Dr. Rhonda McEwen, president and vice-chancellor of Victoria University; student Sooyeon Lee, president of the Victoria University Students’ Administrative Council; and the Rev. Dr. HyeRan Kim-Cragg, principal of Emmanuel College.
By Joe Howell
“Imagine a gender-equal world,” asks International Women’s Day 2023. “A world that’s diverse, equitable, and inclusive. A world where difference is valued and celebrated.”
Three formidable women took on leadership roles this year at Victoria University. Dr. Rhonda McEwen became the first Black woman president of any university in Canada when she was installed as president and vice-chancellor of Vic U in the fall, and the Rev. Dr. HyeRan Kim-Cragg became the first racialized woman to lead Emmanuel College. Fourth-year student Sooyeon Lee, who has served on the Victoria University Students’ Administrative Council (VUSAC) since she was in her second year, became its president this year.
They share the importance of representation, and some next steps for a more equitable society.
Dr. Rhonda McEwen, president and vice-chancellor of Victoria University
As the first Black woman to be president of a university in Canada and a leader in the male-dominated world of STEM, Dr. McEwen has never met a glass ceiling she couldn’t smash—even if some take longer than others. She credits her success in part to growing up in the Caribbean, “where women do everything,” which meant that as a child she wasn’t even aware such barriers existed. “As a consequence of enslavement where marriage was illegal, women needed to provide the foundation of the family, the culture and broader society,” she says. While modern Caribbean family forms have shifted over time, the essence remains.
In the Caribbean, McEwen had no shortage of role models. She points to the present-day accomplishments of Mia Mottley, a “firecracker of a prime minister” in Barbados, and Eugenia Charles, who was prime minister of Dominica when McEwen was growing up—and one of the first women to lead a country in the western hemisphere. “Women leaders have played a significant role in my life. In politics, in education, in food production, in math and medicine, everything.” This is not to say there is no room for improvement, but it was only when she left the Caribbean, travelling first to England, that she realized that women globally had a long way to go.
So the strong female leadership she found on campus at Victoria University felt like coming home. “When I arrived at Vic, it was clear to me that people here who identify as women are so strong, so fearless, have such a fire in the belly. They advocate on issues ranging from affordable student housing, to what Vic should be doing on climate, even to the monarchy. They are very vocal about all these issues, and I love it. I’m familiar with this, it feels good to me—and I celebrate this being here.”
At Victoria University, McEwen wants to ensure students believe there’s no gap between their aspirations and what they’ll be able to achieve as graduates. “Strong people who identify as women are not just welcome here, they are thriving. And that’s great for everybody.”
What’s one tangible action she’d like to see people take to #EmbraceEquity this International Women’s Day? “I would love every person to read something they’ve never read before by a woman author. It could be a poem, an article, an essay or a book—something that would take them outside of what they would expect. My favourite author of all time is Arundhati Roy, who wrote The God of Small Things. I would encourage people to explore gender and identity through the eyes of women writers.”
The Rev. Dr. HyeRan Kim-Cragg, principal of Emmanuel College
The first racialized woman to serve as principal of Emmanuel College in its nearly century-long history, the Rev. Dr. Kim-Cragg is also one of the first racialized Asian descent female leaders of a theological school in North America. “Emmanuel College is part of the Association of Theological Schools, which has a membership of over 270 theological schools across the U.S. and Canada,” says Kim-Cragg. “I would say about 95 per cent of them are led by men.”
Closer to home, the gender imbalance isn’t much better. Within the University of Toronto, seven schools including Emmanuel make up the Toronto School of Theology, says Kim-Cragg. “I’m also the only woman principal in that group—so we’ve got some work to do.” But Emmanuel itself is ahead of the game on equity. “Half of our faculty are women—we’re absolutely the leading theological school there—and our student body is almost at parity.”
Yet looking at graduate programs at Toronto School of Theology, the reality is far from perfect, acknowledges Kim-Cragg. “At the PhD level, it’s still male dominant. That’s something that we need to be mindful of, through intentional recruitment of women into graduate studies, which directly contributes to shaping academic leadership.” It all comes down to representation: “We’re creating a space where students see themselves reflected in faculty. When you see leaders who look like you, it can help you realize your own potential.”
Kim-Cragg cautions that “although we are celebrating International Women’s Day, we need to look at everything intersectionally.” Racism and homophobia often intertwine with sexism, so it’s not just a “women’s issue,” she says. “I want to make sure our schools are being able to navigate these intersections while still addressing women’s equality in terms of support and scholarship. Sexual orientation and gender identities are part of our theological curriculum as well.”
One way she’d like to see people #EmbraceEquity this year is through workshops on work/life balance with female faculty and students. Women, especially those with children, often shoulder a disproportionate share of domestic responsibilities, she says, which creates yet another obstacle to equity and academic excellence. “Workshops could look at success stories as case studies, and ask: ‘how can you turn your partner into a feminist?’”
Sooyeon Lee, VUSAC president
A fourth-year student in psychology and criminology, Sooyeon Lee is also in her third term as a member of the Victoria University Students’ Administrative Council (VUSAC)—and her first as president.
“There are many issues around the university that impact non-male individuals more than others,” says Lee. “For instance, in light of the recent violence on the Toronto Transit Commission, VUSAC’s Commuter Commission is working on hosting a couple of self-defence workshops in collaboration with VOICES, which is the Victoria College branch of the PEARS Project. There’s a lot of work being done right now on making sure that people who are more vulnerable … have the resources and opportunities.”
After two remote years, the council is glad to be back on campus—and Lee’s team has been busy. “VUSAC does a lot of work to uplift people from marginalized communities. We’ve worked with the dean’s office to talk about gender-neutral washrooms on campus, and the Equity Commission collaborates with VicPride!, Victoria College’s queer student group. We work to offer gender-affirming gear to people who need that.”
Lee is passionate about the importance of diversity in leadership roles. “If you have a specific group of one identity dominating the conversation and making decisions that impact the wider community, then certain voices aren’t going to be included. That can lead to biased or skewed ways of thinking, and can lead to programs or policies that disadvantage one group over another.”
She’s not sure yet if she’d like to continue in politics or explore her other areas of interest after graduation—but she’s certain about the need for more women in governance. “Women can bring very different perspectives that come from lived experiences of gender inequity, discrimination, harassment and marginalization,” says Lee. “I think it’s really important to have spaces for female leadership, but also not just female leadership—women and non-men of all different racial and ethnic backgrounds, women who are disabled, women who are queer. I don’t think ‘womanhood’ is a blanket term that fits every single woman, because your individual experiences definitely impact how you navigate the world as a woman.”
One way Lee would like to see people #EmbraceEquity this year is through greater discourse. “Conversation platforms and spaces are really important to allow for underrepresented voices to express their lived experiences. For instance, right now VUSAC is working on providing services for students who observe Ramadan, and that would not have happened had it not been for female Muslim students. As much as I’m a woman of colour, I’m not going to be able to speak for all women; I’m not going to be able to speak for all people of colour. To allow many different voices in the room to speak would be a surefire way to achieve equity for all. I think everything starts with conversation.”