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Hitting a nerve: Martha Piper and Indira Samarasekera on their new book about women in leadership

The two former university presidents speak with an academic who studies higher education leadership and governance about improving opportunities for women.


Within the Canadian university sector, Martha Piper and Indira Samarasekera are leadership giants. Dr. Piper served as president of the University of British Columbia from 1997 to 2006, and as vice-chancellor from September 2015 to June 2016. Dr. Samarasekera was president and vice-chancellor of the University of Alberta from 2005 to 2015. In this interview with researcher Julie Cafley, they discuss their new book, Nerve: Lessons on Leadership from Two Women Who Went First, their leadership paths, and how gender informed their journey.

The book starts with a quote by Georgia O’Keeffe that provides context to the title of your new book, Nerve. “It takes more than talent. It takes a kind of nerve. A kind of nerve and a lot of hard, hard work.” Could you reflect about what this word, what this title, means to you?

Dr. Piper: Well, it’s interesting, that quote really underpinned our decision about the title. I’m absolutely crazy about Georgia O’Keeffe and have had an addiction to her for many, many years.

The reason the word nerve resonates with me is that the quote says that you don’t necessarily have to be talented. As women, we know how to work hard in spades. Nobody works as hard as women do. But what we often lack is nerve. And by nerve, I mean the decision to act, to step out, to do something a little differently and to balk the trends. And if you know Georgia O’Keeffe and her art, and when and how she painted, she really had nerve. Her art represents nerve. And that’s what we wanted to capture.

Dr. Samarasekera: When you’re a female in a world that has largely been set down, if you will, for generations by men, being a female requires action to be different and do things differently. And not to be held up by tradition or expectation. And I like the word nerve, as opposed to courage. Courage is facing things that come at you; nerve is stepping out and doing things that are different, are difficult, are scary.

And in a way, it requires a deep gut reaction to move forward. For me, that’s what it means, and that’s why I love Nerve as a title. It so articulates what is sometimes missing in women because women, often, are afraid to draw upon their nerve.

Read also: The struggle for gender equity in university leadership

You had a fabulous introduction in your book, by former prime minister Kim Campbell. She explains that the risks of leading are greater for women. In Canada in 2021, we have only one female premier, in the Northwest Territories, and we had only one female running to be prime minister in the most recent federal election. She was not elected and subsequently stepped down. Could you discuss the parallels?

Dr. Piper: Everybody falters, and I think this is what Kim is talking about. When women falter, they are rarely given a second chance. They are not forgiven easily for a mistake. Whereas when men falter, they are more likely to be given a second chance. You see women “failing,” and that then leads to other women being more reluctant to step up. That’s one piece.

The second is, think about Virginia Woolf in A Room of One’s Own, back in the earlier 20th century when Cambridge and Oxford finally start admitting women. She admonishes women by saying, “what’s the problem? Why aren’t we in the halls of Parliament? Why aren’t we running the world? What’s holding us back?”

Women are currently excelling at a rate that far exceeds men. They’re doing everything better; they’re winning all the awards. And yet, for some reason, we aren’t seeing many women as CEOs in the top 100 companies. You rarely see women achieving at that level.

And that brings us to this issue of wanting to be liked and the fear of failure. Everybody wants to be liked. You’re not human if you don’t want to be liked. Wanting to be liked is okay; it’s when you need to be liked that you get into trouble. You cannot take being liked as a proxy for doing well. Women tend to think that if they do everything perfectly, and if they really lead well, and they consult, they collaborate, they listen, and they reach consensus, they’ll be liked. And when that doesn’t happen because they had to take a difficult position, and they discover that some people don’t like them; they tend to interpret that as failure. They think they didn’t do it right because they are not always liked.

My area of research focuses on university presidents with unfinished terms. And since 2010, 61 per cent of unfinished presidential terms have been women. This is significant because women are underrepresented in the role of university president. The narrative by some female presidents is that they don’t always feel supported by their boards, specifically in times of crisis. I’d love your views on this.

Dr. Piper: I would go to Indira’s story from the book, Who’s the Boss? I think it’s one of the best stories in the book. It demonstrates nerve that goes beyond most people’s capabilities. When you’re leading, you always need to know who’s the boss. Some leaders don’t always understand that.

They might think, “if I’m right, then I will prevail.” Well, that’s not always the case. The boss almost always wins. Whether you’re running a bank, a non-profit, or a university, there’s always a boss. And you need to not only figure out how to work with that boss, but also, how to stand up to the boss when it’s necessary. Indira did it in spades.

Dr. Samarasekera: The one thing that I remember when I was a vice president would be after a board meeting, Martha would haul us [vice-presidents] all in and she’d say, “so what did we hear?” I didn’t want to sit around pontificating about what we heard, but she insisted.

Martha was fastidious in identifying points of dissension that were coming through, or concerns. And she wanted to find out whether she heard it right, or was there something we heard that she didn’t hear, or something she heard that we didn’t hear. And what I took away from that, and what I now have pieced together when I look at some of the leaders that didn’t succeed, is they didn’t always read those cues. They didn’t read the cues early enough, whether it was the executive team or whether it was the board, their antennae were not necessarily picking up the signals.

Dr. Piper: I think because we draw upon our academic community for our leaders , largely, very few of these leaders have had experience with boards. Very few. They go into it naively, thinking that they’re the boss when they aren’t the boss.

They are hired, and they are let go by a board. And these university boards are complicated. They’re unlike any other board I’ve ever been on because they have members who represent and are voices for a whole variety of constituencies, making the job of working with your board and garnering and keeping their support extremely challenging.

And so, I was determined, from Day One, that I was going to have incredible discipline around board work. After each board meeting, I had a spreadsheet with every agenda item documented with the action that needed to be taken in order to address any concerns. Every item that went to the board had to be signed by me. These board dockets are massive. And most people would just flip through them and sign them, right? Instead, I spent endless hours reading each item ensuring myself that it was ready to be taken to the board. This is just plain hard work; this is not nerve. Board management and board relations, that’s what it all boils down to when it comes to your survival as president.

We have moved from mentorship to sponsorship – how has sponsorship played a role in your careers?

Dr. Samarasekera: I was a professor, and I had a fabulous sponsor. Martha Salcudean was a professor and head of the department of chemical engineering. She said “we need an engineer in senior administration. And you are the right person. I’m going to nominate you.” And I said, “you’re mad. Martha Piper is president. She’s not going to hire me; I don’t have any experience.”

Martha Salcudean was my sponsor. She believed in me. Had she not put my name forward and convinced me under some degree of pressure to apply, I would not have. And then Martha Piper, to her credit, didn’t simply say “well, she doesn’t have any administrative experience, how is she going to do this job?” She was prepared to take the chance on me because she, too, was convinced that I was able to step up. It was a risk. Both of my Marthas were sponsors, and women need more sponsors at every step of the way.

Dr. Piper: I, too, think it’s all about sponsors. We don’t, as women, do a good enough job of identifying women early, and sponsoring them to move them up, as men traditionally do. We have many examples of men sponsoring other men, thereby moving men up the leadership ladder. But let me tell you, this is one of the reasons that I looked at Indira very seriously when she applied.

I probably wouldn’t have given her serious consideration due to her lack of administrative experience. But, and here’s the but, when I was first appointed president of UBC, I was still at the University of Alberta, and I went to a lecture of a renowned UBC scholar and engineer. I went up to him after listening to his lecture, and introduced myself, and said “I’m so looking forward to coming to UBC.” He didn’t want to hear any of that; he was a busy man. Rather he said, “let me give you some advice.” And I said, “fine.” He said, “keep your eye on this woman, Indira Samarasekera. She’s a winner. And she is somebody you should think about very seriously whenever you’re looking for good people.”

That was three years before Indira applied. But as soon as I saw her name, and I had never met her, and I hadn’t sought her out, that message came ringing back into my ears. And I thought, “hey, this is the woman that this guy was telling me about. I better give her a serious look.” And, once I did, she of course, surpassed my expectations.

Both of you have served on corporate boards. I am intrigued by the research of Deb Verhoeven, who is a research chair at the University of Alberta. She did a study of Australian corporate boards. Her research shows that even when participation rates for women on boards improves, men still seem to hold the power and influence, in terms of speaking time, decision-making. The power remains unequal.

Dr. Piper: I think there’s some truth in the observation, particularly if we’re talking about corporate boards. And I can tell you from my experience, the first two or three years were very difficult, extraordinarily difficult. Every board meeting, I would go away and think, I’ve been a disaster. I studied the material; I went and took courses. I did everything I could possibly do, and yet I felt like I had either said the wrong thing or not contributed significantly to the discussion.

But like everything, you must have the nerve to step up, do your work, and put your oar in the water because you were appointed for a reason. And I think if women just realized that they are there for their judgement, their wisdom, and their ability to get things done, they will gain confidence and add real value to the board’s work.

Dr. Samarasekera: I think it’s about the nerve to stand up. And if you notice behaviours that you think are biased against women, you need to have that quiet conversation with the chair of the board or the chair of the committee.

I was on a board committee, and Joe Rotman was chairing the committee. And we had several strong male members who talked non-stop; the women members couldn’t get a word in edgewise. And I called Joe, and I said “excuse me, Joe, I’ve been watching this now for the past three meetings….” He said, “you know, Indira, I’m so grateful you did that. I didn’t notice it.” That’s what happens all the time. The men don’t notice the fact that the women are not being given a chance. And so, once you become seasoned and you have the respect, then it is your obligation as a woman to find a way for you and other women to be heard.

This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.

Julie Cafley is vice-president, communications and external relations at the Digital Research Alliance of Canada, and a tireless champion for diversity initiatives. Her PhD thesis focused on higher education leadership and governance through the lens of unfinished terms of Canadian university presidents.

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