Skip navigation
Margin Notes

Progress is slow for women in senior roles at Canada’s universities

Fewer than one in four university leaders is female, up somewhat from four years ago.


A former rector at a Swedish university recently tweeted the following:

I can’t vouch for the accuracy of his information, but the tweet did prompt a follow-up query from a Canadian: “Curious what it is in Canada,” tweeted @rosemary_reilly.

That I can help with. The Association of Universities and Colleges of Canada counts 97 “public and private not-for-profit universities and university degree-level colleges,” so that’s our denominator. Of those 97 member institutions, 22 are headed by women, or 23 percent.

University presidents (n=97)
75 men (77%)
22 women (23%)

Relevant to this discussion is the fact that there has been a high turnover of university presidents in the past few years (an issue we recently covered in University Affairs). By my count, 56 new presidents have been appointed since 2009, a turnover at the top of well over 50 percent in four years. Did we use this opportunity to hire more women?

Yes, in fact. In a blog post I wrote in the spring of 2009, I counted 14 women university leaders, with two more female appointments scheduled to take effect within a couple of months. So, as of August 2009, there were 16 women heading what were then 94 member institutions (17 percent, or roughly one in six).

Depending on how you look at it, then, the current numbers aren’t so bad. A rise from 16 to 22 women in four years is nearly 38 percent. On the other hand, women still account for fewer than one in four university presidents.

I’m sure most people would like to see more women in senior roles at Canada’s universities. Women are making progress up the academic ladder, but it’s slow. According to last year’s report by the Council of Canadian Academies, Strengthening Canada’s Research Capacity: The Gender Dimension, as of 2008-09, women held one-third of all faculty positions in Canada; of those, approximately 43 percent were assistant professors, 36 percent were associate professors and 22 percent were full professors.

This led me to wonder what we’d find if we looked one level lower then executive head, at vice-presidents at Canada’s universities. Perhaps more women are filling these posts, some of whom will eventually make it to the top (the “pipeline” theory). I therefore looked at the current gender distribution for vice-presidents, academic, and vice-presidents, research (the exact titles may differ from institution to institution). At some of the smaller institutions, the same person fills both roles, so sometimes they’re being counted in each category. Also, in a few institutions it was hard to identify who held these roles, so the numbers don’t quite add up to 97.

The results:

Vice-presidents, academic (n=94)
69 men (73%)
25 women (27%)

Vice-presidents, research (n=91)
70 men (77%)
21 women (23%)

As you can see, the numbers barely differ from the ratio for presidents – so much for that theory. I admit I was a bit disappointed. Am I making too much of these numbers? Is this a simplistic proxy for how women are doing in academic administration? I’d like to hear what our readers think.

Léo Charbonneau
Léo Charbonneau is the editor of University Affairs.
Post a comment
University Affairs moderates all comments according to the following guidelines. If approved, comments generally appear within one business day. We may republish particularly insightful remarks in our print edition or elsewhere.

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

  1. Brad Wuetherick / October 16, 2013 at 14:47

    It might be interesting to combine your numbers in some way. For example, at the U of A, there is a female President, but male VP Research and VP Academic. At the U of S it would be female President and female VP Research, with a male VP Academic. At Dalhousie, it is a male President, but female VP Academic and VP Research. At those three institutions (where I have been lucky enough to be during the past five+ years) the combination of those three main executive positions has included at least one, if not more, women over that time period. Would that hold true elsewhere? In the end, however, your point is well-taken … we need to find ways to improve structurally the opportunities for women to enter senior administration in higher education.

  2. Pierre-Richard Gaudreault / October 17, 2013 at 10:39

    Indeed, I was about to suggest the same thing. At Université de Sherbrooke, we have a female President and VP Academic (and also female VP Finance and Secretary General). It may well be that what used to be triumvirats will have to be renamed triumpersonis or triummulieres (pardon my bad Latin).

Click to fill out a quick survey