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Women Lead: Facilitating mentorship of women academic leaders

Let 2019 be the year of women and leadership at your institution.


While much has changed in the postsecondary sector for women, there is still work to be done across many key areas. More women than ever are attending university and there are more female professors. At the same time, women are overrepresented in precarious labour, underrepresented in PhD completions in most academic disciplines (STEM especially), and underrepresented in advanced academic ranks (particularly full professors). All these layers of (under)representation mean that there are fewer women in senior academic administration.

In 2018, 27 percent of university presidents and 31 percent of college and polytechnics presidents were women. While these numbers represent an increase from decades ago, the change over time seems insignificant compared to participation rates of women in postsecondary, and even participation of women in leadership in other sectors. And while progress for women in general has been slow, it has been even slower for racialized women, members of the LGBTQ 2 Spirited community and well as women with disabilities.

The challenges we face in Canada with the underrepresentation of women at the most senior ranks of academia are not unique. For example, representation of women in senior and executive leadership roles in Australia ranges between 26 percent to 30 percent. A champion for the advancement of women in postsecondary institutions, Dr. Vianne Timmons, president and vice-chancellor at the University of Regina, pointed out in a recent article that some postsecondary institutions in Canada have yet to appoint a female president. There also seems to be a recent trend to appointing presidents who have served terms at other universities – and this skews the candidate pool towards older, and white men.

One area that is often raised amidst discussions about the underrepresentation of women in senior leadership roles is the critical need for mentorship. Mentorship has been found to be effective for promoting women through academe. Women mentoring other women has also been found to be particularly effective. However, with fewer women in the most senior leadership roles (and even in senior ranking academic roles) at universities, this means that there are few role models for other women.

Adefunke O. Ekine reports that women tend to be less involved with informal networks; yet, these networks are important for careers and for career advancement. In 1987, Lorna Cammaert, associate vice-president at the University of Calgary; Susan Mann, vice-rector, academic at the University of Ottawa; and Pauline Jones, vice-president, academic at Mount Saint Vincent University in Halifax, recognized the need for networks for women and collectively founded the Senior Women Academic Administrators of Canada (SWAAC) organization. The inaugural meeting held in Toronto welcomed 67 women academic administrators from across Canada. The pressing issues discussed by this group still resonate today: academic planning, leadership styles, power and the promotion of more women into administrative roles, as well as ongoing issues like stress and burnout (Brown, S. 2008. Some Personal Reflections on the First Meeting of “Women Academic Administrators. Toronto: SWAAC.). We would add to that list, an increased need to focus on issues of equity, diversity and inclusion.

From its inception, SWAAC has been committed to provide a forum and a collective voice for women in senior administrative ranks in Canadian universities, colleges, and polytechnics, and to increase the representation of women among the senior administrative ranks. SWAAC has always been deliberate about addressing the pipeline problem.

This upcoming year, SWAAC has made a further commitment to advancing our support of women colleagues across Canada with the implementation of a national mentorship program, Women Lead. SWAAC members will be able to confidentially contact our esteemed volunteer emerita mentors and draw on their considerable expertise in wide-ranging domains of practice. This is the first national program of its kind.

In addition to launching Women Lead, we hope to study its impact. While mentorship is widely proposed to be one mechanism to strengthen the pipeline, less is known about effective mentorship models, the impact on the current practice of women leaders, the impact on securing and sustaining leadership roles, and, perhaps most importantly, whether mentees then become mentors of other women in their own institutions. What little is know is inspiring and has motivated our efforts at SWAAC.

Consider checking out SWAAC. Join and connect with one of our Women Lead mentors. To our male and female colleagues already in leadership roles, encourage and facilitate up and coming women in your organizations to become involved and to attend our annual conference. Consider hosting a SWAAC sponsored event at your own institution. Be part of the conversation and more importantly part of the solution about women and leadership. Let 2019 be the year of women and leadership at your institution.

Donna Kotsopoulos is secretary general of the Senior Women Academic Administrators of Canada as well as a professor at Huron University.

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