Indira Samarasekera is the mother of two and president of the University of Alberta — the first woman to hold that post.


They’re at the top of Canadian academia.


But it’s certainly been no cakewalk for the nation’s 16 female university presidents.

They’ve withstood a 30-year slog of study, research, publishing and teaching. They’ve overcome personal hurdles, shone as leaders and smashed every myth about women in high places to win these vaunted jobs in unprecedented numbers.

Indira Samarasekera’s little boy cried each day when she took him to day care. On the brink of quitting her metallurgical engineering studies at the University of British Columbia, her PhD adviser grabbed her by her lab coat lapels and exclaimed, “You have no right to do that. You have been given all these talents. Don’t waste that.”

Samarasekera soldiered on to become a full professor and worldwide consultant in the muscular world of steel production. Today, the mother of two is the president of the University of Alberta, the first woman to hold that post.

A rebellious Bonnie Patterson left home at 15. “I was a kid who didn’t like a lot of rules.” The first person from her traditional, blue-collar family to attend university, she was mentored by teachers and professors. Women have always been her cheerleaders and wise sages.

After studying business and library science at the University of Western Ontario and post-graduate business studies at Bryn Mawr, she racked up one leadership first after another, becoming the first woman dean of business at Ryerson University, the first female president of Trent University, and the first female to head the Council of Ontario Universities.

“I’ve often had the experience of going into a room and being the only woman.”

But that is changing today as women comprise roughly 30 per cent of Canadian university administrations, from dean to president.

These women at the top are mostly the first women to hold that position at their university.

Before that, they were the first female vice-presidents, provosts, deans and chairs of their departments.

They were educated in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s, when feminism flourished on campus and there was increased demands for women’s participation in all aspects of society.

Now, says Patterson, 54, “It seems the timing is just right for us to be in this place.”