Addressing the stubborn underrepresentation of women in senior PSE leadership

Institutions and advocates across Canada have worked tirelessly to address the underrepresentation of women in senior academic roles over the past 25 years, but a lack of progress in crucial areas has caused many to look beyond institutions to ask how women in Canada’s higher ed community can advance their careers through peer-based support networks and mentoring.

In 2018, 27% of university presidents and 31% of college and polytechnic presidents in Canada were women. These numbers have increased since 1998, but for many, this change seems much less impressive when one considers the overall participation rates of women in post-secondary, and even the participation of women in leadership in other sectors. 

It’s a challenge that sits top of mind for Vianne Timmons, president of the University of Regina.  

“25 years ago, we were talking a lot about women in leadership, and in the late 1990s, I thought we were really getting there,” says Timmons. “But then, ten years ago, it was like I woke up and realized in many ways, we hadn’t moved at all.” 

Timmons’ thoughts are echoed by Donna Kotsopoulos, who serves as Secretary General of Senior Women Academic Administrators of Canada, an organization that aims to advance female leadership in Canadian universities, colleges, and technical institutes by providing a range of supports that include access to a national network of peers and mentors.  In addition to her role as Secretary General of SWAAC, Kotsopoulos is a professor of Management and Organizational Studies at Huron University, an affiliate of Western University. 

“More women than ever are attending university and there are more female professors,” says Kotsopoulos. “At the same time, women are overrepresented in precarious labour, underrepresented in PhD completions in some academic disciplines (STEM especially), and underrepresented in advanced academic ranks (particularly full professors). All these layers of (under)representation mean that there are fewer women in senior academic administration.”

For Timmons, who is also a SWAAC member and mentor, this kind of access to a peer support network is invaluable for women working in Canadian higher ed. 

“While we face some common challenges, it’s also incredibly important to be exposed to the diversity of experiences that women across higher ed have had in their careers,” says Timmons. “It’s also important that we have a network that is Canadian-centred, so we can connect with each other about experiences that might be unique to this country or even the specific provinces in which we work.”

Research has shown that women in higher ed tend to be less involved in informal networks than men, even though these networks are of great significance for career advancement. This finding alone helps to make the case for a network of peer and mentor support, so this past year, SWAAC launched Women Lead, Canada’s first national mentorship program for women leaders. 

Kotsopoulos points out that research is also needed to learn which models of mentorship and support can actually make a real impact on the underrepresentation of women in leadership roles. 

“While mentorship is widely proposed to be one mechanism to strengthen the pipeline, less is known about effective mentorship models, the impact on the current practice of women leaders, the impact on securing and sustaining leadership roles, and, perhaps most importantly, whether mentees then become mentors of other women in their own institutions.”

Timmons, however, notes that in addition to exploring which mentoring models are most effective, there are many concrete ways in which women working in senior positions in Canadian higher ed can support other women starting today. 

“When head-hunters call me on behalf of post-secondary executive searches, I have a list of women whom I refer them to,” says Timmons. “That sort of thing has real-world impact and we need more of it if we’re going to mitigate the biases that undeniably exist in institutional hiring processes and committees. We might not ever get rid of those biases, but by working together, we can at least recognize them and work to mitigate them.”


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