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In my opinion

Smashing the queer ceiling: leaders show the way

Academia needs to commit to providing equitable opportunities for women and those who identify as women with intersectional identities.

BY JULIE CAFLEY | OCT 06 2023

When Joël Dickinson became Mount Saint Vincent University’s (MSVU) 14th president and vice-chancellor in 2022 – and the university’s first openly gay president – she broke ground and made waves in the university sector.

Dr. Dickinson recently told me that when she interviewed for the role, it was one of the first times she didn’t feel disadvantaged by being openly part of the queer community. She cites MSVU’s strong commitment to equity, diversity, inclusion and accessibility as what drew her to the university and helped create a space where presidential candidates could be themselves. “When applying to MSVU, I did my research and had no hesitation about showing up as myself,” she said.

It wasn’t always this way.

She reflected on her experiences interviewing for jobs elsewhere, “I had serious internal debates about the risks involved. Sometimes, I felt I had to hide who I was. Once, during an interview process, I mentioned I had a son. A person on the selection committee asked, ‘What does your husband do?’ I decided at that moment to be true to my identity and answered, ‘She is a teacher.’ Silence followed. I wondered if I could genuinely be comfortable integrating my identity with my professional life but decided it was worth it.”

This summer, Dalhousie University announced the appointment of its first woman and queer president, Kim Brooks. Amongst her U15 colleagues representing Canada’s most research-intensive universities, Dr. Brooks is only the second woman and third person who identifies as 2SLGBTQI+. Taking on a role where cis-gendered, white, straight men are the majority, her appointment is a tangible symbol of progress.

“Joël Dickinson from MSVU is an amazing example for people like me to follow. I hope we can collectively encourage and support a rich diversity of people in university president roles across Canada,” Dr. Brooks said.

The power of these appointments is significant. Based on my experiences and research in the sector, I estimate 10 per cent of Canadian university presidents identify publicly as 2SLGBTQI+.

For 2SLGBTQI+ students, seeing people like themselves in leadership roles is a strong message that it’s OK to be yourself. It gives young people the confidence to dream big and not limit their goals. Seeing what “could be” is vital, as Marian Wright Edelman first declared: “You can’t be what you can’t see.” Seeing others like you leading organizations opens a myriad of possibilities ahead.

Unfortunately, I have spoken to queer leaders who say that they are still being coached by some to “hide” their identity when applying for leadership roles because of potential risk. Yet, powerful and impactful messages emanate when public leaders bring their whole selves to work.

So, what can faculty and staff, as university community members, do to create opportunities and make inclusion part of your organization’s representation goals? Here are some starting points:

  • Sponsor candidates for leadership roles who don’t fit into traditional leadership stereotypes.
  • Elevate the voices that are unheard at leadership tables.
  • Use gender-neutral language, such as they, partner, parent or person; rephrase sentences to eliminate pronouns if unsure.
  • Share your preferred pronouns when introducing yourself or on email signatures.
  • Ensure clear non-discrimination policies and extended benefits plans create equality among 2SLGBTQI+ and non-2SLGBTQI+ workers.

Academia needs to commit to providing equitable opportunities for women and those who identify as women with intersectional identities. When we commit to advancing intersectional voices, we must do so in a genuinely equitable framework.

In the prescient words of Marian Wright Edelman, “I never thought I was breaking a glass ceiling. I just had to do what I had to do, and it never occurred to me not to.”

Now’s the time to break the queer ceiling because representation is what we must do.

Julie Cafley is the executive director of Catalyst Canada, a global non-profit that advances inclusive workplaces. Her PhD research focused on the unfinished terms of Canadian university presidents and the disproportionate number of women within that group.

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