Higher Education That’s Intentional About Empowering All Women

Higher Education That’s Intentional About Empowering All Women

On March 8, arms crossed over the chest in an X became a new universal symbol for solidarity with women. The official pose of International Women’s Day, it symbolized the 2022 campaign theme: Break the Bias, which asks people to take action to create equal opportunities. Across the world, people responded by showing their commitment to calling out bias, smashing stereotypes, breaking inequality, and rejecting discrimination.

Northeastern University – Toronto asked: How can education help to break gender bias, empower, and advance women in the workplace? The answer, it turns out, goes well beyond one day of recognition. It is an integral part of Northeastern University’s fabric.

A Commitment to Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion

“Northeastern University has been vocal and bold in saying that we will co-create with the communities in which we operate to create a positive impact on the world,” says Aliza Lakhani, Dean and CEO of the Toronto Campus, whose role includes leading the vision and growth of Northeastern’s first international location. “That means it’s important to think about who lives and works in these communities. Intersectionality isn’t just about one type of woman. Women still make up a very small percentage of senior-most levels of leadership in Canada and women of colour an even smaller percentage. On top of that, the pandemic has disproportionally impacted women across the world, most significantly women of colour.”

Northeastern’s commitment to ensuring that higher education contributes to the advancement of all women starts from the top down. Hiring practices, for example, are explicitly oriented toward gender balance. Across the university’s 11 global campuses, women occupy positions of power ranging from deans and associate deans to senior vice chancellors or provosts and other such leadership roles. At the Toronto campus, women make up more than 50 percent of the  leadership team. There has even been a focus on purposefully diversifying the university’s donor pool, vendors, and industry partners.

“We are living in a complex world, with complex challenges,” says Aliza. “We need everyone at the table.  This is why higher education must strive to emphasize equity, diversity, and inclusion (EDI). Advancing women is part of Northeastern’s strategic imperatives. We have clear goals that are constantly being acted on, monitored, and measured.”

When it comes to student life, Northeastern University’s approach to education also considers a wide range of women and their unique challenges. For example, a focus on experiential learning allows women, and their peers, to gain hands-on experience in a supportive environment designed to build confidence. Flexibility, another defining factor of education at Northeastern University, opens doors to more diverse women in the classroom, says Aliza.

“We are meeting learners where they are,” she says. “We have learners who are mothers and caregivers, who live too far from campus to attend physically, or who simply have other obligations. Knowing that not all people can always come to a classroom, we have options for learners to study online, come in in person, or complete a hybrid of both. Listening to our students, reacting in a way that’s meaningful to them, and being nimble is how we create products that meet people’s needs.”

One of Northeastern’s biggest beyond-the-classroom initiatives in this area is Women Who Empower. A network of inspiring and distinguished individuals, it is dedicated to fostering positive environments, building lasting connections, and providing compelling experiences where all people thrive. In the classroom, meanwhile, scholarships are also playing a role. At the Toronto campus, scholarships have been created to help women enter traditionally male-dominated science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) programs.

As a result of these efforts, in fall 2020, Northeastern University’s enrollment rates nearly achieved gender parity. With more women enrolled in both undergraduate (10,960 women to 10,084 men) and graduate (8,562 women to 8,183 men) programs.

The Role of STEM

Aliza will joined other women panelists for a discussion hosted by Women Who Empower that explored diverse perspectives on some of the biases that are impacting women’s progress in education, in the workplace, and in STEM-focused careers. This dialogue will follow a previous panel on a similar topic. On International Women’s Day, Aliza and three other women from Northeastern’s Toronto campus participated in a Toronto Region Board of Trade workshop. One of these panelists was Yvonne Leung, a full-time faculty member in the Master of Professional Studies in Analytics program.

Yvonne, who has over 15 years of experience in the healthcare industry and analytics, sees STEM education as playing a key role in advancing women. The statistics corroborate her thinking. According to Statistics Canada, “continued growth is expected for STEM occupations, which suggests that there will be greater demand for STEM-educated workers in the future. Increasing women’s participation in [these fields] has been identified as one way of meeting the growing demand.”

However, despite increases in women’s educational attainment and participation in scientific occupations over the past several decades, women remain underrepresented in STEM fields. To start, Yvonne says, higher education must continue to focus its efforts on attracting women from different racial backgrounds.

“We need more representation of women of colour and different backgrounds because their perspectives are important to these fields,” says Yvonne. “STEM is future-proof. We need to equip women of all backgrounds with knowledge and experience so they can gain job security, respect, recognition, and confidence.

“At Northeastern University – Toronto, we not only offer STEM programs, but we also have lots of diversity. Women’s and men’s enrollment rates are much more even than other universities in the male-dominated fields. We also have women of colour in so many roles, such as Academic, Career, and Co-op Advisors as well as our CEO. It’s very powerful. At Northeastern, advancing women is intentional.”

Diane N. MacGillivray is Northeastern’s Senior Vice President for University Advancement. Her position sees Diane steering a University Advancement team that works closely with the deans of Northeastern’s schools and colleges, as well as with athletics and the university library, to develop and execute fundraising strategies. Diane, who is also the founder of the Women Who Empower network, was instrumental in attaining two $100 million gifts to launch an advanced technology campus in Portland, Maine. One of these gifts will provide scholarships and other resources for students, including women.

Diane agrees that STEM fields are incredibly important, as they not only hold the key to jobs of the future but also the knowledge creation that makes the world a better place.

“To create solutions that help everyone, it is important that women in STEM careers are also in the research labs,” she says. “At Northeastern, we work hard to recognize that STEM on its own is not enough; you need to bring together human literacy and tech literacy to create products and solutions that will improve society. At our Boston campus, for example, at the undergraduate level, we are very close to achieving gender parity in engineering, and we have more women of colour and students of colour than many colleges in the country. We also want to keep pushing and expanding — especially in ensuring that women become founders and corporate leaders.”

A Multipronged Approach to Building Leaders

Northeastern University – Toronto is helping to cultivate the qualities that will encourage women to pursue leadership positions in a number of ways.

Firstly, because the campus exclusively offers experiential Master’s programs (Project Management, Regulatory Affairs, Analytics, Information Systems, Informatics, and Biotechnology), students are automatically being prepared for leadership roles. Diane says the university’s experiential focus, which includes co-op opportunities and capstone projects working directly with industry partners, also contributes to building women leaders.

“Leadership qualities come with experience, which is our signature and our brand,” says Diane, herself a fifth-generation American of Japanese descent, whose interracial parents encouraged her to push beyond traditional boundaries to create a boundless life. “We give students real-world opportunities to succeed and fail in safe environments, where they can use these experiences to build their confidence. That leaves them supported and knowing they can get up and try again.

“Additionally, because we are an institution that promotes lifelong learning, we have moved away from the idea that your relationship with higher education ends when you graduate. This ensures that women understand they can turn to Northeastern for support at any point in their career.”

Yvonne adds, “One of the things that attracted me to Northeastern was experiential learning.  What’s interesting is that we not only teach technical skills through experiential learning but also soft skills. That means teaching women to leverage the soft skills they may find easier to tap into — communication, emotional intelligence, being team players — to become strong leaders.”

It was after Diane found herself surrounded by motivational women at a conference that she realized Northeastern must take a strong, purposeful stance in empowering women. That’s when she established Women Who Empower. Not only does the initiative serve students, but it also continues to support leadership development long after graduation.

By striving to connect diverse women through its ambassador program and best-in-class speaker series, events, and conversations, the network is an ideal resource for senior-level mentorship opportunities. Women Who Empower features more than 160 mentoring relationships, 50 ambassadors from 19 countries, and hundreds of thousands of dollars in scholarships. Looking ahead, the initiative will also seek it build out its support of women entrepreneurs.

“We read a lot about the great things that happen in communities when women have autonomy,” Diane says. “Entrepreneurship is one way to do that.”

Aliza says Women Who Empower, and its efforts, truly round out Northeastern University’s robust 360-degree approach to uplifting women through higher education.

“The overall idea is to create a lifelong support system in which the role of higher education is about levelling the playing field,” she says. “It helps you get in the door, whether you are just starting out or whether you want to reinvent yourself. I am increasingly seeing more women who are authentic and confident in who they are because they completed higher education and surrounded themselves with people who invested in them and empowered them. I’m proud of all the ways Northeastern University is contributing.”

Author: Izabela Shubair

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