Giving Canadian Women a Boost
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.Skip to next paragraph
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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.
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.