“I decided that the best way
to address the problem was
from within. So I applied,
and here I am.”
À mon avis
In my opinion
Leading by example
The fine art of balancing
family and work
by Maureen MacDonald
Maureen MacDonald began
her term as dean of science
at McMaster University on
May 1, 2017.
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wasn’t planning to become the first
woman to serve as dean of science at
McMaster University. The job was open
and the opportunity was certainly inviting,
The university’s provost, David Wilkinson,
who had earlier led an initiative to identify and
correct an imbalance between the pay of men
and women faculty members, asked me why I
wasn’t applying. I explained that I couldn’t really
consider a job that would require me to make my
family a lower priority, and that would see me
working evenings and weekends, when my three
kids needed me at home and at the rink.
The provost was concerned by my response.
He said the problem was not with my commitments. The problem was with the job. If qualified
women were not applying because their other,
completely legitimate responsibilities were keeping them from even thinking about applying,
then the reality and the perception of the job
simply had to change, and he asked me if I had
any suggestions on how to fix that.
I decided that the best way to address the problem was from within. So I applied, and here I am,
still new in the job, finding that in addition to
leading the faculty of science at a major research
university, I have also become a kind of symbol,
complete with an additional set of expectations.
The reaction to my appointment surprised me.
People I didn’t even know wrote and called, glad
that a woman was in the dean’s office, and seeing
it as a hopeful sign of broader change to come.
That’s fine with me. I am happy to serve as an
example that it is possible for a woman to be an
academic leader in a field historically dominated
by men, without my family having to pay the price.
Now I have a duty to respond to those hopes
and to be mindful of that in everything that I do,
and I’m ready to take it on. If we’re not comfortable having others place more hope in us, then
I don’t think we should be leaders.
I know that I’m privileged in many ways: by
living in Canada, by my upbringing, by the
opportunities I’ve had. My mother and father
instilled in me the idea that of course girls and
women can do whatever they want. My Grade 11
chemistry teacher took me aside and told me I
should think about a career in science. Until he
said that, I hadn’t considered it.
My commitment now, as part of creating the
best possible climate for science teaching, learning and research at McMaster, is to make equal
opportunity less a matter of privilege and more
a matter of course – for women and men, and for
anyone who faces barriers.
When I was a graduate student, one of my
mentors showed me this kind of life was possible by going for a run every day at lunch. He
kept his running gear in the lab. He left work
every afternoon to pick up his kids from school.
He got his work done very successfully. He also
looked after his health and his family very well.
That made a huge impression on me. He showed
by example that it is possible to find balance in
The problem of equity is not new, nor is it
unique to science, though I sense we’ve been
ready to solve it for a long time. The Government
of Canada is smartly moving matters along by
changing its process for awarding Canada
Research Chairs. It will now withhold CRC funding from universities that do not meet its equity
mandate. In Britain, the widely adopted Athena
SWAN (Scientific Women’s Academic Network)
initiative lays out practical ways to break down
gender barriers in the STEM fields.
While on an exchange in England, I saw
something that made so much sense that I was
surprised no one had thought of it earlier. Every
meeting across campus stopped at 4: 30 p.m. This
was the scheduled end of the standard workday
and anyone who had a commitment, family or
otherwise, could leave – and that is what they did,
with no judgment placed on them. These seem
like little things, but they matter.
Here, shortly after I started as dean, we were
looking to fill a senior position. Following our
traditional protocol would have meant that candidates had to be nominated, not apply directly.
My reading had shown me that, for whatever
reason, women are much more reluctant to ask
someone to nominate them. Now we just let people apply. If we can bring this kind of thinking
into every conversation, to see what we can do
and what we can improve, I’ll call that a success