Thirty years ago, a group of academics – among them deans, vice-presidents and provosts – created an organization to support women moving up the leadership ranks of postsecondary institutions.
“It really started as a networking opportunity to bring women together … to talk through problems and get advice,” says Angela Hildyard, secretary general of the Senior Women Academic Administrators of Canada, or SWAAC. A former vice-president of the University of Toronto, she joined SWAAC shortly after its founding in 1987. “I’d been put into a [leadership] role at my institution and there was no one for me to talk to … about the things I faced trying to be a woman in a senior role at a postsecondary institution,” she says.
Since then, SWAAC has grown from a small networking group into a national organization with about 280 members from universities, colleges and technical institutes coast-to-coast. The number of women in academia has also grown since then and women now comprise more than half of all undergraduate students and assistant professors. But when it comes to leadership, parity is a distant dream: for two decades now, women have made up just 20 percent of university presidents (and 30 percent of college presidents). However, Dr. Hildyard notes that the number of women serving as deans, provosts or other internal leadership roles has been increasing over time.
Regardless, enduring inequalities in the postsecondary education realm means SWAAC remains relevant three decades later, says Dr. Hildyard. A recurring feature of the organization’s annual conference is the President’s Panel, in which presidents of universities and colleges tell of how they’ve negotiated their statistically unlikely paths to the presidency.
At the 2017 annual conference held in Edmonton at the end of April, panelists included Ann Everatt of Northern Lakes College in Alberta, Melanie Humphreys of The King’s University, Annette Trimbee of the University of Winnipeg and Deborah Saucier, incoming president of MacEwan University. All four panelists took serendipitous routes to the presidency, filled with unexpected twists and turns.
How they got here
After earning a business diploma in the late 1970s, Ms. Everatt returned to her home community in Labrador and worked with a systems analyst at a mining company developing a computerized maintenance system.. She had no interest in a postsecondary career until her mother and a former high school principal got together to talk her into teaching at a community college in the evenings. “After I got over my nerves, I decided I actually liked my night job better than my day job and went back to university to study education,” she says.
Ms. Everatt’s career would lead her to colleges throughout Canada, including in Iqaluit, Calgary, Timmons and Slave Lake, where the Northern Lakes campus is located. At each juncture, she pushed aside self-doubt to take on “stretch challenges” to develop new skills. At one college, she was asked to create a strategic plan and accepted, despite having no previous experience doing one.
Like Ms. Everatt, Dr. Humphreys didn’t begin her career with a university presidency in mind. After working in student life at a Christian college in B.C., she hit a “stained glass ceiling” and realized she needed to advance her career elsewhere. When she heard that a small institution in Lithuania was creating a student life department, she threw her hat in the ring and, to her delight, got the gig.
It was a formative experience for Dr. Humphreys, who learned as much about herself as she did about the struggling eastern European country, which was in the midst of rebuilding after the fall of the Soviet Union. “I came for two years and stayed for 10,” she says. “I loved it.” The experience proved to be an important stepping stone in her leadership journey, paving the way for increasingly senior positions.
Other panelists found themselves being nudged into leadership positions by colleagues or mentors. Dr. Saucier held a Tier 1 Canada Research Chair, and had a nine-month-old baby, when the chair of her department at the University of Lethbridge begged her to take up his post as he was stepping down. Although she accepted reluctantly, she managed to succeed at all three roles.
“For me, it’s almost all about relationships,” she says. “I’ve had three or four strong male allies who’ve pushed me forward and opened doors.” Over the years, she’s risen through the ranks and begins her new role as president of MacEwan on July 1.
Dr. Trimbee was also a university researcher – a freshwater ecologist – when she took on a senior technical position with the government of Alberta. In her new role, most of her colleagues were male engineers a generation older. “It actually worked out very well for me because most of the men wanted good things for their daughters and I became everybody’s ‘daughter,’” she says.
Over time, she moved from technical roles to policy positions to civil service leadership (she served as deputy minister within several portfolios). When she was asked to consider the presidency at her alma mater, the University of Winnipeg, Dr. Trimbee knew her diverse leadership experiences made her an asset: “The advice I always give people is, ‘Put your hand up and be of value.’”