Risk-taking and leadership: what can women from academic, corporate, and government science learn from each other?


Jong-On Hahm
Director, Committee on Women in Science and Engineering, National Research Council

Elizabeth F. McCormack
Associate Professor of Physics, Bryn Mawr College


The 20 participants in this leadership workshop ranged from graduate students to distinguished research scientists and CEOs, and were nearly evenly divided between those working in corporate research or management and those in academic or government research. Participants noted the value of cross-sector and cross-generational discussions of risk-taking and leadership issues as a complement to traditional peer group sessions.


Participants began by identifying the characteristics of an effective leader so as to assess potential barriers to leadership and risk-taking for women. A good leader:

  • Has expertise, experience, visibility and perspective;

  • Asks questions, listens well, sees connections and is confident in judgement;

  • Supports realistic assessments, does scenario and contingency planning;

  • Leverages efforts;

  • Is open-minded, acts fairly and practices respect;

  • Exhibits passion and optimism, motivates others;

  • Recruits talented people;

  • Is connected to people, has good social skills, communicates well and participates in networking.

Many women face similar difficulties in assuming leadership and succeeding in leadership roles. These challenges fall into the categories of:

  • Workplace Style: a value for consensus, a need for information to deliberate decisions, a desire for roadmaps and a reluctance to take on the more unrewarding tasks;

  • Social Style: empathy for all, fear of not being liked ("terminal niceness");

  • Confidence: the "impostor syndrome," fear of failure;

  • Workplace Realities: reluctance to engage in self-promotion, expectation that hard work is automatically rewarded.

Of course, some barriers to leadership and risk-taking continue to be posed by the institutions in which women work (e.g. aggressive behavior is not often rewarded in the case of women) and live (many women still bear greater responsibility for family and community obligations). While these are significant impediments, participants focused here on identifying individual incentives and strategies for successful risk-taking and leadership development.

  • Change Perception of Risk: recognize risk as the flip side of opportunity; see risks as opportunities to learn something new; identify risks and ask, "What is the worst that can happen?"

  • Preparing for Risk: find a mentor to explore risk scenarios; minimize impact of risks taken; do contingency planning;

  • Create Allies: participate in a network of support; practice peer mentoring; use a "buddy system" in which each promotes the other;

  • Changing Attitudes: "Just Do It" — it is easier to gain forgiveness than permission.

Participants then prepared to "just do it" rather than file their notes away. Each identified and committed to taking a workplace risk, and agreed to follow up with one another during the following week.

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