition to pre-test scores (β = .58, p < .001), resident assistants evidenced greater gains in post-test scores on willingness to help compared to athletes (β = .12, p < .001). These variables accounted for a significant 36% of the variance in post-test scores on willingness to help their peers in various bystander situations.
Interpretation of Findings
This study responds to prior calls for greater student engagement with challenging social issues and more opportunities for them to respectfully engage sociopolitical differences with each other in a manner that enhances self-awareness, clarifies individual and group values, and promotes transformational leadership development. A pilot evaluation of the leadership development approach to sexual assault prevention by the Mentors in Violence Prevention (MVP) program offers a unique opportunity to explore values-based leadership education on one of the more critical social
issues of our time. Through its open, spirited and interactive dialogues, opportunities for thinking through and rehearsing prosocial behaviors together as a group, and a leadership development approach that marries leadership competence with empowered bystander action, MVP pedagogy applies key components of a feminist-inspired leadership education curriculum recently advocated by Iverson et al. (2019). To address whether such an approach is effective with student leaders, we explored via a pre-post research design whether a one-day MVP leadership training in gender violence prevention offered to 239 student-athlete leaders and resident assistants evidenced positive gains in the program outcomes measures we used to operationalize this model.
When measured as a group, paired sample t tests revealed that student leaders showed positive gains after the MVP training in leadership readiness, bystander confidence, and willingness to help others. Because MVP is designed specifically as a leadership development program, similarly notable were the positive changes among student leaders in the individual items that made up the study’s leadership readiness scale, in such areas as keeping up-to-date and knowledgeable as a student leader, taking responsibility for initiating discussions in one’s sphere of influence, and incorporating gender violence prevention and the promotion of gender/sexual equity into their formal leadership role. These findings suggest that MVP’s intentional focus on leadership development holds merit as both a prevention approach and a leadership education curriculum. To be sure, our measure of leadership readiness is only a preliminary first step in specifying in empirical terms what a feminist-grounded leadership outcome measure might entail when the leadership mandate involves campus-based gender violence prevention work. The measurement and assessment of leadership readiness in given leadership scenarios remains understudied and under-developed in both the gender violence and leadership literatures. We join others who call for more tailored measures of leadership self-efficacy that better gauge a leader’s belief in their capabilities in a particular leadership situation (Murphy & Johnson, 2016), as well as for more diverse measures of leadership than currently exist in the literature (Huntrods et al., 2017).
Engaging Student Identities
Beyond overall program gains, an important ancillary question taken up in this study is whether MVP’s feminist-inspired leadership curriculum is similarly effective across various student identities. An ongoing debate in the prevention research and practitioner literatures is whether an expressly gender-focused, feminist-grounded gender violence prevention approach is both warranted and effective [see symposium, Renzetti, Violence Against Women, 2018, 24(15)]. While others have explored whether self-identified women and men engage differently with sexual assault prevention using bystander intervention methods (Burns et al., 2018), few of these prevention programs have been as expressly and overtly feminist and social-justice focused as the Mentors in Violence Prevention (MVP) program, one of the original yet understudied bystander programs that, unlike others, does not overtly eschew its feminist underpinnings (see discussion by Katz, 2018). Here, study findings suggest solid gains for student leaders when gender violence prevention is configured within a feminist-inspired leadership development model.
Iverson et al. (2019) argue that a feminist perspective on leadership must assess whether a leadership education program builds leadership capacity and efficacy for women and students of color. Accordingly, when comparing women to men, our study findings suggest that MVP trainings worked equally well in building leadership readiness in women student leaders as it did for men, and may actually augment women’s self-confidence as both bystanders and leaders when confronting sexual assault situations with peers and others. Regression analyses found no significant post-training differences in leadership readiness and willingness to take action, while women evidenced higher scores in bystander confidence compared to men when other background factors were held constant. In contrast to leadership programs that report women student leaders’ lower leadership self-efficacy compared to men (Adams & Keim, 2000), women’s comparable or elevated MVP post-training scores may be attributable to the highly interactive, consciousness-raising format of MVP sessions, in which participants work together and talk through sexual assault issues and bystander challenges with their peers in a supportive environment with self-identified women (and men) encouraged to speak up, give voice to their own experiences, even challenge ideas expressed by others. Leadership development projects that amplify often marginalized voices while maintaining social connection help to support the professed interests of college women who aspire to leadership positions, but who place value on making meaningful connections with others and perceive leadership roles as a context within which interpersonal connections can be maintained (Boatwright & Egidio, 2003). Because sexual assault remains a widespread social problem, leadership development programs that identify and prepare women to address these and other complex social issues may help to promote and retain future women leaders (Longman et al., 2018).
Research suggests that men would similarly benefit from more values-based leadership training in a supportive, trust-building culture that allows for connection with other men (Beatty & Tillapaugh, 2017; Harris, 2008), particularly in situations when women are recruited as role models to work alongside men (Dugan, 2006). A foundational innovation of MVP is its use of consciousness-raising pedagogy to engage men in the effort to challenge and change the social norms within their peer cultures that uphold sexist attitudes and abusive behaviors, and to position men not exclusively as perpetrators but as active bystanders who have the power (and responsibility) to interrupt abusive behaviors by others (Katz, 1995; 2018). The positive gains in leadership and bystander capacity reported here provide preliminary evidence that a feminist-inspired pedagogy within a leadership development framework holds promise for male student leaders in various influential campus sub-cultures, like those found in athletics and residence halls.
Nevertheless, an unknown but particularly important question for intersectional feminist theory is how student leaders outside the gender binary engage with MVP pedagogy and the potentially confounding effects of other intersectional identities on their gendered experience. Ironically, the quantitative design that we employ here may be an inadequate method for capturing the complexity of lived experience advocated by feminist methodologists (see Fonow & Cook, 2005). We must join others who call for more qualitative or mixed-method approaches (e.g., observational studies, focus groups, personal interviews) to the evaluation of gender violence prevention work (Dworkin & Barker, 2019) that better align feminist theory with its employed methodology.
In addition to gender identities, a related effort in this study was to examine the significance of both race/ethnicity and peer group as two potentially important aspects of student identity to affect program outcomes. Regression analyses revealed no predictive effects of student leaders’ racial/ethnic background when controlling for other independent variables, suggesting that the MVP program worked equally well for students across these different identity experiences. Because the leadership literature reveals more complex intersections of race and leadership experience than undertaken here (see Ospina & Foldy, 2009 for review), study findings are suggestive rather than conclusive; future research on gender violence prevention and leadership pedagogies would yield additional insight by better contextualizing race effects (i.e., by organizational or peer group type) and by engaging both feminist and critical race theory.
Indeed, the role of the peer group as an influential social identity to shape both leadership development and social action remains similarly underdeveloped, particularly as it concerns student leadership groups on campus that represent divergent political and social interests. From its inception, MVP trainings have occurred within defined peer groups (e.g., in fraternities and athletic teams), with the understanding that challenging one’s friends or teammates can be more socially risky compared to challenging acquaintances or strangers. The bystander literature is instructive here, especially the finding that taking action in sexual assault situations depends in part on the perception of the attitudes of one’s peers, particularly for men (Brown & Messman-Moore, 2010; Fabiano et al., 2003). Related research that finds greater endorsement of rape myths, adherence to traditional gender ideologies (e.g., men should be heads of households), and greater risk of sexual assault perpetration among fraternity members and intercollegiate male athletes (Canan et al., 2016; Young et al., 2016) underscores the powerful role that peer groups play in sexual assault incidents and their aftermath, and the need for leadership development opportunities that aim to shift social norms within these important peer cultures.
In this study, we compared the responses of two influential peer groups, student-athlete leaders and resident assistants, to a feminist-inspired leadership development approach to sexual assault prevention and found that both groups evidenced similar (and positive) changes in leadership readiness. Nevertheless, resident assistants evidenced higher post-training scores in both bystander confidence and willingness to take action than did student-athlete leaders. As have others, we found that resident assistants had already received more formal training on these issues than student-athletes, and were likely primed differently due to the formal RA role of managing conflict and ensuring student safety (Herdlein et al., 2013). By contrast, in informal conversations after the trainings, a number of student-athlete leaders observed that MVP leadership training was the first time they actually viewed themselves as campus leaders or influencers. Not all student-athletes who attended were team captains who, as a group, often exhibit higher leadership preparedness than non-captains (Huntrods et al., 2017). Knowing more about what distinguishes student leadership groups—for example, their gender attitudes and behaviors, their prior leadership experiences—would further clarify these findings.
Gender Violence Prevention on College Campuses: Implications for Leadership Education
A compelling case can be made for the utility and importance of a feminist-inspired leadership development approach to gender violence prevention work on college campuses undertaken by MVP and other similarly positioned bystander programs. Yet leadership development initiatives in this arena require essential protocols and support mechanisms reflective of variable student preparation and leadership experience. For example, we found that students came to the MVP training with different background knowledge and experience, likely shaped by their distinct peer groups. Resident assistants, in their role as Campus Security Authorities (CSAs), had received more prior training on sexual assault and harassment than had student-athletes, yet both groups had received comparatively little training on dating violence. MVP trainings do include learning modules on relationship abuse issues, but given that studies report dating violence victimization rates as high as 65% for girls and 62% for boys ages 13-19 (Bonomi et al., 2012), more ongoing awareness and prevention training on this issue is needed. As importantly, student leaders had to navigate their own or other’s personal experiences of sexual assault, whether as a survivor (13%), knowing a victim (39%), or knowing a peer who had engaged in unwanted sexual contact with someone else (40%). Helping student leaders grapple with their own and others’ survivor/perpetrator identities, and to dialogue with peers who may hold very different attitudes, are central challenges for leadership education. The provision of recognized support measures (e.g., trigger warnings, inclusive language, counseling staff or sexual assault counselor on hand) become essential training tools, as does a leadership development framework that intentionally acknowledges the complexity and profundity of fellow students’ experiences, while at the same time helping to guide college students in the development of leadership capacity.
A one-size-fits-all approach to leadership development in gender violence prevention work is likely insufficient for addressing variation in student experience and leadership preparation. A trademark of MVP is its adaptable content; the bystander scenarios that students discuss can take into account such things as recent campus incidents, or their own peer group dynamics or leadership preparation. Notably in this sample, the majority (79%-81%) of student leaders had held leadership positions in high school or in college (less so in civic organizations), and a slight majority (about 57%) had received formal leadership development training. Comparatively few, however, had taken a college course in leadership development, while fewer still had received leadership training with a gender focus. Gender as a central organizing principle in organizations and human societies remains a key feminist insight (Iverson et al., 2019; Tong, 2009), and a fundamental knowledge platform that leaders of the future need to acquire (Bierema, 2017).
Yet gender-focused leadership development opportunities for students remain woefully underdeveloped. A feminist-inspired bystander education curriculum addresses this need, although a one-day student leadership training on sexual assault prevention should not be their only learning opportunity. Student development gains could be far greater if trainings were followed up with other learning opportunities. Two possible initiatives to engage leadership development systematically are the Citizen Leader Model, in which students connect to clients or community agencies (e.g., rape crisis centers, domestic violence shelters) to fully investigate institutional realities, target needs, and develop strategies to solve problems (Langone, 2004), and the inclusion of learning modules on the intersectional realities of sexual violence within leadership training on matters of inclusion and cultural relevance (Guthrie & Chunoo, 2017).
Study findings further suggest that pre-existing experiences and attitudes are additional factors to consider when assessing leadership development outcomes on the issue of gender violence. High school leadership experiences did not differentiate change scores, nor were they significant predictors of program outcome measures. However, in a regression equation, college leadership experience was a significant predictor of post-test scores on leadership readiness relative to other factors, suggesting that multiple leadership opportunities in college may be mutually reinforcing. Like others who find that co-curricular pairings (i.e., study abroad and community service programs) enhance socially responsible leadership development outcomes (Martinez et al., 2020), perhaps coupling other college leadership experiences with targeted leadership development opportunities on critical social issues like sexual assault prevention offers similar synergistic possibilities for student growth and development.
Study Limitations and Future Research
A pre-post design is both common in applied research and program evaluation (Banyard et al., 2009) and a practical choice in this case, when modest research resources precluded a substantial incentive program associated with extended follow-up survey designs. Nevertheless, the data presented here are cross-sectional; measuring leadership development at one point in time does not capture the longitudinal trajectory of student leadership development on gender violence issues and whether such changes persist. Indeed, pre-post measurements on the day of training also likely overestimate leadership development training effects that may dissipate with time. There is also the possibility of perceptual bias when using self-report measures, as well as greater measurement error and social desirability bias attendant to measures that tap normative, prosocial behavior (Hadway et al., 1998). Finally, the study was bounded to one university in a particular region of the U.S. and may not be transferrable to other universities or cities elsewhere.
Future research would help clarify several areas. More detailed information about the political ideologies and family background of students would provide additional clues as to the underlying factors associated with MVP leadership development gains that differentiate racial/ethnic groups, and help to clarify these conflicting and unclear patterns noted in the leadership development literature (Dugan, 2006). For example, studies on social perspective taking and civic identity development find more significant effects for whites than students of color (Johnson, 2015). Some report race/ethnic group differences in leadership capacity and motivation (e.g., Dugan & Komives, 2010), while others report few meaningful differences, calling for leadership development opportunities that focus on inclusion, diversity and social justice issues that benefit everyone (Rosch et al., 2015).
More research is also needed on how boys and young men understand the dynamics of gender and masculinity in the context of leadership development (Haber-Curren & Tillapaugh, 2017), particularly when the subject is gender violence prevention. Of particular interest on this topic is the leadership development potential of student-athlete leaders. Understanding their pre-college leadership experiences, combined with their current attitudes and orientations, are important next steps in this regard. And while women report more skill with socially responsible leadership then do men (Dugan et al., 2008), and minority college women are particularly attuned to righting social injustices through activism (Onorato & Musoba, 2015), further explorations are needed on how women across intersectional categories navigate their relational identities when leadership curricula entail challenging sexism and abusive behavior by their peers.
Sexual assault, harassment, and relationship abuse remain among the most pervasive, culturally resonant, and contentious contemporary social issues, including on college campuses. The leadership development approach offered by the Mentors in Violence Prevention (MVP) program applies key elements of a feminist-inspired leadership education curriculum to advance social change on these issues. Study findings represent a preliminary effort to outline some of the complex dynamics of this endeavor; clearly there need to be many more initiatives, and more research into their efficacy, going forward. Ensuring that students navigate this important and challenging terrain more effectively with their peers and hone their gender violence prevention leadership and advocacy skills remains an untapped potential in campus leadership development programs.
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