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From the admin chair

We need to dismantle the systems that perpetuate discrimination

Be prepared to stand up and speak out when you hear and see things that are inappropriate.


I recently watched the movie Suffragette and could not help but reflect on the fact that, in Canada, it was just over 100 years ago that women won the right to vote. Sadly, this right did not extend to Indigenous women, who weren’t allowed to vote until 1960.

While women have fought for their rights for generations, recent social media campaigns like #MeToo and #TimesUp have amplified the voices of women speaking out against sexual violence and harassment. On a personal level, I think about the times that I have had to negotiate the terrain of both racism and sexism, and the challenges this has meant to me personally but also to my own education and career. As a university administrator, I recognize that we cannot simply stand back or bury our heads in the sand and not be affected by what is happening in broader society.

By now everyone should be thinking about how they can contribute to more equitable and safe spaces for women. I have been asking myself what we can do as administrators in universities. As a starting point, it is important to acknowledge that there is much that universities can and should be doing. The most obvious strategies are around creating safe spaces, developing appropriate policies and ensuring these policies are implemented. I would venture to guess that most institutions have implemented these strategies. However, I want to focus on four aspects that one can personally take up to begin addressing racialized and gendered violence on campuses.

First, it is important that we all understand and acknowledge through our work that there are systemic barriers that exist institutionally as well as in society that affect the way in which women are viewed in society, how they access opportunities in the world and how they succeed or not in higher education. These systemic barriers are compounded and magnified for racialized women, women with a disability, women of colour and women who identify as LGBTQ2S. In my view, the burden that women carry as a result of sexist stereotypes is real. If we are not able to see and understand this, it would be very difficult for any administrator to identify ways to address it.

I’ll use an example here. I recently came across a 2014 article in Fortune magazine in which the author found that women undergoing performance reviews were assessed using different language and were more likely to be labeled as abrasive. The article drew on a small sample, but it does raise the point about how women in leadership are viewed differently than men. On a more personal note, it’s odd when you undergo a university-wide evaluation and comments come back about your personality versus your performance. My point here is that, in performance reviews, language is important and the labeling of women in particular discriminatory ways can reinforce gender stereotypes and biases.

I believe it is also important to turn our attention towards more holistic management and administrative practices. We must develop an in-depth understanding of issues, be open to diverse views and opinions, and simply work at being more human. I am not suggesting we do not do these things already, but rather that the focus in institutions is often on metrics and what can be achieved; we do not always prioritize the importance of building human and more humane relationships. In my book, Colonized Classrooms, I talk about engaging in holistic pedagogical approaches that give attention to mind, body and spirit. This can be extended across the spectrum of an institution.

The third point I want to raise is the importance of being prepared to stand up and speak out when you hear and see things that are inappropriate. It is one thing to have policies in place to address harassment, discrimination and sexual assault but it is equally important that we do not perpetuate these negative behaviours through passive neglect. We all need to be engaged in dismantling gendered hierarchies and systems that perpetuate sexism and discrimination.

Finally, when you attend any meeting, take a moment to look around and see who is there and, importantly, who is not. Ask yourself some critical questions about representation. Are there voices missing? Too often, I have attended meetings and looked around to find myself the only woman in the room. At the very least, in this day and age, women’s voices are needed at every table. Further, look at your organizational structure and ask yourself similar questions. There is much work to do if we want to achieve a more equitable and inclusive society. Universities must do their part.

Sheila Cote-Meek
Sheila Cote-Meek is vice-president, equity, people and culture, at York University. Her column appears in every second issue.
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  1. Parker Johnson / March 8, 2018 at 18:57

    Thank you for this important article.

  2. Samuel Beckerman / March 9, 2018 at 15:02

    When I was at a conference in Beijing last year I never thought, “wow, why are there so many Chinese people here, where are the minorities?”. Why is it that this representation quota only applies to western countries and essentially equates to “too many white men”?

    It’s hard to get behind a movement that basically will result in my children and grandchildren having a harder time finding employment, simply because their ancestors who fled the potato famine and Acadian oppression were white. It isn’t like this will end when the demographics of academia and other lucrative careers (ie I don’t see people fighting for more women in construction, forestry, sanitation) exactly reflect our country’s demography.

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