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Leading in a New Era: Law Students Shaping Inclusive Policies and Building Trust in Transformative Leadership

September 01, 2020

In the fall of 2019, students in the Women, Law, and Leadership Course at Penn Law interviewed over fifty women leaders in law and business, exploring the concept of gender in leadership and ways in which traditional notions of leadership are undergoing radical change. Through capsule narratives of influential women of the time, we examined a new understanding of leadership that is defined by differences in gender, race, demographics, male allyship, and changes in the political economy, including changing social mores as a cause- and- effect consequence of new social movements.

While we gleaned greater insights into what philosophies, theories, policies, skills and strategies make for moral leadership, allyship rose to the top as an enabler of women’s leadership. Male allyship was a theme repeated consistently through interviewee narratives. Growing out of that research, in collaboration with Thomson Reuters, the project on Leadership, Diversity, and Allyship was created in an effort to study how allyship can demystify masculinized notions of leadership, shape work- place policies that advance women’s leadership and foster gender equality in the world of work.

This research-based and data-driven model to diversify leadership from the law school classroom to public leadership, develops a first-of-its-kind leadership incubator to test new approaches and to advance transformative change in the law and in public life. In recent years, there has been a greater focus on the role of allies, but so far, there has been an absence of research on how an emerging generation of leaders view allyship.

“Leadership at the highest level involves working on policies that address pressing public problems. Our project provides a toolbox to design effective and inclusive policies on leadership, diversity and allyship,” said Rangita de Silva, the Associate Dean of International Affairs at the University of Pennsylvania law School.

“Our students are the future stakeholders of policy decisions, seeking to drive change, innovate and scale policy spaces. As part of an exercise in learning to diagnose root causes of problems, analyzing values behind policy decisions, and creating theories of change, law students themselves must develop innovative policy recommendations. This dynamic interaction between peers will help both interviewer and respondent to design informed policy prescriptions and refine skills to navigate and impact nuanced policy landscapes in public leadership.”

This seminal research focuses on the next generation of leaders in the law. Through a series of in-depth interviews, we will (1) identify young male leaders from a diverse cohort and analyze their views of allyship, (2) examine male norms on allyship and ways to debias the workplace and move away from gender stereotypes, and (3) highlight workplace policies and strategies that can prioritize gender equal leadership. The participant pool in the next stage of this research is comprised of the next generation of leaders, starting with male law students and then slowly expanding out to other leaders like business students, and medical students, etc. In addition to in-depth interviews, we are also administering an anonymous implicit association test designed by Zahra Keshwani (adapted from the Harvard implicit bias test) to study the role of implicit biases and how those biases have restricted allyships in the past. Our goal through this research is to better understand how we can use that data and information to produce stronger, and more equitable policies in the world of work. In the final analysis, we ask how in the 21st century, these policies based on allyship can alter the shape of the human condition?

As Michael Machado, student researcher in the project sums up: “Allyship is critical to the development of personhood and leadership development, across a broad spectrum of communities and industries alike. but as future members of the legal profession, we owe special attention to the subject from the moment we enter law school. Our commitment to upholding and advancing our laws, as men, is largely shaped by the manner in which we treat all women at our law school, including our empowered and courageous colleagues, the ones who speak truth to power, whom we’ll someday call coworker, friend, boss and leader. it is, without a doubt, in a man’s best interest to be a better ally to all of the women around him. and this begins in law school, because for better or worse, we are molded here. framed in this manner, male allyship as a topic welcomes all voices and perspectives, united in the common goal of being a better lawyer, a better friend, a better teammate, a better partner, or simply, a better person.”

This research project is developed and supervised by Associate Dean Rangita de Silva de Alwis and led by Penn Law students: Zahra Keshwani, Fumnanya Ekhator, May Alajlan, and Michael Machado. The distinguished advisor to the project is David Wilkins, Vice Dean and Lester Kissel Professor of Law Harvard Law School whose seminal work on diversity in the legal profession inspired this research. This research is conducted under the auspices of Dean Theodore Ruger, Dean of Penn Law School.