Perceived Importance and Confidence in Leadership Ability: A National Survey of Final Year Canadian Engineering Students

Perceived Importance and Confidence in Leadership Ability: A National Survey of Final Year Canadian Engineering Students

Engineering educational institutions and workplaces looking to attract students and professionals to leadership training opportunities can benefit from understanding the extent to which engineering students across demographic groups value leadership. In this study, Kovalchuk et al analyzed questions pertaining to leadership, technical and other professional skills from a larger national survey conducted by Engineers Canada. They found that while recent engineering graduates across the country did value leadership, they ascribed lower utility value to it than to other professional skills such as teamwork and communication. Small but significant differences were found by gender and race with women ascribing slightly higher value to leadership than men, and Black and Middle Eastern students valuing leadership moderately more than their Indigenous, East Asian, and Caucasian peers.

By using the wealth of demographic information available through this study, educators can take a more targeted approach to communicating the benefits of leadership education to elevate participation amongst specific demographic groups. Data was drawn from a survey of 2,485 final year Canadian undergraduate engineering students analyzed across the variables of gender, residential status, race, discipline and academic standing.

Key takeaways:

  1. Chief among the concepts framing the study is the idea that, “The more that students value a skill and the more confident they feel in having it, the more likely they are to develop and practice it.” Otherwise known as the expectancy-value theory, this understanding guided data collection and analysis.


  1. Findings show that 23% of students rate leadership skills as crucial, 40% as very important, 27% as important. Yet most rate math and science skills as more important than leadership skills. This was not the case for some females and some racialized (Black and Middle Eastern) students who saw leadership skills as equally or more important than technical skills. Page nine provides a complete picture of students’ ratings by demographic.


  1. In the confidence domain, most engineering students gave themselves high ratings. Twenty eight percent rated their leadership ability as being in the highest 10% of their class, and 42% as above average. However, Southeast Asian and East Asian students were less confident in their leadership skills than their peers in other racial groups. As engineering leadership educators, it is up to us to find ways to enhance levels of leadership self-efficacy in these students.


  1. According to expectancy-value theory, students with higher confidence in their leadership skills are more likely to pursue training to improve upon their abilities, thereby widening the gap between those who enter their programs with different levels of confidence in their leadership abilities.


  1. Expectancy-value theory asks educators to be aware that student’s value of leadership skills and self-confidence in their ability to perform those skills can be shaped by characteristics such as race, gender, class and other previous experiences. By applying this lens, we resist characterizing engineering students as a homogenous group, and take a historical, structural and political view of leadership education. Educators and researchers centering equity can apply this theoretical framework as they develop methods and messaging to increase the engagement of diverse groups of students in leadership training.


Takeaways from this study can guide educators’ decisions about how to engage students and retain learners in the leadership classroom. It can inform thinking about how to tailor messaging about the value of leadership training, and where to devote resources in service of fostering students’ self-belief. It can also fuel educators’ efforts to continue to challenge the narrative that technical skills are more important and encourage more potential leaders to invest time in their own development.


Read the full article on TSpace for full tables of results and the authors’ discussion.


Citation: Kovalchuk, S., & Liu, Q., & Rottmann, C., & Klassen, M., & Ricci, J., & Reeve, D., & Moore, E. (2019, June), Perceived Importance and Confidence in Leadership Ability: A National Survey of Final Year Canadian Engineering Students Paper presented at 2019 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition , Tampa, Florida.