Ms. President

Why aren’t there more of you at Canadian universities?

Ms. President

Chris Bolin Photography, Photograph by Andrew Tolson

When Elizabeth Cannon showed up for her first day of engineering school in 1979, women made up five per cent of the program. Now, as she takes the reins of the University of Calgary, women make up 23 per cent of the school’s future engineers and more than half of the university’s student population, a trend reflected in schools across Canada.

But as Canadians fret over the feminization of lecture halls and ponder affirmative action for males, they seem to have missed the fact that the number of women sitting in the president’s chairs remains stubbornly low. In the fall of 2000, 12 of the 68 leaders of Canadian universities—18 per cent—were female. A decade later, just 13 of 70—19 per cent—are women. The U.S. saw a similar rise and plateau: in 1986, women made up nine per cent of university and college heads; the number grew to 19 per cent in 1998 before growth stalled again, settling at just 23 per cent today. Female professors are being hired in almost equal numbers to men—45 per cent of new full-time teaching positions were awarded to women in 2008—but the upper ranks are still overwhelmingly male. Just 22 per cent of full-time professors are women, although they make up a majority of education departments and nearly half of arts teachers.

We asked some female university leaders why the growth in female leadership has slowed to almost nothing—and what can be done to fix it. “The fact that we’re getting more women in the academic ranks will increase the number of women at the top,” says Cannon. “But we can’t rely on demographics alone.”

Martha Piper, who oversaw UBC from 1997 to 2006, was surprised to learn that more women aren’t leading our universities: “Wow. My impression was that more women were being appointed than that,” she says. Piper says if women are going to win the top spots, administrations have to actively encourage them. That means identifying women inside the university during succession planning, encouraging them, and hiring from that pool. “Every time there’s a new president, there are these national search teams,” she explains, “I sit on a couple of corporate boards and they make it their job to figure out who the leaders are and how to develop them. Universities need to start cultivating from within.”

Ramona Lumpkin, who started her term as president of Mount Saint Vincent University this fall, encountered one roadblock in her 33-year career that she suspects is holding other women back. It took her awhile to realize that her less assertive and more collaborative leadership style was equal (if different) to the leadership style of her male colleagues. “Not everyone speaks in the bass range,” she says, referring to her soft voice that can get lost in a room full of men. Lumpkin says it will take some recognition on the part of administrations that women often lead differently, in order for them to feel comfortable leading male-heavy groups.

Piper says being a mother kept her from moving up sooner. She was encouraged to apply for a vice-president’s position at the University of Alberta around 1990, but she decided to focus on parenting instead, and wonders how many women give up on advance­ment entirely, due to family pressures. “Probably 80-plus per cent of women decide somewhere mid-career whether they want to throw their hat in the ring to be a head, a dean, or whatever,” says Piper. “You have to ask what they need at that stage of life.”

Sandra Acker, a sociologist with the University of Toronto (who was an associate dean once herself) studies how women succeed and fail in academic administration. In her recent paper, “Gendered games in academic leadership,” Acker profiled four female academic administrators chosen from 31 interviewees. While she notes that not every academic is a mother, she wrote, “the most striking similarity is the way that all four women talked about family and relationship issues affecting their choices.” Indeed, one of the women she studied said it was impossible to live up to the expectations of being both a manager and a mother when her boss was working 85-hour weeks. “I work a lot, but didn’t want to be there on a Friday night at nine o’clock. I have a family,” she told Acker. The man’s family was in another city, allowing him to work late nights and weekends.

Piper believes that universities should recognize that mothers are often the ones driving kids to music lessons and helping with their homework. “We look so much at maternity leave, which is important, but early teenagehood is just as demanding and we don’t have good supports at that period of time,” she explains. Some female academics may need after-school programs for their children, especially considering that highly mobile academics rarely have extended family members living nearby who can babysit, she says.

As Elizabeth Cannon decides how to shape her school’s future, she’s already thought about how to nurture women along the way. “We’ve tried on campus to increase access to quality daycare, to give [mom] academics peace of mind. Being supportive of women who have returned from maternity leave matters too,” says Cannon. “But really, it’s not just tangible things you can do,” she says. “It’s also the culture that you build.”

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