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Sitting down with Yukon University’s president on International Women’s Day

D r. Lesley Brown has been Yukon University’s president since August 2021
Lesley Brown, president of Yukon University, is seen in her office at the Ayamdigut campus in Whitehorse on Feb. 8. (Gabrielle Plonka/Yukon News)

This story is one segment of the Yukon News’ special International Women’s Day edition. Find it on newsstands March 8 and 9.

Dr. Lesley Brown has been Yukon University’s president since August 2021. She graduated with a PhD in kinesiology in 1996 and taught at the University of Lethbridge for 17 years before spending a combined nine years in vice-president roles at Lethbridge and Mount Royal University.

She shares three adult stepchildren and four grandchildren with wife Pattie McLean, and is also a keen skier, mountain biker, cyclist and “aging triathlete.”

Brown sat down with the News on Feb. 9 to discuss academia, leadership and astronauts. Sections have been edited for length.

YN: What was your academic experience like, going up to your PhD, as a woman? Do you think it was different than it would have been if you were a man?

LB: Yes, I’d say so. When I was doing my PhD, I do think it was different for myself and my female colleagues. For many of the folks I was going to school with, it was time to start a family. My female colleagues were pressed time-wise because they also had to be a mother. My male colleagues’ partners or wives would take care of the kids, so they didn’t have the same burden. While I didn’t experience that first-hand, I certainly noticed that my female colleagues had to leave school at 3:30 p.m. to pick up kids and my male colleagues didn’t, when a PhD is really a 24/7 job.

YN: Maybe it becomes even more of a male-centric space at that point, and how does that change your experience?

LB: I think it was probably the first time I recognized that it was a male-centric space. That reality, as I look back on it, perpetuated through my experience as a junior professor and through various administrative appointments.

I remember situations where male colleagues were being identified for positions and opportunities in ways that women colleagues weren’t.

I, myself, experienced being overlooked for opportunities a couple of times. I remember looking at male colleagues with the same experience profile and thinking, “This doesn’t feel fair.” I think that sense of unfairness really refined fairness as one of my values. It also made me realize that it wasn’t right, and that things needed to change.

YN: If you look at Yukon University now, do you see a difference in gender parity from what you experienced as a student in the 1990s?

LB: I think we’re a unique institution, because we do have a larger number of women students than we do male students. I think across the country it’s almost parity. In the heavily dominated male academic programs, like trades, you’re seeing an increase in the number of women, because of intentional recruitment strategies and because of many female role models who are setting standards.

YN: I guess that’s the power of role models.

LB: Yes. Absolutely. When I was a PhD student and junior professor, one of my heroes was Roberta Bondar. Do you know who that is?

YN: No, I don’t.

LB: She was Canada’s first female astronaut. When I was doing my PhD, she had just been announced. Seeing that a woman could be recognized in a historically male-dominated field, pushing the envelope of what women do, was incredibly inspiring to me. It made me realize – and not just me, but for many women of my generation, I guarantee you – it’s unlimited for us, the doors have been blown open for us.

As a matter of fact, as I was finishing up my PhD, I responded to an ad in the Globe and Mail and applied to be an astronaut. I didn’t get the job, Chris Hadfield got it. And Julie Payette. But I do still have a letter that says, “Thank you for applying,” from the Canadian Space Agency.

Of course, I wasn’t going to get it. But I was like, “I can do this,” and so I tried to do it, and I think that was really influential for me.

YN: Awesome! Switching topics a little, what does leadership mean to you?

LB: Well, it hasn’t been long since I interviewed for my job, so I had this answer already prepared [laughs]. Honestly, though, leadership is something that I’m very conscious about and read a lot on. I’m always trying to be a better leader. It’s something that you don’t just take for granted.

If I was to define leadership, I would say that it’s simply about working alongside people to inspire and instill change or to sustain an optimal course of action.

YN: Related to that, we know there are fewer women than men in leadership roles. How do we change that?

LB: We need to accept and make space for more women into leadership roles and encourage those women to be mentors to younger women. I think one way to be a mentor is to share advice. So, my advice is this: Be true to yourself. Because these jobs are very difficult, you need to be authentic and know what your values are. When there’s nobody above you to answer a question, you have to rely on your inner compass.

Also, put yourself in other people’s shoes. When there’s a decision to be made, there are competing perspectives, including your own. Step out of yourself and understand those competing perspectives to inform your best course of action.

The last thing is to keep showing up, no matter what. I think that’s what I did. When you get overlooked for an opportunity, come back again and again, until you get that opportunity, and then you do a damn fine job of it.

And finally, if I’ve experienced any resistance or oppression as a woman and, in fact, a gay woman, it’s not equal to what many marginalized women in this country are experiencing. I’m a privileged, white woman, and I am very aware of that.

YN: For sure, and powerful to say, too. I think a lot of your advice is related to having a strong sense of self and having confidence. You fight for a chair at the table and you keep returning to it. How do you develop that?

LB: I think those of us who have been there are responsible for pulling that chair back for you and inviting you to sit down. We know what it’s like to walk into that room and feel like you don’t belong, but that’s absolutely incorrect. You do belong here, and you deserve to be here.