2021 GenEQ International Women’s Day Speakers Panel
In celebration of International Women's Day 2021, the University of Guelph's GenEQ advisory group hosted a special speakers panel. The panel, “International Women’s Day: Gender, Equality and Post-Secondary Education,” highlighted some of the outstanding women-identifying leaders at the University.
Indira Naidoo-Harris, Associate Vice-President (Diversity and Human Rights) hosted the panel that featured Dr. Charlotte Yates, U of G’s first woman president and vice-chancellor; Shauneen Bruder, chair of the University’s Board of Governors; Dr. Gwen Chapman, provost and vice-president (academic); Martha Harley, associate vice-president, Human Resources; and Chioma Nwebube, president of the Guelph Black Students Association.
International Women’s Day is a time to think critically and carefully about the ongoing struggles for gender equity. As we reflected on hardships and challenges in 2020 as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic and physical isolation, Naidoo-Harris demonstrated its serious disproportionate impact on women and girls. Studies have found that women are more likely to be diagnosed with and die from COVID-19 in Canada, to take on extra care-giving responsibilities, to be a victim of domestic violence and to suffer job losses.
These barriers have a more pronounced effect on less privileged groups such as Indigenous women, women of colour, and women with disabilities. As one of the top comprehensive universities in Canada, the University of Guelph continues to identify and address barriers to the success of women and girls, and to push for responsive policies, full empowerment and systematic transformation by having more woman-identifying leaders at the decision-making table.
Given the theme of this year’s International Woman’s Day, “Choose to Challenge,” and questions from the audience, our panelists shared their wisdom on gender equity broadly, and specifically during COVID-19, on women’s leadership and career advancement, and how to combat barriers and obstacles to achieve leadership roles in post-secondary institutions.
The panelists recognized the responsibility of privilege and talent leadership, the importance of intersectionality and women’s sponsorship and advocacy in challenging arbitrary boundaries, systematic biases and unjust workplace culture, and to confront different forms of phobia and discrimination. The role of mentorship, allyship and support, was discussed repeatedly during this speakers panel, and its merit in turning young women and girls into elite leaders in their perspective fields.
President Yates shared that, to her, “Choose to Challenge” means using an intersectional approach to understand how gender, race, ethnicity, indigeneity and other individual identities determine inequity. She stressed the importance of strong allyship and advocacy so that individuals’ needs can be identified and well supported.
Gender equity is a lifelong project to President Yates, which requires a lot of attention to system processes, informal norms, behaviours, traditions, standards and culture. President Yates made her top priority in the hiring process ensuring recruitment of graduate students, staff and faculty were performed in an equitable, fair and inclusive manner. President Yates further elaborated that it would take time to make significant changes but the University of Guelph has been responsive and making progress with the recently launched BIPOC scholarships to address disproportional financial struggles faced by BIPOC students.
Coming from a highly competitive corporate world, Shauneen Bruder shared that often as the only woman in the room, the secret to her success was hard-work and dedication to the job.
Bruder was grateful for strong sponsors and supporters early in her career, and to have started with a company that valued merits and equity. She further emphasized the importance of mentorship and sponsorship particularly for career planning and development, leadership development training and opportunities, and to be creative about alternative career path. She encouraged young women and girls to take a challenge outside of their comfort zone and to develop leadership experience from volunteer and community work.
Self-identifying as a queer woman, Dr. Gwen Chapman recognized how perseverance and persistence helped make her a successful woman leader. She openly discussed challenges and struggles she had faced throughout her career and the values of staying true to herself and her philosophy.
Dr. Chapman highlighted the impact of intersectionality on individual experience, particularly the disproportional impact of COVID-19 on women and girls. Provost Chapman recognized that the lack of compartmentalization between work and personal life, physical isolation and the varying levels of career-giving responsibilities can be overwhelming at times. The provost office has taken steps, such as reducing service and administrative responsibilities, postponing performance reviews, extending the tenure clock, and providing extra supports for instructors through extra TA-ships and co-op students, to offset the negative impacts of COVID-19. Dr. Chapman acknowledged that her office would continue reviewing issues and challenges during COVID-19 to better support the University of Guelph community.
Martha Harley shared that her journey in gender equity started in a very quiet, understated manner but was influenced greatly by her friends and family. To Harley, “Choose to Challenge” meant challenging arbitrary boundaries, speaking the unspoken, providing a platform for voices, seeking understanding and celebrating all who themselves choose to challenge.
She encouraged attendees to reflect and learn from the pandemic where challenges and barriers faced by women in terms of balancing work and family life have been highlighted. Harley recognized the need to collect, understand and analyze, identify potential barriers to better support women’s career progression and advancement at the University of Guelph, particularly from those whose voices that remain unheard.
As the president of the Guelph Black Students Association, a member of the BIPOC community, and an exemplary student leader, Chioma Nwebube suggested that to ensure the success of future female student leaders, a well-structured support system and strong mentorships should be provided in advance. That would allow necessary leadership competencies to be developed and the skillset to be practiced and attained before seeking further leadership opportunities. Nwebube shared her ongoing battle confronting biases from assumed stereotypic behaviour as a Black woman, and her struggles of not being heard or taken seriously.
Nwebube believes that as an institution, the University needs to create a more equitable learning landscape to recognize and dismantle internal biases, to reflect and audit existing systems and academic curriculum, and to enact change from lived experienced and unheard voices. Nwebube further reminded us that having strong women role models in high-power positions would inspire many young women. These role models show students that a career trajectory to senior leadership positions is relatable and attainable.
The GenEQ advisory group is a multi-phased initiative to advance the status of women at the University of Guelph. The GenEQ initiative has reported on Gender Equity on Campus and has hosted different conversation cafes and discussion groups on leadership competencies and formal mentorship across the University. Learn more about GenEQ: Advancing the Status of Women at U of G on the GenEQ website or sign up on the GenEQ Newsletter by contacting firstname.lastname@example.org.