Giving Canadian Women a Boost

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

WHATEVER Elizabeth Parr-Johnston thought she would do with her life before graduating with a master's degree in economics from all-women Wellesley College near Boston, it is clear that she has come full circle.

Not back to Wellesley in a literal sense, but having set her trajectory there, the one-time economics professor, PhD in economics (Yale), Canadian government official, and corporate executive says she feels she has arrived home as president of Canada's only college dedicated to women's education: Mount Saint Vincent University in Halifax, Nova Scotia.

Behind her drive for success has been a longstanding desire to help women overcome the stereotyping, intimidation, and male bias often found in coeducational colleges and the business world - the so-called "chilly climate" - and plunge into worthy careers. Research, she says, shows that women either overcome these obstacles or find their career choices and intellects narrowed to traditional models.

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Despite significant strides in overcoming bias, an "alternative model" of university education is still needed, Dr. Parr-Johnston says, to help women develop high expectations for themselves and break the mold.

"I graduated in 1961, and in that era it was not normal for women to go and pursue professional careers," Parr-Johnston says in an interview during a recent visit to Boston. "There was still the expectation that you would have a family and that would be your future career.... I have a family. I did marry.... But I've also had that professional career that has allowed me to do some things, and hopefully put something back."

Despite her success as a government insider and senior business executive in Canada, the Brooklyn, N.Y.-born Parr-Johnston says Canadian companies trail the United States in opening doors for women.

"Women, since they're the last in the [corporate] door, are still the first to go when you have cutbacks during hard economic times," Parr-Johnston says, "and that bothers me. We Canadians tend to discuss women's issues and the rights of women a lot," but when it comes to listing the top 10 national issues, women "don't always make that list."

Since completing her first year as president, Parr-Johnston, who married a Canadian and became a citizen in 1969, says she enjoys her new role as chief defender of women's education in Canada.

"I was with Shell Canada [Ltd.], part of the Royal Dutch Shell Group for 10 years, and I was the senior woman there when I left," Parr-Johnston says. "That was a great experience. But the Mount is the future of the country, because it is education."

That future is cloudy, however. Her new role pits her years of corporate and government experience against government budget cutters trimming back on provincial education costs - particularly in Nova Scotia.

Mount Saint Vincent, with just 3,500 students (15 percent are male - see related article), is one of 13 institutions of higher education in Nova Scotia. But the provincial population is only just over 900,000 residents, and the C$212 million (US $170 million) paid out annually to support the schools has put them under pressure to consolidate.

Amid turmoil and university infighting, Parr-Johnston entered the scene. She quickly analyzed the Mount's programs: She consolidated programs, eliminated some, linked others to schools with better facilities, rather than have cuts thrust upon them. The Mount gets just over half its C$26.6 million (US$21.3 million) operating budget from the province.

"I can relate to her ways of doing things and the way she looks at the situation in terms of power and money," says James McNiven, dean of faculty of the business school at Dalhousie University, Nova Scotia's largest. "Her job is to take care of her institution, get proper funding, and see its interests are served. She's doing a good job at that."

By dint of her various roles, Parr-Johnston has become part of an elite circle of women on the Canadian scene. She is mentioned several times, briefly, in "Invisible Power: The Women Who Run Canada," a book by Vancouver author Sherrill MacLaren.

"There's a strong message out there promoted by some women's groups that women need more protection," Ms. MacLaren says, "and that's the last thing that business women like Liz Parr-Johnston want. They are operating at a level of expertise that is beyond gender."

Yet one reason Parr-Johnston well understands the barriers that still face women in Canada and the US is through personal experience. Though she excelled at Shell Canada, some say her string of successes was temporarily stymied by her frustrated banging on the barrier of corporate sex discrimination, the invisible cap companies sometimes put on the careers of talented women.

"She hit a `glass ceiling' and she couldn't go any further," Ms. MacLaren says. "When I interviewed her in Calgary in 1990, she was frustrated about her job at Shell, because she felt she could go further and do more but wasn't being given a chance."

PARR-JOHNSTON qualifies this point, insisting she left Shell on good terms, though acknowledging the accuracy of MacLaren's assertion: It has long been difficult for women oil executives to network or do business on a par with male executives because of gender barriers in Canada's oil capital of Calgary, Alberta. Within a year of her interview with MacLaren, Parr-Johnston had decided to accept the presidency of Mount Saint Vincent.

But if there have been hard knocks along with success, Parr-Johnston is loath to dwell on them, preferring to discuss her new endeavor - enthusiasm that appears genuine, say those who have known her for years.

"The first question I asked Liz was, `You've been in office a year now; how do you like it?' " says Carolyn Shaw Bell, the well-known economist and professor emeritus of economics at Wellesley, who was Parr-Johnston's mentor. "Before she even began talking, her eyes just lit up."

Though Parr-Johnston is a model of corporate decorum, her voice quickens with conviction when returning to her theme:

"We are the national women's university," Parr-Johnston says of the Mount. "What we are is quite unique in Canada and I think it does provide a check, a reference point, and it does say there is a different way."

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