College of Health Sciences boasts all women leaders in historical first

Greta Cummings, Dean, College of Health Sciences, & Vice Provost, University of Alberta - 18 October 2022

For the first time in University of Alberta history, each of our health sciences faculties is under the leadership of a woman. Kyra Pyke, dean of the Faculty of Kinesiology, Sport, and Recreation, is the most recent addition to this remarkable group of deans.

This milestone in our institution's history comes at a fitting time as we celebrate Person's Day on Oct. 18 — the anniversary of the key date in 1929, when Canada’s highest court of appeal changed their definition of the word “person” to include women. This granted some women the right to sit on the Senate of Canada while excluding many others, such as Indigenous women and women of Asian heritage and descent. Of course, we are also marking Women's History Month throughout October.

Institutionally and across the country, women have historically been proportionally under-represented in both scholarly and health-sciences leadership roles. While much work remains to be done before we see full equity, diversity and inclusion in health sciences and academia, today our remarkable health-sciences faculty leaders are challenging and reshaping our structures to better serve everyone.

I am proud of the institution’s women who lead, from Verna Yiu, provost, to College of Natural and Applied Sciences dean Matina Kalcounis-Rueppell, and of the courageous and dedicated women deans who join me in leading our college:

Our health-sciences deans have joined what is a rich history of women’s leadership at the U of A, despite women’s broad historical cultural exclusion from both health sciences and academia. From its inception, the U of A has always admitted women to our programs, an anomaly for many post-secondary institutions. Women in our college continue to lead science and practice, to advance research, to build remarkable careers, to affirm gender identity, to support emerging leaders, and to revolutionize the health sciences within and across every faculty in our college.

Persons Day — and Women’s History Month — is a fitting time to reflect on the state of women’s leadership and participation in our institutions. As we celebrate advances, we are also mindful of the many ways in which barriers remain – and of the intersectional work we must do daily to remove these barriers, together.

Women’s history, through a western lens, has often conflated progress for women with progress for those women with access to resources and adjacent to power — typically resulting in outsized or exclusive gains for white, able-bodied, cisgender, straight women. And Persons Day, while building inroads for women’s civic participation, did not extend that participation to all women. Legal barriers remained for many women (and men, and gender diverse people) for decades.

We must continue to do better not only for women, but for other groups who have been excluded from or under-served by our systems and institutions. Increasing leadership to the point of parity must continue, because leaders must reflect the communities they serve — not only on principle, but also for specific, tangible results borne of a more representative body of leadership. When researchers, educators, and care providers reflect populations they serve, we know communities achieve less-biased research and better outcomes.

So, as we celebrate this watershed moment, we simultaneously recognize that this isn’t an endpoint. We must recommit to pursuing more just, equitable institutions to serve our diverse communities, and in particular — as outlined in our Indigenous Strategic Plan, and on the heels of National Day for Truth and Reconciliation — “our institution’s commitment to reconciliation in post-secondary education, research and addressing the historical legacy of the residential school system and Canada’s colonial history in a meaningful and lasting way.”

It is crucial that our trailblazing work continues, not only for women, but for all groups who continue to face structural barriers that limit their access to care and their ability to flourish. We have remarkable leaders at every level — students, staff, scholars, and community members — advocating for change and progress, and our collective commitment, creativity and brilliance will continue to pave the way.