By Sharday Mosurinjohn
Sept 13th 2012
Just before the start of the Fall semester, the Ban Righ Centre for mature women students held an event that would help female graduate and professional students gear up for the start of a new academic year and think about an academic career. The free, day-long workshop offered an opportunity for participants to gather in an informal setting where they could exchange information about facilitating success in the academy. I recently had a chance to correspond with one of the organizers, Andrea Phillipson, about the “Sharing Strategies” workshop, the Ban Righ Centre, and how she got involved.
“Coming out of secondary school,” explains Phillipson, “I deferred my acceptance to Queen’s for a year, during which time I had a baby. I started my studies as a new, young mother, relying on OSAP for financial support; I was only able to maintain this stressful situation for two terms.” After leaving the university for five years, the ambitious undergraduate returned to take one half-credit course at a time. She held a full time and a part time job while studying, and eventually “decided to accept the burden of student loans to focus on completing my undergraduate degree in English Literature.”
Involvement with the Ban Righ Centre happened when Phillipson returned to school full time. “I met one other mature woman student in a class held in Stirling Hall. Since we were right next door to the Centre, the sandwich board out front of the house was prominent enough to draw us in. After a tour of the many spaces available for working, resting, and meeting others who faced similar challenges, I knew it was a place where I would find support, encouragement, and empathy. I became a regular.” Now, Phillipson sits on the Ban Righ Centre’s Board of Directors. The Centre has been a vital part of her Queen’s experience, from undergraduate studies, to earning a Master’s degree in English, and now being enrolled as a doctoral candidate in Socio-Cultural Studies of Health, Sports, and the Body in the School of Kinesiology and Health Studies.
The “Sharing Strategies” workshop, which Phillipson helped to realize, began with an idea to address some of the unique challenges and questions facing women seeking academic employment. “In the academy,” she observes, “as specialization increases, so does gender disparity.” The workshop began to take shape when Anita Gopal, who is a PhD Candidate in the Faculty of Education, approached Ban Righ Director Carole Morrison with an idea to hold a session designed specifically for women considering a career in academia. “They contacted me to help in organizing,” recalls Phillipson, “and we brainstormed about how we could meet women’s diverse needs without presenting information participants would find too generic.”
Additional support from the Society of Graduate and Professional Students (SGPS) grant program meant that the “Sharing Strategies” organizers could address another consideration that can often impact women’s access to education and resources: the issue of childcare. Throughout the day, volunteers provided children with meals and activities – “necessities for some women to be able to commit to a full day of participation.” A light lunch for the participants also provided an excellent opportunity “for smaller group and one-on-one discussions.”
Broken up into a morning session and an afternoon session each addressing three sets of questions, the workshop tackled issues from “where, when, and how to start a job search” to “becoming a new junior faculty member: how have you gone about discovering necessary boundaries and setting them?” A diverse panel of accomplished scholars, comprising Dr. Pascale Champagne (Civil Engineering), Dr. Amanda Cooper (Education), Dr. Gwenn Dujardin (English), Dr. Trisha L. Parsons (Rehabilitation Therapy), Dr. Kyra Pyke (Kinesiology & Health Studies), and Dr. Susan Wilcox (Gender Studies), fielded questions from women in different stages of their graduate studies, most of whom were nearing completion of their doctoral degrees. According to Phillipson, the organizers “decided to invite a variety of women academics willing to share their diverse stories and strategies” because this approach “would give the audience an opportunity to discover how not only the paths to a faculty position, but the positions themselves, can differ.”
Phillipson and her colleagues from the Ban Righ Centre were thrilled to see students from a wide range of departments and faculties come for the day and enjoy their experience. “Overwhelmingly, participants noted the panelists’ candor as the aspect they appreciated most about the event,” recounts Phillipson. “The panelists were open and frank about their experiences, answering questions about their job searches and about transitioning to faculty positions, including details about both positive and negative aspects.”
As for what kinds of continued support for women’s education and professional development Phillipson hopes to see throughout the university in the future, she points again to the issue of women’s access to prestigious positions and their visibility as role models for younger generations. “This is a structural problem that no amount of coaching for women will change. I would like to see a shift in how we value work and workloads, in the metrics we use to judge academic success, and in the attention we pay to inequity.”