the throne itself. Several months later, when I was officially installed, the
chancellor addressed a breakfast gathering of friends and officials saying,
“A large city where I lived for years once had a tiny perfect mayor who
surprised everyone by doing some great things. I think UPEI has chosen
a tiny perfect president, and I look forward to watching the surprise on
people’s faces with the changes she’s going to bring in.”
some male colleagues who asked for advice prefaced their remarks with
something like, “Since you’re a woman I thought you might …” not recognizing there could be any possible insult behind their saying this or
thinking this way. Interestingly, very rarely did a female colleague assume
I would support her simply because she was a woman. I did not have any
formula for dealing with gender trouble but I was conscious I was building on years and years of work by women activists whose sole aim it had
been to clear some of the pathways I was now able to walk with relative
comfort, thanks to them. I’d always tried to get rid of gender discrimination by confronting it openly when I could, or circumventing the obstacle
when I could not. I relied, as always, on my gut instinct to tell me what
was genuine and fair. And I relied on symbols and measures to make my
points with others.
The virtually round table my assistant and I had chosen for the presidential meeting room made an immediate difference in how we conducted business. A long table with a definite head and foot is the perfect shape
for a hierarchy that prefers to keep the ranks and boundaries rigid and
visible. The managers from the old system I had inherited were accustomed to using the “table” to bluster and to stonewall. In private, these
same people would talk very reasonably about everything and matters
could be settled within minutes. But the president then had to be the acknowledged master, the peacemaker, the hand of patronage and private
control. This I would not have. This was the kind of private control that
had, to my mind, weakened the campus most. … If I had once begun this
practice, the table itself would quickly have been only a place to posture
and rehearse what would be truly acted out in the privacy of the president’s office. I encouraged, instead, open exchange – often I did have to
intervene and settle the matter then or agree to settle it later and bring
back a decision. But the underlying currents, I believed, needed to be acknowledged at the table, and not hidden there.
In my first months, those leaders not supportive of or not schooled in
a more participatory model such as this found the exposure of sitting in a
circle too threatening. Some were used to using their bulk to block another’s view of the head of the table or to command full attention by simply
leaning forward. Others threw tantrums and expected to be soothed away
from the table. What had sometimes been left to body language alone
now needed to be put into words. A year later, very few of those who were
allergic to a circle were still sitting at that table.
Gradually at first, circles began to form and reform and expand all
over the changing campus, with men and women working together.
Excerpted by permission from Power Notes: Leadership by Analogy, by Elizabeth Rollins
Epperly (Rock’s Mills Press, Oakville, Ontario, 2017).
a woman minister of higher education, and a woman chancellor of UPEI.
The women in this provincial government had even organized a gathering of influential PEI women, including the UPEI president and her
newest woman dean – women principals, business owners and entrepreneurs, health professionals, powerful women in the federal government
department housed on PEI, women from the PEI government, and women visionaries – for a weekend-long workshop to create a network of PEI
women leaders who could call on each other for help and inspiration.
Lightheartedly, we called ourselves the “Dangerous 33” at the end of that
life-changing weekend, suspecting we could affect some real changes if
we worked together and knowing there were men and some women who
would indeed regard us as dangerous if we did help each other.
(Unfortunately, the next provincial election removed this government
from power and the “Dangerous 33” gradually disbanded as well. While it
lasted, it was wonderful to have such support over so many sectors.)
On paper, UPEI had already made progress towards gender balance
even before I took office, in addition to having the famed Doris Anderson as UPEI’s chancellor. A federally imposed equity study of the campus
had been completed and a gender equity policy had been approved by
senate and the board. There was already one woman dean; there were rumors that some female faculty were thinking of running for chairs; union
representation was no longer always male. The new employment equity
policy stipulated that for the time being, until some gender equity was
achieved at UPEI (with one of the lowest percentages of tenured women
in all of Canada), faculty hirings would – all things being equal – go to
a strong woman candidate. With the retirement package and with this
policy on the books, we would almost certainly be hiring more women
in a very short time, and enjoying a change in atmosphere for them and
because of them.
On my first day in office, before renovations, I sat in the huge leather
throne that had always been the president’s chair, and my feet could not
reach the floor. I laughed and pointed this out to the woman who cleaned
my office and to my assistant. A few hours later, the head of maintenance
brought me a small wooden box for my feet. I thought the box itself, as
an unsolicited gift, would someday be a very good symbol for what it had
once meant for a woman to lead in a traditionally male-run university.
She was expected, literally, to step up; there was no thought of changing
“I’d always tried to get rid of gender
discrimination by confronting it
openly when I could, or circumventing
the obstacle when I could not.”